Jan. 9, 2022, was the final game of the Chicago Bears' 2021 season, and the last time Jimmy Graham graced an NFL field.
Until Sunday's 2023 regular-season opener for the New Orleans Saints, where the 13-year veteran tight end will begin his second life with the Saints, against the Tennessee Titans at noon in the Caesars Superdome.
"I think being away from the game since 2021 put a lot of perspective into it," said Graham, who caught 386 passes for 4,752 yards and 51 touchdowns with the Saints from 2010-14, as he morphed from a third-round draft pick who'd played one year of college football, into one of the NFL's premier tight ends.
"I'm grateful for any and every opportunity I've gotten so far, and looking to capitalize on any opportunity in the future," he said. "How incredible it is to be back, be back with this organization, in this locker room. With this amount of talent on this team, not only on the team but in my (tight end) room, it's a special time to be a New Orleans Saint. I'm very proud to be able to wear that jersey again."
The Saints welcomed back Graham with open arms, as he provided positional depth and offered mentorship to the younger players. But Graham wanted to again be a Saint, so much so that his Plan B likely was to retire if he didn't sign with New Orleans.
And upon his return, he has been in the grind, chipping off the rust from a season of NFL inactivity.
"For me, I'm just coming to work every day trying to get better," he said. "I just spent some time away from the game, so I'm just looking to get better and better each day and every week. I just know that when my number is called, if it is called, I'm going to do my best to make those plays for this team to try to get us a win.
"That's all I'm focused on right now is that, and helping lead our young guys. I'm in a very dynamic room – one of the best, if not the best, I've ever been in. There's a lot of weapons in our room. Just coming to work every day is a privilege for me."
Graham turned back the clock to his former self in the preseason finale against the Texans with a couple of highlight catches – the first, a back-shoulder 25-yarder from Jameis Winston and the second, a 3-yard, jump ball touchdown after which Graham acted as if he was going to dunk over the crossbar, before tossing the ball in front of him.
"I know I entered that game in a fight for my life, to be able to sit in this room and sit in this building and chase something special," he said. "I knew how talented this team was and I knew that attempting this was going to be very difficult, especially after being gone for so long.
"Sitting on a bike and living on a sailboat, I just had to chase it one more time, and test myself. It's a testament to – I've always lived right, eaten right – a big testament to the bike. I've biked thousands of miles over the last year-and-a-half and it's definitely put me in the best shape I've been in in a long time."
Graham said his performance in the preseason finale, and the embrace given to the fan favorite, was special.
"It brought back so many memories that I had," he said. "Getting back to the sideline and running coaches over on the sideline, and being back with the boys – I don't think there's a better feeling."
But he was mindful to not complete the celebration in full.
"Last time I dunked it, it was in a preseason game and I appealed the fine," Graham said. "I believe it was $34,000, so that's quite a bit of money. But more importantly, the penalty.
"I know a lot of guys were fighting for a spot and fighting for their lives, and I didn't want to have to make it all about me and have a penalty in that type of situation. Hopefully, one day the NFL will change the whole penalty thing and make it to where if you don't tear it down, then nothing will happen."
The last preseason game, on Aug. 27, was played nine days after Graham suffered a medical episode after the Saints completed their second joint practice against the Chargers in Costa Mesa, Calif. The episode possibly was caused by a seizure.
"Feeling great, just looking forward and excited to put it behind me," Graham said. "I'll be fine in the long run. Just want to thank the organization and everybody that was with me through those couple of days – my teammates and my close family. Just appreciate everybody and all the concern.
"It's kind of a personal health thing, I'm just going to keep it to myself. I'll be fine in the long run. I just look forward to putting it behind me and I can't thank the organization enough for everything. All those days and all the people that were there with me, I'm very appreciative.
"(And) thanks for the LAPD and how quickly everything went down and how helpful they were throughout the process."