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Dec 21, 2008

Grafer progresses from black pants to coach

He still remembers the first time he heard it.

It was 2001, and Paul Grafer was a backup goalkeeper for the club then known as the MetroStars. He was in the process of warming up, being peppered by the team's goalkeeping coach, Des McAleenan. Wearing his traditional black goalkeeping pants -- always snug and worn at almost Urkel (of "Family Matters") height -- Grafer went down to make a routine save, tossing the ball back to McAleenan, when a few voices from behind the goal -- where the Empire Supporters Club stands -- began to chant.

"They're long, they're black, they're halfway up his crack -- they're Grafer's pants -- they're Grafer's pants!"

Grafer remembers looking over after hearing his name in the song. The supporters began the serenade again, this time joined by more members filing into the section. Grafer and McAleenan began to laugh, and the goalkeeper waved, applauding the supporters' wit.

Though he rarely stepped on the field during his four years as a backup on the team, the song was a constant anytime Grafer walked by the section. It even spawned a Web site, the irreverently funny GrafersPants.com. Fans took a pair of the pants that Grafer jokingly threw into the crowd after a game and posed the black leggings at famous sites around the world and even with celebrities.

"I remember the actual creation of the site," said Sergio Delgado, a member of the Empire Supporters Club who created the tribute Web site. "[Fellow club member] Bob Ferguson and I would just go around Manhattan and different places just trying to see where we could take pictures of the pants. Bob took them abroad to England and even Costa Rica, the latter of which are pictures we never put up due to time. I remember how a member of the ESC, Blaise, borrowed the pants when he went to Europe and had the pants in Germany, Italy and Russia! I mean, I've never been to these places, but the pants have."

The humor, it seems, extended into the locker room.

"All of the players at the time got a kick out of it, and most guys would mess with Paul about the long black pants," former teammate Jeff Moore said. "Clint Mathis was always messing around busting people's chops, and Paul was usually on his radar."

He likes to joke that his pants "surpassed him in importance and prestige," but now the man whose fashion sense launched a tune is now training the next era of American goalkeepers. Grafer joined the U-17 national team residency program a year ago as an assistant coach in charge of the day-to-day functions of the young netminders. His desire to educate and coach should come as no surprise.

A kinesiology major as an undergraduate at William and Mary, Grafer would earn a culinary arts degree while still a member of the MetroStars. Between practices and soufflés, Grafer interned for an Internet startup company and for a financial services firm. Somewhere in there, he was trained and worked as a mediator for civil disputes. There's also his charity work with Heroes and Cool Kids and with Athletes Helping Athletes.

After retiring in 2003, Grafer took off his gloves and worked as a program coordinator for a program geared toward promoting student-athlete leadership and preventing substance abuse and violence. He would teach at Adelphi University and earn his MBA and was awarded a national scholarship for an essay he wrote about sportsmanship. All this stems from what he terms a "joy for learning and having new experiences."

"Each [experience] has helped me prepare for the challenges in my current position," Grafer said.

Those who know him remember Grafer to be one of the hardest-working members of the MetroStars. Former teammate Moore calls Grafer a "true professional." As a rookie on that team, Moore remembers looking up to Grafer because of his work ethic and integrity. It was this lunch-pail mentality that made Moore a believer in Grafer's abilities.

"I am absolutely not surprised that Paul is making an impact on the national level," Moore said. "Paul is a winner, and he has a positive attitude towards life."

The challenges of the current position are varied. A typical day starts with breakfast and The New York Times, after which Grafer heads to the U-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Fla. For three hours in the morning, Grafer will wear many hats, handling team administration issues, meeting with other members of the staff, warming up the team, training the keepers and participating in team-wide practice and drills. When the training is done, the real work begins.

Grafer and his black goalkeeping pants are in the office much of the afternoon. He updates training logs and competition reports, coordinates scouting opportunities, juggles calls and requests from college coaches and agents, analyzes video, and sorts through a good deal of paperwork. Around 5:30 p.m., Grafer sits down with his goalkeepers -- there are four in camp right now -- to discuss tactics, review video, talk about their academic progress and provide feedback on behavior. Sometime around 7 p.m., Grafer is back on the road, heading home -- but he is always on call.

"We're pretty comfortable going to him with whatever we need. We have goalkeeper meetings once per week, where we meet and watch some clips or just talk about soccer," said Earl Edwards, one of the keepers in the residency program. "When we have problems we do usually go to him, so he usually is the one who takes care of us."

But what exactly does a player who readily admits he was a backup goalkeeper in MLS and played a good portion of his career in the USL offer the elite young players in this country?

"First, he knows the game, because he started off when he was a kid and went through the same process our kids go through -- tryouts, club teams, travel teams, regional teams. He understands it," U-17 head coach Wilmer Cabrera said. "He also knows the game from all angles. Being on the field, being on the bench, not getting the call. He understands these things and what it takes to succeed."

Grafer was the first person to join Cabrera's staff last November and has been at his side ever since. The two played together with the Long Island Rough Riders as Cabrera capped off a professional career that included representing Colombia 48 times. In 2005, they were roommates on the road during the final season of Cabrera's career.

"His lifestyle tells me a lot," Cabrera said. "For me, soccer is not just a game, it is a lifestyle. I like his approach, his mind for the game. I think with Paul, he is a very educated person. I think it is good to present to these young players that a soccer player can be smart, can be educated."

And always, always, he teaches them to wear pants.

"No matter what the temperature is, even if it's like 95 degrees, he'll play in a long-sleeve pullover sweatshirt and tight pants. He says that ever since the later part of his career he's worn pants because they're more comfortable. I guess his legs got beat up a lot. So yeah, when he plays with us he still wears the full outfit," Edwards said. "He says when he was our age he only played in shorts and long sleeves like we do. He said as we get older we might pick up the long pants and sweatshirt. He seems to suggest that it's only a matter of time."

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.

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