- Kevin Van Valkenburg, Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
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This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 15 Renegades Issue. Subscribe today!
STANDING IN THE hot Louisiana sun after a recent Saints practice, swarmed by a battalion of reporters with their television cameras, microphones and notebooks, Jimmy Graham couldn't help but feel as if he'd committed a heinous crime. The charges -- though ambiguous -- were serious: dishonor, disrespect, selfishness, immaturity. The evidence had been broadcast on national TV just a few nights earlier when the Saints played the Titans at the Superdome, only Graham's motive was unclear. As the cross-examination intensified, the fifth-year tight end couldn't help but roll his eyes at the theater of the absurd surrounding him.
Jimmy, were your actions a spur-of-the-moment thing, or was there premeditation?
Does this mean there's lingering animosity between you and the Saints?
Jimmy, do you regret what you did?
At one point, Graham chuckled at the severity of the questions. He answered each one with a wink or a playful shrug of his huge shoulders. He cracked a few jokes. He also reminded those in attendance that he'd never do anything to hurt his team (in a game that mattered, at least). He didn't say "I'm sorry."
And why should he? Graham wondered. His horrible offense, after all, was dunking a football over the goalpost. Twice. In a preseason game. "I just love the game," he says. "I have a lot of passion for the game. When I go out there on Sundays, I feel like a little kid. And sometimes I act like it."
True, the NFL competition committee had outlawed goalpost dunking this offseason, declaring that future slams would result in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a fine. But the dunks had been Graham's celebratory move since the 6-foot-7 tight end entered the league in 2010. As the TDs piled up and Graham began to emerge as one of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL, the dunks became a part of his identity. The Saints even posted a highlight reel of every single Graham dunk from the 2013 season on their website.
"It was a little bit shocking, to be honest with you," Graham says of the negative reaction after the Titans game. "All of a sudden people were making it such a big deal. In the end, guys, I dunked a football over the goalposts because I've done that 41 other times in my career, and because I love this game and I like to have fun. It was like all of a sudden I should feel guilty, like I'm a bad person."
Head coach Sean Payton had been furious, snapping at him as he walked to the bench, then getting right up in Graham's face after the second penalty until the two were in a shouting match. But even after the anger simmered, after Graham and Payton cleared the air in a private meeting (both have agreed to keep what was said between the two of them), and even after the NFL fined Graham $30,000 for two dunks, he wouldn't go so far as to promise it wouldn't happen again.
"I can't guarantee you that," Graham says.
MAYBE JIMMY GRAHAM dunked to vent some frustration. It had been, after all, the most tumultuous and eye-opening offseason of his young career. Whatever innocence he'd once had about the NFL is long gone after a complicated contract dispute. Graham has learned that the New Orleans Saints are a business, not a family. "In the end, I wouldn't change anything," he says. "But it opened my eyes and taught me a lot."
Graham might have come into the NFL raw and unpolished, drafted by the Saints in the third round after only one year of college football at the University of Miami. But he immediately latched onto the right people (Drew Brees, Jonathan Vilma), befriended them, soaked up all the advice they could give and worked his ass off to learn the nuances of the game. Brees often went out of his way to praise Graham's burning desire to improve. Graham believed he was part of something special. Over time, he evolved into one of the league's best pass catchers, regardless of position. "He was the rare guy who could see the benefit of doing things the hard way," says Saints tight ends coach Terry Malone.
Technically, Graham was a tight end, but the Saints -- who spread the field with four and five wide receivers and create mismatches as well as anyone in the NFL -- didn't exactly use him that way. In 2013, Graham lined up in the slot or out wide on 67 percent of his snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information. "He's a hybrid," Brees says. "He's kind of rewriting the requirements of a person at that position."
