Earnest Graham will spend the next several months on a steep learning curve as he prepares himself and players for spring football practice at North Fort Myers High School.
With no football coaching experience, he's starting from scratch as the school's new head football coach. He told a sizeable gathering of students and administrators about his goals and overcoming obstacles when introduced by principal Dale Houchin on Friday.
"I will talk with the coaches here about my vision and also talk with the seniors," said Graham, a graduate and star athlete at Mariner High School in the mid 1990s before moving on the the University of Florida and NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I'm still developing my vision for the program. It will take some time. I've got my work cut out for me. We'll need time, conditioning and discipline."
Retired Tampa Bay Buccaneers runningback Earnest Graham was introduced to students and staff as the new head football coach at North Fort Myers High Friday.
Graham, now 34, retired from the NFL in 2011 after tearing his Achilles tendon in a Buccaneers game in London. He started a small business in Fort Myers named Pro Player Insurance Group. It's highly unusual to be named a high school football coach without being employed by the Lee County School District. That's one obstacle that Houchin faced as he reviewed 29 applications, interviewed six, and said Graham was the obvious choice.
"I knew I wanted to get back into football in some form," Graham shared. "I couldn't sleep at night. The timing here was right, so just dive in. Dive in is a good word to express it. I want to be a positive influence and positive role model for the kids."
Houchin was an administrator at Mariner when Graham was a student and star athlete there. He approached Graham about the job after Brian Makar stepped down after his second season as coach.
"The team is eager to get started on the weight program," Houchin said. "Earnest is not Mr. Graham anymore, it's Coach Graham now. This is all for you students."
Graham said the time devoted to the program and the meager school stipend of less than $5,000 are of no concern to him. He will continue operating his business around the demands of the football program.
Graham is known for his work ethic, signing with the Buccaneers' practice squad as an undrafted free agent. He bounced back and forth several times before finally earning his way onto the Bucs' active roster.
"I always had discipline," Graham said, "but when I got to the Bucs I had to change my discipline. What I'd like to pass on to you is how to attack goals and the obstacles in life. I'm ready for this task, but I couldn't do the task without the support of my family and the community."
Graham answered a number of questions from the crowd at the end of the informal gathering, like involving parents.
"Surely I will keep parents involved," he said. "Everything we do on the field is an extension of your family."
Concerning his goal for the team, Graham answered, "My main goal always is to get the best effort. I saw that effort in the films that I watches. You were in position to win several games this year with your effort and skill."
At the end, students started the customary North High chant, "Red, Red, Red, Red ..." and Graham willingly joined the chant into the microphone. Houchin invited everyone to meet Graham, introduce themselves and take photos with him, which many did.
Such begins a new era of North High football.