WR or TE? Dunking or no dunking?
A position-focused contract negotiation and a new NFL rule making his favorite post-touchdown celebration a penalty ignited much discussion about the two-time Pro Bowler.
The 27-week long offseason hoopla over Graham’s contract situation ended Tuesday morning, the final day to reach a long-term contract before the season, when the All-Pro and Saints agreed to terms on a multi-year deal.
“I’m beyond excited,” Graham said Tuesday night. “I didn’t get into to football to learn litigation. I got into football to win games with my teammates, friends and coaches. I am extremely happy to get back to what it’s really about.”
It’s well-documented how the wide receiver-tight end debate played out. Even though it didn’t fall in favor of Graham’s side, it’s impossible for the 27-year old not to feel blessed with where he is at in his career after the journey he has taken to get here.
Graham was just a third-round draft pick in 2010 after having only 13 collegiate football games under his belt which left many draft analysts questioning whether he was tough enough to play at the pro level.
As a child in North Carolina, he grew up under a number of different roofs, dropped off at social services and signed away to a group home at 11 years old.
Although his path was turned in the right direction after a family he met in his bible study group took him in, he hasn’t forgotten the roller coaster of a childhood he endured.
(ESPN showcased his childhood in a 2011 feature)
Now, Graham can only feel grateful for the position he finds himself with a new multi-year deal entering his fifth season in the NFL.
“It’s hard to describe, it’s surreal,” Graham said. “With my childhood and how hard the road has been leading up to this point. The quote I have always lived by is that ‘you have an opportunity to turn a dream into a reality.’ I approach every day with that mindset. Every day, every game is an opportunity. That is how I approached these last 20-plus years. I see everything as an opportunity.”
With Graham’s contract settled, here’s a look at how his offseason unfolded and his mindset going forward.
While Graham’s contract negotiations played out, he remained in Miami to train as the Saints held their offseason program in Metairie. He treated his offseason regimen exactly as he did in 2011 when the league was in a lockout and players could not practice or train at their respective teams’ facilities.
“It was tough being away from the guys,” said Graham. “The good thing is that the base and group of friends I have here in Miami is still strong. I did the same thing I did during the lockout year. I basically did the same day-to-day routine that I did (in 2011). And after the lockout, I had one of my best seasons I have ever had.”
Along with his routine and setting, another familiar sight from the lockout summer was his workout partner - former New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Vilma is one of Graham’s closest friends and has advised him during his pro career. While Graham trained away from Airline Drive, he relied on the fellow University of Miami alum more than ever.
“Vilma has trained with me every day this offseason,” said Graham. “He has stayed in my corner and coached me up on a lot of things. He has been great to talk to about (contract negotiations). Everyday we would talk about it then we would lift weights and run.”
Vilma was a respected leader and captain during his six seasons with the Saints and has continued that mentor role with Graham. Graham said free agent Vilma is unsure of his future football plans but that hasn’t changed their relationship this offseason.
“Football wise, he has kind of helped raise me,” said Graham “He was a veteran that after my rookie year took me under his wing. At the time, I was a basketball guy; I had barely played any football and was an offensive player. Normally, there would be no reason for a defensive captain to say ‘hey, you’re training with me this summer.’
“I owe a lot to him for the advice and things he has done for me and continues to help me with. Even though we aren’t on the same team anymore, he’s a brother and teammate forever.”
Graham was one of three NFL players to travel on a weeklong tour throughout the Middle East to visit U.S. troops at military bases last March.
Graham, Miami Dolphins kicker Brandon Fields and Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon participated in the NFL’s USO offseason traveling program to visit service members.
Graham stayed in the troops quarters, ate meals, played sports and shared stories with the American heroes.
One night during his trip, Graham walked out of his living quarters to go to the bathroom in another building. It was 3 a.m. and helicopters were flying over his head and troops were walking by in full gear ready for duty. He met a solider that just returned from a 10-hour shift ready for bed – the solider was 19 years old.
“Seeing that was something I won’t forget and don’t want to forget because of how much I appreciate what they do,” said Graham. “The moments I shared with the them, the stories that I heard and smiles that I saw from the troops is something that I will never forget.”
End Zone Dilemma
After each of Graham’s touchdowns, Saints fans have become accustomed to seeing No. 80 showcase his basketball skills with an acrobatic dunk on the goal post. This past March at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando, the league announced dunking on the goalpost would result in a penalty starting this season.
Graham said he doesn’t understand the rule but will abide by it.
“I am going to listen to the rules and I understand the consequences,” said Graham. “I don’t want to hurt the team but I really just don’t know what to do now (laughter.) It’s all I have ever done for a touchdown. I am trying to figure that out – it’s still in the works. Now that I am back with the guys and we will be at camp for a month, I am sure we will figure something out. “
For fans hoping that Graham would fill the void left by wide receiver Lance Moore’s departure as the team’s best endzone dancer, he quickly squashed that suggestion.
“First off, I am too big to dance like that,” said the 6-7, 265-pound tight end. “I could end up hurting something. Lance was like a little ninja. That’s just who he is. I don’t think there are many dancers in the NFL that can do it better than him. I would just be bringing shame to it.”
Fans will have to wait and see what Graham’s new end zone celebration will be (feel free to send him a suggestion on Twitter) but along with dancing, he has ruled out spiking the football as well.
74,000 people were in Sun Life Stadium on February 7, 2010 to watch the Saints and Colts in Super Bowl XLIV – Graham was one of them.
The University of Miami junior rocked a Saints hat as he cheered for the black and gold en route to the team’s first Super Bowl victory.
The excitement of “Party with the Lombardi” in South Beach is something Graham is striving to rekindle, but this time as a player.
“When I look around, I see these other teams winning rings,” said Graham. “I see guys holding a trophy that I don’t have. That’s the thing I want most. I want to help bring another Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans. It’s what I first walked into. When I arrived at the Saints facility as a rookie, the Lombardi Trophy was staring at me in the face. It motivated me and remains my main motivation. The contract doesn’t change that. I still have my personal and team goals. I am focused more than ever on accomplishing those goals.”
The Saints report to 2014 Training Camp Presented By Verizon at The Greenbrier on July 24. The preseason begins August 8 at St. Louis. Graham knows he has some catching up to do but with his rigorous workout regimen and unquenchable desire for Lombardi trophies, Graham believes he’s more prepared than ever to help his team reach the ultimate goal.
“Going through an offseason like I have, you learn a lot and grow from it but you stay motivated,” said Graham. “Being away from it for so long, you realize how much you missed it. It makes you appreciate your teammates, your team, the locker room even more because you miss having that. I am excited to get back in the Dome and hear every single one of our fans scream."