But this summer didn't go the way this hybrid expected. After catching 86 passes for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, the final year of his rookie contract, Graham and the Saints couldn't come to terms on a long-term extension. In the end, the team exercised its right to keep him by using the franchise tag. The Saints wanted to classify him as a tight end, meaning they had to pay him a one-year salary of $7.035 million under the collective bargaining agreement. But Graham felt it was only fair to classify him as a wide receiver, meaning they'd have to pay him $12.3 million for one year. "The first four years of my career, I never complained, I never demanded, I never said anything about money," Graham says. "I did that because I signed a contract four years ago and I'm a man of my word. In the end, I guess I thought [negotiations] would be a lot easier."
Instead, what emerged was a protracted and awkward legal battle. The two sides had to present their case in front of an arbiter in June, and that meant Payton testifying against his own player. Payton backed his employer, knowing that if the Saints lost, they might not be able to keep Graham, but even he didn't seem entirely comfortable with it. "I think it's a byproduct of a little bit of an antiquated system with regard to franchise numbers," the coach says.
As the case played out, Graham tried to keep quiet, working out with Vilma in Miami and not attending organized team activities. But when the Saints announced they were trading fun-sized ultraback Darren Sproles, after already saying they weren't re-signing Vilma, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, Graham couldn't hold back. "Wow unbelievable," Graham tweeted. "Shocked and disappointed on everything that's gone on this offseason."
Tough as it was, it opened Graham's eyes to some realities. According to a source close to Graham, he was extremely annoyed when Brees -- who got a $100 million contract in 2012 after threatening to hold out if he got the franchise tag -- told a USA Today reporter he'd like to have Graham back but that if not the team could manage fine without him. The Saints had, after all, done just fine before he was drafted, Brees pointed out. Oh, and Graham was definitely a tight end in Brees' mind. The comments seemed to violate the agreement among NFL players that you don't talk about other people's contract situations. At the very least, it seemed like bad form to choose sides publicly in a fight between your teammate and your employer. That same source says Graham confronted Brees when the two bumped into each other at an offseason event. The quarterback tried to smooth things over, shifting the blame to the media, but Graham wasn't exactly buying it. (Brees and Graham weren't made available to comment on their relationship.)
Graham ultimately lost his appeal. He and the Saints came to an agreement that made him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL, a four-year deal that could pay him $40 million. Both sides say they're happy with the resolution. "I'm fired up for Jimmy," Payton says. But it's hard to forget that the Saints are able to pay Graham less than some wide receivers -- even though he has better numbers -- based on the argument that he's also good at occasionally blocking. "I knew it would turn out that he'd be the highest-paid tight end eventually," says Tony Gonzalez, a 14-time Pro Bowler who played the position for the Chiefs and Falcons. "But that doesn't make it right. I've been there, done that. It's backwards, and it defies common sense."
You have to wonder what effect all of this has had on the on-field dynamic, or lack thereof, between the Saints' star quarterback and his tight end. During a recent practice, Brees fired a pass to Graham in between two defenders, a perfect ball that practically whistled as it knifed through the sticky Louisiana air. It thumped off Graham's hands with an awkward thud, flopping to the ground like a bird that had just slammed into a sliding glass door. The quarterback looked away, avoiding eye contact. Graham, in turn, never once glanced back at Brees. Three plays later, Brees threw another perfect ball to Graham, this time for a touchdown, which Graham celebrated by elaborately pretending to dunk over an imaginary goalpost. But Brees, all business, already had his back turned, prepared to call the next play.
MAYBE JIMMY GRAHAM dunks footballs because it reminds him of where he came from.
He's told the story of his childhood countless times, enough that he doesn't like to discuss it much anymore. Growing up in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Graham says he never knew his biological father. His relationship with his mother, he says, wasn't much better. "My mom was getting paid $98 a month from my father for child support," he told ESPN in 2011. "My stepdad wanted that money, and my mom said, 'No, I'm not going to give it to you.' So my [step]dad dropped me off at the doorstep of social services. When I was a kid, I used to think about what my worth was. Ninety-eight dollars, I guess, was what I was worth when I was 9."
Graham says his mother briefly took him back in, but when he was 11, he found himself on his own again, living at a state-run group home for orphans and juvenile delinquents. "I was like, 'This has got to be a bad dream,'" Graham says. "This can't be my life. I remember being in that place and just crying myself to sleep every night."
