RB Earnest Graham planted the seeds for his playing career - and his community work - in the Pop Warner program
Pop Warner youth football players all over the United States dream of one day playing in the National Football League. When they do make it – as Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Earnest Graham did – they often credit their Pop Warner days for laying the foundation for that success.
Sometimes, however, the thanks go both ways.
That was the case this past Saturday when Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. presented a pair of awards to the Buccaneers, one individual and one aimed at the team as a whole.
At the 49th All-American Scholar Banquet at Disney's Coronado Springs Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Pop Warner named the Buccaneers as their 2009 NFL Team of the Year. Graham was on hand for the ceremony, not only to represent the award-winning Bucs but also to pick up an honor of his own. During the banquet, Graham was presented with the prestigious Inspiration to Youth Award.
The Buccaneers were named Pop Warner's Team of the Year Honor as a result of the organizations' commitment to developing programs that support youth football and cheer in the Tampa Bay area as well as their involvement with Pop Warner efforts nationally.
In the last year, the Buccaneers participated in national Pop Warner events including the 48th All-American Scholar Banquet and the Pop Warner Super Bowl and National Cheer and Dance Championships, wherein the Bucs sent their mascot Captain Fear to interact with fans and participants. The Buccaneers were a sponsor and partner of the Donruss Pop Warner Classic that involved Tampa Bay area football teams and cheerleading squads participating in an exhibition the day before Super Bowl XLIII.
Graham picked up his individual award in recognition of his strong work ethic to succeed on the field beginning when he was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent and his ability to persevere and battle through injuries to contribute to the overall success of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Inspiration to Youth Award is presented to an individual who has inspired the youth of today to become great achievers of tomorrow.
"Earnest embodies the values we hope to instill in our participants - being a good teammate, sportsmanship and the ability to persevere in life when challenged," said Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner. "His dedication and commitment to the game is an inspiration to all of our participants."
Graham originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2003 but had to overcome a preseason knee injury in order to eventually earn a roster spot. After proving his worth as a special teams player and occasional backfield fill-in, Graham ascended to the starting role in 2007 after injuries to Mike Alstott, Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman. Graham seized the opportunity, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 starts. He began the 2008 season as the starter and rushed for 563 yards and four touchdowns before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 11. Graham is expected to be a critical piece in the Bucs' offensive backfield in 2009.
Past recipients of the Inspiration to Youth Award include Wes Welker (2008), Larry Johnson (2007), LeCharles Bentley (2006), Kurt Warner (2005), Tim Brown (2004), Priest Holmes (2002), Drew Bledsoe (2001), Terrell Davis (1999), Derrick Thomas (1997), Emmitt Smith (1996) and Junior Seau (1994).
Graham's ascent to a starting role in the NFL was gradual, but his devotion to helping others off the field has been steady since the beginning of his career. He established Earnest Giving, Inc., his charitable foundation, to assist disadvantaged youth throughout West Central Florida. Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Southwest Florida, The Heights Foundation, Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Florida and Heights Elementary School are all current benefactors of the Foundation's outreach efforts. Along with his foundation's endeavors, Graham continues to represent the Buccaneers throughout the community. Graham has greeted military personnel on the USS Bainbridge, pumped gas for individuals through the Buccaneers' "Random Acts of Kindness" program, entertained disadvantaged youth at the Lowry Park Zoo and participated in the NFL Charities Bowling Clinic to benefit the NFL Youth Education Towns of Tampa Bay.
"I came up in Pop Warner," said Graham. "I played a lot of football with them and watched a lot of great players in Pop Warner. It's fantastic. I learned a lot about life and made a lot of friends playing Pop Warner. They did a great job of instilling us with certain standards. What happened in Pop Warner helped me become the person I am today."
Indeed, Pop Warner is the only youth sports organization that requires academic guidelines for its members to participate in its programs. Each year participants with high academic standings (96% GPA) are encouraged to apply for recognition at the event. Also factored into consideration are school-oriented extracurricular activities and community service commitments from the previous year.
The Buccaneers' organization also understands the value of Pop Warner's well-rounded curriculum. They have taken every opportunity to support the organization and interact with the children currently learning about life and football through its programs.
In June 2008, for instance, the Buccaneers hosted a youth football camp for over 50 Pop Warner scholar athletes at the second-annual Rookie Club Youth Football Camp. The Buccaneers Rookie Club, which consists of all first-year Bucs players, spent the day teaching football drills to children on the field and in the classroom before coaching the youth in a flag football scrimmage. As a follow up to the camp, the Bucs invited close to 1,000 Pop Warner scholar athletes to Raymond James Stadium for its August 23rd preseason contest versus the Jacksonville Jaguars in support of Pop Warner's commitment to positively impacting the lives of youth across West Central and Central Florida.
The Buccaneers also donated a $1,000 scholarship towards the post-secondary education of a student from the Foundation for Youth Development, the governing body of Tampa Bay's local Pop Warner League. Throughout the year, the Buccaneers generously donated many items to assist local and national Pop Warner in their fundraising efforts as well.
"Over the last year, The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have emerged as a vital and committed partner to Pop Warner at both the national level and in the Bay area community," said Pop Warner Chief Operating Officer Mary FitzGerald. "In these challenging times, the support of NFL Clubs like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is invaluable and enables us to carry out our mission of providing kids across the world with safe and structured athletics coupled with a strong focus on academics. We are grateful for the support of such an outstanding NFL franchise."
The Buccaneers follow such previous team winners as Philadelphia (2008), San Diego (2007), and New England (2006).
"The Buccaneers are honored to be recognized as the Pop Warner NFL Team of the Year," said Buccaneers Director of Community Relations Miray Holmes. "It is our goal each and every year to enhance the educational opportunities for youth by working with organizations that stress both academics and athletics, and Pop Warner has set the standard on both a local and national level. Thanks to their help, West Central Florida youth are growing up in a more positive, structured environment. The Buccaneers look forward to continually developing its relationship with Pop Warner and building on our success for years to come."
About Pop Warner: Founded in 1929 and headquartered in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Pop Warner Little Scholars is the largest national youth football and cheerleading organization in the United States and the only youth sports organization that emphasizes academics as an prerequisite for participation. Currently there are over 400,000 children in Pop Warner organizations in 43 states, Guam, Scotland, Germany, Russia, Japan and Mexico. The NFLPA estimates that 70% of all current NFL Players got their starts in Pop Warner programs. For more information on Pop Warner and its programs visit www.popwarner.com.