“I probably watched the movie Top Gun a thousand times,” said Graham. “I think I burned a hole in the VHS I had because I rewound it so much.”
With the help from his close friend, John Fox, Graham started taking pilot lessons this past offseason. Graham 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 earned his pilot’s license.
“It’s pretty cool because it is something I can continue to work on,” said Graham. “You have to work to get other licenses to fly other planes and there are always helicopters. It’s limitless to what you can do.”
Graham said one of the things that pushed him to get the license is so he could easily travel to Miami to watch his favorite player, the Miami Heat’s LeBron James, play.
Additionally, he plans to use it during the offseason when the Saints hold offseason workouts at their facility in Metairie.
Graham hopes to purchase his own private plane in a couple years. For now, the adventurous tight end will rent a plane when he wants to fly somewhere.
One problem with renting planes: There aren’t many 6-foot-6, 260-pound pilots. Graham said he has to rent the bigger and more expensive planes when he flies to accommodate his tall frame.
“It’s more money, but you don’t want to be boxed in up there,” he joked.
Becoming a pilot is a fitting hobby for Graham as his status with the Saints has taken flight this season. Graham is ranked third in the NFL in receptions (55) and fifth in receiving yards with a team-best 791. Also, he leads the team in touchdowns with five.
The former Hurricanes would wake up Monday through Friday at 8 a.m. and work out for three to four hours.
“Out of nowhere, Vilma took me underneath his wing and helped me along,” said Graham. “The time I spent with him down in Miami was very helpful. It was always competitive with whatever we did. Our goal was to come in first in everything we did.”
“I have known (Vilma) for a while so I knew he was serious about workouts, but I didn’t know Jimmy had that competitive edge,” said Dunbar. “He’s very physical and when he’s working, he’s full go.”
Graham’s “full-go” approach shows up on Sundays. It’s very rare for him to not celebrate a big play. Whether it’s a fist-pump, an arm flex, a high-five to a teammate or a dunking of the football through the goalpost, the energetic tight end always enjoys the moment.
His exuberance and physicality date back to his days playing basketball at the University of Miami. Graham’s fiery plays led to him leaving 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.”
Despite showing the same intensity and drive in basketball, a number of NFL draft analysts questioned whether a player with only 13 collegiate football games under his belt could handle the grind and physicality of the NFL. His NFL.com draft analysis ended with the line “he still needs to shed the basketball work ethic he came with.”
“I remember when I was entering the NFL Draft, some analysts would question ‘Is he tough enough?’” said Graham. “That surprised me because in basketball I would run through anybody. One of the reasons I was excited about football is that I can’t foul out.”
Ironically, it may have been a Saints game that pushed Graham to leave basketball for his “first love” in football.
Graham visited New Orleans a number of times in college because one of his freshman-year roommates was from the Crescent City.
Graham attended the Saints-Raiders on October 12, 2008. The Saints won the game decisively, 34-3, led by quarterback
“I remember around the time of that game I didn’t play football and hadn’t thought about it too much,” said Graham. “When I was watching the game I remember thinking ‘that has to be the coolest job down there.’ That game definitely helped to encourage me to switch. Just seeing it at that level was pretty impressive.”
Graham only attended two NFL games prior to being drafted: 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 they were practicing. Getting to meet the guys and see 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 of the third round (95th overall).
In just his second NFL season, Graham’s energetic style and big numbers have quickly made him a fan favorite.
Fans have pitched multiple creative nicknames for Graham, including “Graham Reaper,” “Golden Graham” and “Grahambo.”
The sophomore sensation knew Saints fans were passionate, but he didn’t realize the full extent of it till the team drafted him.
“I don’t think any 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 am 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 people. They have such a passion for this team and winning that it just makes me play that much harder.”
Among Graham’s growing fan base, it 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 “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 shouldn’t have to worry about disappointing anybody because all indications are that his rise to success is set on autopilot.