A Rich(lands) Pirate in Many Ways
by Brian North

It's hard to miss a six-foot-six-inch 326-pound man, but offensive linemen never get the credit they deserve. Eric Graham has played in obscurity ever since he was the big kid picked by his coaches to block for the smaller kids. But now the Richlands native has embarked on his professional football career, and you couldn't find a more worthy candidate for all the good things bound to come his way.

It's almost physically impossible, but Graham has always played in the shadow of others. Eric played scholastically at Richlands High School, where fans and scouts came out to see defensive end Mario Williams play.  Eric was a big reason why his Wildcats made the playoffs his senior year that ended a long postseason drought. Big ol' number 78 was clearing holes on the left side of the line, and was always the first guy in the end zone to celebrate with teammates, but the last to make the local highlight shows.

Eric was a late recruit by Steve Logan and the Pirate staff, but he did get one of the last available scholarships and red shirted his first year. Eric's five years were marked by three different head coaches and four different offensive coordinators. The O'line always seemed to be in a state of flux, but the one constant was Graham who started 34 straight games before an injury late in his senior season put Eric on the shelf for the NC State game. But Graham returned for the Pirates' bowl game in Birmingham, then played in two postseason bowls in Hawaii and Texas.

Graham battled a shoulder injury his last two years at ECU, and his professional prospects were hurt when he was unable to work out at full strength for NFL officials because of a hamstring injury he suffered while training. Eric had hoped to be drafted just like his former Richlands teammate Williams who was the number one pick in the NFL Draft a year before. But teams passed on the six-foot-six-inch 326-pounder with the idea they could sign him as a free agent. The Carolina Panthers ended up getting Eric's signature in return for his familiar number 78 jersey.  He just finished up his first mini camp in Charlotte as he tries to learn the zone blocking scheme of new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson. The Panthers have 15 lineman on their roster, and they usually keep nine on the 53-man roster and few more on the practice squad, so Graham has his work cut out for him, but it's not out of the question. Especially for a guy who has been overlooked most of his life.

But the best thing about Graham is no matter what happens in his professional football career, Eric will still be as humble and nice as anyone you will ever meet. He is the friend everyone hopes they have. He never left James Pinkney's side when the quarterback had academic issues and had to drop out of school for a semester. He was chosen to be on the player committee that helped bring Skip Holtz to Greenville. He was even a regular at Pirate basketball games despite all the tough losses.

It's not hard to figure out where Eric learned his manners and loyalty from. His mother and father are hard working folks who were always in attendance at his games. He addresses all his elders as Mister or Misses. He loves his home town of Richlands and always seemed to be in Onslow County when he had a free moment away from the gridiron. He was there on Mario Williams day to congratulate his former teammate on his success.  But unlike Williams who moved his whole family to Houston with him after he was drafted by the Texans, Graham will always call Richlands home and will most likely return to that area when his playing career is over.

Eric Graham may never be the most famous Pirate alum, but he will probably be one of the most loyal, and when it's all said and done, that is what will count the most.
Brian North