T.J. Graham was ecstatic last April, when the Buffalo Bills took him in the third round of the NFL draft. And so was his family. His grandmother was talking to other family members around Richlands, N.C., about her grandson’s fortunes when she was told there was somebody else on her side of the family who had made it to the NFL. She, in turn, relayed the message to Graham.
“Well, who is it?” Graham asked.
“Somebody named ‘Mario,'” his grandmother replied.
“Mario Williams?” Graham replied, incredulously.
It turned out it was indeed that Mario Williams, the former Wolfpack defensive standout who is also a native of Richlands, N.C. Williams was taken with the top pick by the Houston Texans in the 2006 NFL draft, but signed a free-agent deal with the Buffalo Bills before this season. He and Graham missed playing with each other at NC State by a couple of years, with Graham coming to Raleigh in 2008.
“The week after I was drafted,” Graham says, “I found out we were distant cousins.”
The Bills have welcomed Williams as a familiar face while Graham, the all-time leader in kickoff return yards for NC State, has had to adjust during his rookie year. Graham specialized in his kickoff returns for the Wolfpack, but the Bills have primarily used him as a receiver, a position he’s learning more about everyday. He says it’s a nice change from his role as an everyman for NC State.
“I was really tired at NC State from doing kickoff returns and punt returns and playing wide receiver all the time,” he says. “At the end of the game, it would be tough. Here, I’m not winded.”
Ask any NFL rookie what the chief difference is between life on the college and pro field, and they will tell you it is the speed of the game. But Graham says it is his speed — he was a second-team All America sprinter for Wolfpack track — that has actually given him a leg up on other players.
“I think I was ahead of the curve,” he says. “There were times at NC State where I would slow down my game to be at a spot.
“Here, I can run as fast as I want to. It’s like being on a dirt bike and going slow around the turns. Then, imagine going wide open. Here I can go full speed.”
Graham caught his first touchdown against the Cleveland Browns in September, and he continues to become an integral part of the Bills’ offense. He says that life off of the field has been an easy adjustment because Buffalo resembles Raleigh.
And he’s glad that Williams has been along for the ride.
Or, rather, to give Graham a ride.
“I didn’t have a car, and there have been times when I was late,” Graham says, laughing. “He has cars out the wazoo.”