Kids pinball in all directions at All-High Stadium off Main Street, one drill to the next, at a frenzied pace. Corey Graham spots his old high school coach near the sideline and glides over to wrap an arm around him.
This is Corey Graham’s youth football camp. But there is no camp — no Corey Graham, NFL veteran — without this man right here.
Once Willie Burnett heads back to the middle of the field, Graham explains. Burnett was his coach at Turner Carroll High School and still is today. He's the one he dials up at his lowest lows, the one who challenged him physically in ways he never imagined.
Simply, to Graham, Burnett has meant “everything.”
“Honestly, it’s crazy,” Graham said. “There are a few people who helped me throughout the way and pushed me. But as far as working out, he’s had the most impact in my life. As far as training and what I’ve been able to accomplish, I couldn’t have done it without him.”
So Graham is now entering his 10th NFL season. He spent five seasons with the Chicago Bears, won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens and is now trying to get this maligned Bills defense back on track.
This mentor/mentee bond began like most do. Burnett arrived at Turner Carroll after coaching semi-pro football and Graham was “a shining star” amid the 30-40 kids at a local camp. Staring ahead at these kids, that day feels like yesterday to Burnett.
“I walked up behind him and said, ‘Son, you’re going somewhere big someday,’” Burnett said. “He was 14 or 15 years old. He was just an outstanding athlete with a motor that wouldn’t stop."
Very rarely does Western New York football talent reach the NFL, yet Burnett is convinced Graham could’ve made the jump from anywhere. D-I. D-II. D-III. It didn't matter. Only New Hampshire wanted Graham out of high school and the coach says he could’ve made it from Buff State.
“His work ethic,” Burnett said, “is unbelievable. Even today, he’s in his 10th year in the league, and he trains like it’s his first year.”
Burnett is the No. 1 driving force, too. He coached Graham for three years in football and then in track as well. Thinking back to those track days, Graham cringes. The workouts were intense, so intense that many of Graham's friends puked afterward.
He never hurled himself, no, but this experience set a tone for Graham.
“He pushed us to the limit," Graham said. "The only way you’re going to get faster is by running fast all the time. We had a coach who really knew what he was talking about. And I embraced it."
So Graham stuck with Burnett through high school... college... and the pros. He's been a personal trainer through it all. Heck, he first learned how to lift weights in Burnett's basement as a teen. Any time Graham returned to the 716 from New Hampshire, Chicago or Baltimore, the two headed to the Johnnie B Wiley rec center off Jefferson Street. The workouts are still maniacally exhausting with Burnett ripping Graham through, what the safety calls, "a million different footwork drills."
Said Graham, “It’s a tough session. If you can get through his sessions, you can get through anybody’s sessions.”
And this relationship runs deeper than a stopwatch and sweat.
When Graham broke his ankle college, who did he call? Burnett. The coach guided him through rehab by phone with specific workouts. When Graham was torched by Denver’s Peyton Manning on national TV in the 2013 season opener? When the quarterback threw for seven touchdowns in a 49-27 pantsing, one Graham called “the worst game of my life,” who did he call? Burnett.
“I mean, Peyton absolutely destroyed us,” Graham said. “Can you imagine going from a Super Bowl high — when you feel like you’re on top of the world — to embarrassed in front of everybody? In times like that, he’s the one I call to ask for advice. He’s always been in my corner.”
Burnett told Graham then that there are two types of corners: those who’ve been beat and those who will get beat. It’s how you respond.
So Graham sticks with him. Just two weeks ago, they ate dinner and watched the Muhammad Ali funeral together. Above all, their personalities are a perfect fit.
“Anybody that makes $4 million a year can buy anything they want, right?” Burnett said. “He has the same car from his rookie year — the same vehicle from his rookie year. A Range Rover. … Just the work ethic. It’s his work ethic. His humbleness. You see earrings on a lot of guys. Chains. Beautiful watches. Not Corey. He’s very humble. I guarantee you he has some money from his rookie year still.
“He definitely has a father, a beautiful father. But we have a surrogate father/son type of relationship. It’s forever. There is nothing that can bring that apart.”
Graham turns 31 years old in July, so often the tipping point for defensive backs. Bones creak, speed fades, careers end. The 6-foot, 196-pound Graham admits that his 2015 season was a bumpy ride. He had 127 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown but the Bills also surrendered 59 pass plays of 20-plus yards, the fourth-most in the NFL. Communication issues polluted Rex Ryan's secondary.
No, Graham and Burnett haven’t discussed 2016 yet.
Because, well, after all these years not much needs to be said.
“We both know that when you get toward the end of your career,” Graham said, “you’ve got to work on things a little harder. He hasn’t told me what he expects, but I expect him to expect greatness.
“You can’t put a price on that type of bond — someone who’s going to do whatever it takes to help you out. I’m very fortunate to have him in my corner. I’m thankful for everything he’s done for me.
"Hopefully, these last few years, we’ll go out with a bang.”