White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. – You could see it in the smile on his face, hear it in the tone of his voice, almost feel it reverberate from him as he stood to address the media for the first time since the 2013 season ended for the New Orleans Saints.
The only person who might've been happier than Saints fans that Jimmy Graham was back in the fold and with his teammates and on the field Friday at The Greenbrier resort for the first training camp practice, was Graham himself.
"These last three days have been awesome," Graham said. "I told the guys that they don't know how much you miss it until you're gone for that amount of time, knowing everyone else is together. I missed the locker room, I missed the coaches, just being with the guys. Today was a special day for me."
It might've been fairly special, too, to the teammates he hadn't seen this entire offseason, after putting together a season in which he led the Saints in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,215) and touchdowns (16).
The free agent first was designated a "franchise" player, then sought through arbitration to be declared a wide receiver rather than a tight end (he was ruled to be a tight end), all the while missing the team's OTAs and minicamp before signing a four-year contract with the Saints July 15, the last day he could sign a long-term contract or play this season under the franchise tender.
"He knew he had the support of everybody on the team," quarterback Drew Brees said. "It was, 'We understand this is part of the process, you take care of this and we know that you'll be ready to roll when you get back.' We knew that it would go down to the wire, right? Everybody's motivated by deadlines. Both sides are happy, long-term contract, he's back in camp, he's ready to roll.
"Jimmy is Jimmy. Ran the best time in the conditioning test, so there's no doubt he's in shape and he's ready to roll. I've had multiple conversations with him where he's like, 'Man, I'm so glad to be back. I'm so glad to be back in the mix in the locker room with the guys, hearing the plays again.' I can just see it in his eyes, in the way that he's got a little pep in his step. He's ready to roll."
Give Jonathan Vilma an assist for that.
Vilma, a 10-year NFL veteran and six-year Saint (2008-13), helped keep Graham focused on work and peaceful in temperament while the latter was away from his Saints teammates. He worked out with Graham in Miami, counseled him when necessary, listened if that's what was required.
"Jonathan Vilma this summer, he dedicated his summer to me," Graham said. "He worked out every day, grinded with me every day. He listened to every complaint and every word and every comment that I said, analyzed it and told me what was best. He was truly amazing this offseason."
Vilma was reluctant to accept as much credit as Graham was willing to dole. But he acknowledged the sage advice he gave to his former Saints teammate, with whom he worked out under the tutelage of University of Miami trainer Andreu Swasey.
"I told him that it's a business," Vilma said. "There are some things you may not agree with, other things that you may not like. Whatever the situation is, just don't let it become personal. What I meant by that was, don't let it affect who you are as a person, where all of a sudden you may not want to work out, you may not want to stay in the best shape, etc.
"I think we can all agree that Jimmy is the best tight end in the league right now, so you always want to make sure that you hold yourself to those standards. You work out, you do what you have to do to remain the best tight end in the league.
"I didn't do much advising. The guy, he's a phenomenal, freak athlete. His ability is through the roof. He's smart as hell so it's just kind of one of those things where he would just ask me, based on my experiences – he's been in the league for four years, I was in it for 10 – he kind of just asked me. I told him from my experience, this is kind of how things play out. But just never lose your cool, never lose your demeanor of who you are and how you want to be perceived as a player."
And the perception – the reality, actually – is that Graham is the best in the league at what he does.
He's the most productive tight end in franchise history (301 receptions for 3,863 yards and 41 touchdowns, all franchise bests as a tight end). And he's poised to add to those totals, catching passes from his only NFL quarterback.
The two pretty much fell back into an easy rhythm Friday.
"It's natural with Drew," Graham said. "It's just something that we have, we've always had it and we've always worked on it.
"Today felt good but there are obviously some little things that I need to work on and we need to get on the same page, or I need to get on his page. But all that will be solved in the next couple of weeks."