PITTSFORD – Corey Graham will live his boyhood dream Saturday night.
The Turner-Carroll High alum will run through the Ralph Wilson Stadium tunnel in Buffalo Bills gear, a moment he has fantasized about since he knew what football was.
“It’ll be special,” Graham said, a wide smile on his face.
After three straight road exhibitions and the NFL’s longest training camp – the Bills were the first to open and will be the last one to break Friday – the preseason home opener will take place against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the refurbished Ralph Wilson Stadium.
At last, Graham will make his hometown debut.
Graham, one of the team’s top free-agent acquisitions, grew up a Bills fan.
His favorite player was unusual, but telling.
“I was a big fan of Steve Tasker,” Graham said. “It’s rare because a lot of kids don’t choose special-teamers, but I just admired how hard he worked and the way he went about doing things.”
Tasker did the dirty work. He accepted every thankless job the coaches had for him.
That also sums up Graham’s career. He has been a survivor, lightly recruited and undrafted from Division I-AA University of New Hampshire. Now Graham is in his eighth NFL season.
He was a special-teams Pro Bowler for the Chicago Bears in 2011. The next year, his postseason play helped propel the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl, where he started and won.
With the Bills, he has played virtually every position in the secondary and is a core-four special-teamer, lining up on kickoff, punt and both return units.
“I’m pretty sure they’re going to try to find a way to get me on field goal and field goal block,” Graham joked.
“I don’t know exactly where they’re going to keep me, but I’ll do whatever they want.”
New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked Wednesday morning how Graham’s presence has helped the Bills.
The list was long.
“He’s a very good leader,” Schwartz said. “He’s a student of the game. He’s an excellent professional, meaning that he prepares every day.
“He’s competitive. He plays the ball down the field very well. He’s a good tackler. He’s assignment-sound. He gives coaches a lot of confidence in him.
“He’s been playing a lot of different positions for us. He’s been playing corner. He’s been playing nickel. He’s been playing dime. He’s even played some safety.”
Gee, is that all?
“I could probably sit here for another half hour and say good things about him,” Schwartz said. “I’m happy he’s with us.”
Graham has been a role player almost his entire career. In 77 career games with Chicago, he started only 10. The year he went to the Pro Bowl, he started none.
He started in Baltimore because cornerback Lardarius Webb got hurt.
“It’s not like he’s been set his whole life,” Bills safety Aaron Williams said. “He’s had to work for everything he’s had.
“Just to have a guy like that in our room makes you realize nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is guaranteed. You must work for it and always be hungry.”
Graham’s role with Buffalo will be more prominent.
Leodis McKelvin, a starter at cornerback, had offseason hip surgery and left the practice field Wednesday with a groin injury. Schwartz also has been working Graham into the safety rotation this week.
Graham’s veteran presence adds significant leadership value. He’s the only player on the roster to have won a Super Bowl while on the active roster.
Quarterback Dennis Dixon and guard Antoine McClain were on the Ravens’ practice squad that season. Offensive lineman Doug Legursky received a championship ring as a member of the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad.
The Ravens were replete with leaders when Graham was there. With the Bills, he knows he needs to share lessons he learned from vocal stars such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.
“I try to lead by example,” Graham said. “I do speak more than I have in the past because I feel that’s what we need here. We need guys to speak up and tell people how to do things.
“I’ll be vocal because I know what it takes.”