Saints’ rookie Graham grateful for life’s lessons
AP Sports Writer
METAIRIE, La. (AP) – Sometime between age 11, when his mother dropped him off at a group home, and last month, when he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, Jimmy Graham stopped feeling sorry for himself.
Graham wouldn’t wish a childhood like his on anyone – not the poverty, abandonment or neglect. Yet he says, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
After all, his unfortunate upbringing led him to someone who cared and eventually adopted him. With her help, he gained the confidence to do what he did at Miami: get two college degrees, play four years of basketball and one of football, and become a third-round draft choice of the defending Super Bowl champions.
“To be signed away by your mom isn’t the greatest situation,” Graham said of being put in the group home. “It isn’t something that – being a little kid – something that’s easy, waking up somewhere you don’t know, with people you don’t know, and getting beat up every day. It definitely sculpted my life.”
At this point, it appears his adult life could turn out quite well. When he graduated from Miami a year ago with degrees in business administration and marketing – before he’d started playing football and taking graduate courses – Graham was honored on stage by university president Donna Shalala.
Shalala, a Health and Human Services secretary under President Bill Clinton, said by phone this week that she tries to get to know every student on Miami’s campus and was aware of Graham’s difficult childhood.
“He overcame it with a grace and intelligence that didn’t give him a chip on his shoulder, just a drive that only champions have,” Shalala said. “He would walk around campus just smiling, just so happy he was there. He’d talk to everyone.”
On the basketball team, he was a workmanlike power forward with speed who thrived at defense and rebounding. He didn’t back down from anyone, and in 2009 held North Carolina All-American Tyler Hansbrough to eight points and four rebounds in 30 minutes. The Hurricanes nearly upset the eventual national champion Tar Heels that day, falling 69-65.
His hustling play, personal story and approachability made him popular with fans and peers, and when Shalala introduced him at graduation, “The reaction of the students was huge,” she said.
Some in the crowd wiped away tears as they cheered for Graham, Shalala recalled, and one of the sobbing spectators was Becky Vinson, who knew Graham’s story better than anyone.
In the late 1990s, after serving in the Navy as an electronics technician, Vinson returned home to Goldsboro, N.C., and started working toward a nursing degree. Her younger sister was Graham’s classmate and they were part of a group of friends that congregated at Vinson’s mother’s house.
By that time, Graham was out of the group home and living in his mother’s apartment again, but Vinson saw signs that not all was well, such as the clothes he wore during winter.
“When a kid shows up in shorts and a tank top and shoes with holes, it’s obvious this was not appropriate for the weather, and this was a common theme with him,” she recalled.
Vinson was volunteering as an assistant youth leader at her church and invited Graham to some gatherings, producing the moment that changed both of their lives.
“We’re going around the room as always to ask if any kids had prayer requests, and everything I’ve ever been in, if people have prayer requests they want to share, it’s like, grandma’s sick or an uncle in the hospital, those kind of things,” Vinson recalled. “On this specific occasion, there was a sense of urgency with Jimmy’s request.”
Graham asked for prayer that his mother wouldn’t put him back in a group home, and he sounded scared, Vinson recalled.
“My mind was flooded with what Jimmy had said. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something. I can’t respond to this by just praying for it and going about my day.”‘
Vinson offered to take Graham in, even though she had very little money, a daughter of her own, Karena, and lived in a rented single-wide trailer.
“The movie ‘(The) Blind Side’ doesn’t have anything on Jimmy Graham,” Miami tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio said, referring to the book and film depicting how NFL lineman Michael Oher, while in high school, was adopted by a wealthy family in Memphis.
Vinson bought Graham whatever proper clothes she could afford and stayed on him about his grades.
“She means the world to me,” said Graham, who recently completed his first practices with the Saints at the club’s rookie camp. “She took me in as a sophomore in high school and gave me a great opportunity. I definitely owe her the world.”
Their unusual union produced one of the highlights of Vinson’s life: watching Graham graduate from Miami.
“I was crying, crying, happy crying,” said Vinson, who’s now 35 and enrolled in a nurse practitioner’s degree program through East Carolina. “It was the most amazing feeling in the world and I hope I never ever forget that feeling.”
Meanwhile, Pannunzio eagerly anticipated his chance to work with Graham, who had fulfilled his basketball obligations and had offers to play professionally in Europe, but stayed at Miami to try football.
Pannunzio wondered whether he’d found the next Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, who also had basketball backgrounds before flourishing in pro football.
“We needed a tight end that could stretch the field. He could really run,” Pannunzio said. “He might not become Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, but he has a chance to be as good or better.”
Graham caught 17 passes for 213 yards and five touchdowns in his one season at Miami. Current Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey, a former Hurricanes star, followed his progress.
“I’m proud of him,” Shockey said. “A lot of people in the National Football League have stories and his is very dramatic. Dramatic things in life drive you to be great, or drive you to be not such a good person, and it’s good to see someone that never had really much of anything growing up and seeing him turn that into a positive.”
Graham attended the Super Bowl last February in Miami wearing a Saints hat, having little idea that he’d be wearing a gold Saints helmet at rookie camp a couple months later.
Being drafted by New Orleans was ideal for reasons beyond football.
The city has its share of children with tough lives – Hurricane Katrina didn’t help – and Graham wants to meet them.
“I know there’s a lot of little kids who are like me and I see it as a great opportunity and kind of destiny for me to be here,” he said. “I’m a guy about giving back.”
Some relatives who were never there for him as a child are also now starting to attempt to come back into his life. Vinson has gotten calls from a number of them. She lets them go to voice mail and gives Graham the message.
Graham never met his real father, but has re-established contact with his biological mother, who he said seemed to mature after joining the military and serving in Iraq.
“I talk to my mother now,” Graham said. “I’ve forgiven her. … You certainly never forget, but I love her.”