Saturday, 12 November 2011 18:05

High Flying Saints TE Jimmy Graham Facing Falcons' Great Gonzalez

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graham-panthersJimmy Graham's stock continues to rise.

The Saints second-year tight end has used his basketball background to successfully transition it to the NFL. The sky is the limit for Graham, who is enjoying a Pro Bowl season.

As a kid, Graham always wanted to fly.

"I probably watched the movie "Top Gun" a thousand times," said Graham. "I think I burned a hole in the VHS because I rewound it so much"

Graham started taking flying lessons this past season. He would wake up as early as 5:30 a.m. in Miami to take lessons before his daily workout. After three months of training, Graham had his pilot's license.

"It's pretty cool because it's something I can continue to work on," said Graham.

Graham hopes to buy his own plane in a couple of years. For now, he rents a plane when he wants to go somewhere. One problem with renting planes is there aren't many 6-foot-6, 260-pound pilots. Graham said he has to rent the bigger and more expensive planes to accommodate his large frame. "It's more money, but you don't want to be boxed in up there," joked Graham.

Graham has already excited Saints fans with his full go approach on Sundays. It's very rare for him to not celebrate a big play. Whether it's fist pump, an arm flex, a high five to a teammate or the dunking of the football through the goalpost, the energetic tight end seems to always enjoy the moment.

His exuberance and physicality date back to his days of playing basketball at the University of Miami where his fiery play led him to leave the university with more personal fouls than field goals.

"I have always played sports with my heart on my sleeve," said Graham. "That is my competitive nature coming out. It's hard to describe the feeling I get when making a big play in a big-time situation. I honestly enjoy every day I come to play.

"Every Sunday is 'Sunday Funday' to me. We work really hard all week, and Sunday is the day we get to put that work to use and have fun."

Graham played in only 13 football games at Miami and NFL scouts questioned whether or not he could handle the grind and the physicality of the NFL.

Some analysts asked "Is he tough enough?" "That surprised me because in basketball I would run through anybody," said Graham. One of the reasons I like football is you can't foul out."

Graham visited New Orleans a number of times in college because one of his freshman-year roommates was from here. He attended the Saints-Raiders game in 2008 and the Saints won decisively 34-3 led by quarterback Drew Brees completing 26 of 30 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns.

"I remember around the time of that game I didn't play football and hadn't thought too much about it ," said Graham. "When I was watching the game I remember thinking 'thinking this has to be the coolest job down there.' That game definitely helped me to switch. Just seeing it at that level was pretty impressive."

Graham only attended two NFL games before being drafted in the third round by the Saints: The aforementioned Raiders game and Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

"The week of the Super Bowl was pretty incredible," said Graham. "I remember working out at the facility when the Saints were practicing. Getting to meet the guys and seeing them practice was a great experience. The game itself felt like a Saints home game. So many Saints fans."

Two months after the Saints' Super Bowl win, the only team that Graham had bought a ticket for had drafted him with the 31st pick in the third round.

Graham's energetic style and big numbers have quickly made him a Who Dat Nation favorite. Fans have pitched multiple creative nicknames for Graham, including "Graham Reaper," "Golden Graham" and Grahambo." None have stuck.

"No other NFL team has the relationship with the fans that we do," said Graham. "It's a big town with a lot going on, but it seems like everybody knows everybody, and everybody recognizes you and what you do. Even though I'm a young player, it seems like everybody has come to accept me.

"Every time I play in front of our fans, I try not to disappoint them. They have such a passion for this team and winning and that just makes me play harder."

Among Graham's fan base is his top two fans that are the driving force behind his success: Becky Vinson and her daughter, Karena.

Becky took Graham in as a young boy and raised him after his mother left him at a youth home. Graham said he considers himself as "the luckiest man alive" because of the situation he is in and credits the Vinsons for putting him there. He said he plays for them and has dedicated this season to Karena.

"No matter what, I play for them," said Graham. "I play for our future. They mean the world to me and I don't want to disappoint them."

Graham will be across the field from the Falcons' Tony Gonzalez, a tight end that one day will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"Jimmy to be across the field from a guy like that to see how he approaches the game, the way he works and aspire to be a guy like that is great for Jimmy," judged Saints quarterback Drew Brees. "Jimmy, from a physical standpoint and mental makeup and all those things, has all the tools.

"You have to pray for health along the way. We have a special one here in Jimmy."

Graham is one of Brees' go to receivers and runs deep routes for a tight end. He enters Sunday's game with 53 catches for 791 yards and five touchdowns (14.4-yard average). That average is very high for a tight end.

Graham shouldn't have to worry about disappointing anyone because all indications are that his rise to success is set on autopilot.

(The Saints media relations department contributed to this feature).

Ed Staton

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Ed Staton

Ed Staton is a former sports writer for the Times Picayune and New Orleans States Item.  He also served as the New Orleans Saints Information Director.  He has won 43 media awards in writing, design and photography. | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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