Graham's life changed dramatically three years later when he met a woman named Becky Vinson at a church gathering that was handing out free food. Vinson, in college studying to be a nurse, was so moved by Graham's plight that she adopted him and raised him as her own son. She made sure he went to class, which helped his grades, which meant he could join the basketball team. By his senior year, he was 6-7 with soft hands and ballerina's feet and had blossomed into one of the best players in the state. Any time he snatched a rebound around the basket, he was a good bet to dunk it. With authority.
Graham committed to play for Miami, the first school to show serious interest in him, turning away all other offers when his star continued to rise. "He showed up with his big red Afro and his flip-flops, and he had these big white sunglasses on," says Frank Haith, former Hurricanes basketball coach. "He was just so excited and appreciative of the opportunity."
Gradually, Graham began to open up to his teammates and coaches, to share pieces of his story. He would swing by Haith's office and have long conversations about life. "He's going to be loyal to you as long as you're loyal to him," Haith says. "His whole life, he's just wanted to be wanted. A lot of athletes say that, but with Jimmy, it's not a cliché." The same kid who nearly flunked out of high school his freshman year decided on a double major in marketing and management. He graduated with honors.
Graham planned to play basketball in Europe after graduation, Haith says. But then the New England Patriots sent word that they'd be interested in inviting him to camp to mold him into a football player, despite his complete lack of gridiron experience. Graham talked it over with Haith and then-Miami football coach Randy Shannon, and Shannon agreed to let him play for the Hurricanes for a season while he attended grad school. Even with only basic knowledge of the game, Graham caught five touchdowns that year. The Saints were watching closely, but it was tape of his basketball games that persuaded them to gamble on Graham in the third round of the 2010 draft.
So when Graham started scoring touchdowns in the NFL, it seemed fitting to cap them off with a nod to his basketball career. Thus was born the dunk. Says Graham: "It's kind of to remind myself, 'Hey, four years ago, you were thinking about going overseas, and now you're sitting here on prime time catching touchdowns from a Hall of Fame quarterback.'"
MAYBE, IN THE END, Jimmy Graham dunks footballs because nothing makes him feel quite so alive as when his feet leave the ground.
It's a feeling he can't stop chasing. In 2011, after his rookie year, Graham earned his pilot's license. He owns his own plane, a Beechcraft Bonanza G36, a single-engine six-seater he keeps in a hangar at tiny Lakefront Airport, just 30 minutes from the Saints' practice facility. Flying is one of the rare activities that takes Graham's mind completely off football, if only for a while. "There's no cellphones, no emails and no egos," he says. "It's just me and the plane."
He tries to fly as much as he can, even during the season (especially during the season). His closest friends live in Miami. Vinson is still a big part of his life, but she lives in Arizona. He doesn't go out on the town much with teammates and rarely drinks alcohol. If he has any romantic attachments, he keeps them entirely private. When he's in New Orleans, it's football and flying. Graham's favorite time to be in the air is at night. It's more peaceful, he says, and the best way to escape the Louisiana heat. He'll often bring along his dog, Ginger, a red vizsla, but outside of her, he prefers to go alone.
Sometimes he'll put in a flight plan with the FAA ahead of time, sometimes not. "I'm the type of guy who, right as I'm taking off, I'm deciding, hey, where do I want to go today?" he says.
Some days he'll pick a tiny airport he's never seen, fly there and land the plane. He'll rent a car and drive wherever the road takes him. Often, he's simply satisfied taking his plane around Lake Pontchartrain, then circling back toward NOLA. "New Orleans has these older orange lightbulbs, which are really gorgeous," Graham says. "But the main thing that stands out is actually the Superdome."
Some nights, the light splashed across the dome is a pale blue. Other nights, it's a deep purple or shades of ruby red. It's always a mystery. He almost wishes he didn't have to come down.
In ESPN The Magazine's Renegades Issue, Kevin Van Valkenburg writes that Jimmy Graham is the highest-paid tight end in the NFL and has a signature goalpost celebration dunk. So why is he still struggling to find his identity?