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NFL Sunday spotlight has a WNY flavor

Buffalo native Corey Graham races downfield under a kickoff being fielded by James Starks of Niagara Falls, and then seconds later, they come face to face with one trying to make a play against the other.

If they were the same age, this scene might have played out on some local high school football field. Instead, it will take place at a much bigger venue.

Graham plays for the Chicago Bears, who host Starks' Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Soldier Field, with the winner earning a trip to Super Bowl XLV.

The good news for Western New York is there will be a local representative in the big game no matter who wins.

"It's definitely a big deal," Graham said by phone this week from the Bears' practice facility in suburban Chicago. "I'm sure everybody back home is going to be excited about it."

It has been an exciting year for Western New York-born NFL players. Williamsville's Rob Gronkowski starred as a rookie tight end in New England. His brother, Chris, was the starting rookie fullback in Dallas. Buffalo's Naaman Roosevelt made the most of his rookie year with the Bills. Starks has been a key to the Packers' postseason surge.

Meanwhile, Orchard Park's Jon Corto has been an important special teams contributor for the Bills the past three years. Grand Island's Brett Kern has been one of the NFL's best punters during his three years in the league, the last two in Tennessee.

As for Graham, he has carved out a nice career for himself. The Turner-Carroll graduate started 10 games at cornerback in his first two seasons with the Bears, who drafted him in the fifth round out of New Hampshire in 2007. The last two years he has made his mark on special teams.

He led the NFL with 22 special teams tackles this season. He also provided many of the blocks that helped spring Devin Hester on several long returns.

A lot of folks in Chicago, Bears head coach Lovie Smith included, thought Graham should have made the Pro Bowl.

"He's a top-of-the-line player," Smith told reporters earlier this season. "It's hard. Teams give him respect as a gunner and double him. But he doesn't get a lot of credit for blocking on returns. He's a valuable part of our team."

Graham's value was on display during the Bears' 35-24 win over Seattle in last week's Divisional playoff game. He downed punts at the Seahawks' 1-, 5- and 19-yard lines and recovered an onside kick with 2:16 remaining in the game.

Special teams have been a strength for the Bears under Smith, so it's entirely possible that part of the game could be the difference. It's also quite possible that Graham will have a hand in helping his team beat its oldest rival.

"This is something you dream about, playing against the Packers for a chance to go to the Super Bowl," said Graham, who will have 12 family members at the game. "I'm just happy to be a part of it."

And who knows? Maybe Graham will have to make a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff being returned by Starks.

"That would be exciting," Graham said of the potential matchup. "I'm excited for James that he has been able to come back from injury and go out there and play and perform well. It's good to see him out there and it will be fun playing against him."

Graham also hopes their appearance in the NFC title game will send a message to young ball players in Buffalo that anything is possible.

"Whether I get the chance to tackle James or not, just seeing both of us on the big stage is going mean a lot to the kids in our area," Graham said. "Hopefully they will see it and know they can make it, too, if they put a lot of work into it."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com