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New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham finally makes it back home

'I've been trying to come home for a long time'

New Orleans, or nowhere.

Simply, that was Jimmy Graham’s message to his agent, Jimmy Sexton, and probably to anyone who was close enough for him to confide in as the tight end looked to return to New Orleans following a seven-year career break from the Saints and a one-season hiatus from the league.

The memories and production in five seasons with the Saints – the first five of Graham's career, from 2010-14 – were among the traits that made New Orleans "home" for Graham, and among the items that were at the forefront of his desire to get back to where he felt he belonged.

"I've been trying to come home for a long time," said Graham, who had 386 of his 713 career receptions, 4,753 of his 8,506 receiving yards and 51 of his 85 touchdowns in New Orleans. "Last year, I had some conversations and determined that I really didn't want to play anywhere else.

"I had a couple of teams that were reaching out, and I just couldn't see myself wearing another jersey again. I just wanted, hopefully if there was ever an opportunity to come back home, to make it happen here. And it did, and I'm here now."

Officially, Graham rejoined the Saints on Tuesday, after impressing during a workout Monday. He was on the field Wednesday for the first day of training camp and participated in the first three days before having a rest day Saturday, when he addressed the media.

After being traded to the Seahawks and playing there for three seasons, Graham played two years each with the Packers and Bears before sitting out last season.

The New Orleans Saints took the field for workouts during 2023 Training Camp presented by Rouses Markets on Saturday, July 29.

"Very weird," he said of taking off last season. "Extremely weird, especially after you spend a whole offseason preparing for that, working out and making sure you're in shape for when that moment does come. It was weird being away from the game but also rejuvenating in a way.

"It's interesting to be able to take time off away from it and to realize just how special this place is, how special this game is, how special this league is and how special it is to have the opportunity to play in it. It was a year where I was able to, I really focused on my body for the first time, especially after the knee injury. Now, I'm feeling better than I ever have.

"It feels amazing to be back home. Just really driving up to the facility on Monday brought back beyond a beautiful moment for me. Not only here in this building, but here in the city. I became a man in this city, it meant everything to me to play for this city and so to come back here and to be able to get all those amazing memories, amazing wins, amazing people, amazing fans, is truly special.

"It made me pretty emotional Monday and Tuesday, just to be able to be back here and to be able to put my jersey back on. Words can't describe what it feels like to be gone for that long from something that you love, from the people that you love. So I'm fired up."

Graham, who has the fourth-most receiving touchdowns by a tight end in NFL history, admitted that being traded to Seattle was a shock to his system, and something that helped him choose to shut down his media access.

"For me it was pretty shocking, honestly," he said. "I thought I would never leave this place. Obviously, it's a business. This league's a business and I woke up to the part of the business that hurts. So for me, it was very difficult but I did know I was going to a Super Bowl contender and I knew I had the opportunity to possibly make a run at a ring. That's always been a goal for me.

"But at first, yeah, it was very difficult because my connection with (quarterback) Drew (Brees) as an older brother, and all the people in this building, they're family. So for me, a guy that doesn't have a lot of family, it was definitely a difficult time.

"I've always been an emotional player. I think I've always kind of worn my heart on my sleeve. After leaving here, I basically stopped doing interviews. That was kind of one of the reasons – I didn't really have a lot to say that was positive.

"At the time it really hurt and it was really difficult for me, so I just focused on just being a good teammate and committing to the place I was at and to that scheme and to fit in to a team that was great. I genuinely didn't know what to say and I just didn't want to be bothered with it, honestly."

New Orleans Saints fans check out practice at 2023 Saints Training Camp presented by Rouses Markets on Saturday, July 29 at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center during the NFL's Back Together Weekend.

An older, wiser, more mature Graham has emerged from the years, one who understands the field and locker room roles he will assume with the Saints.

"Truly, I understand what that culture was like and what that looks like, the sacrifices that takes and the brotherhood that needs to be molded," he said. "No. 1, I think that I definitely bring that.

"And No. 2, I've matured a little bit since the last time I was here. Having the opportunity to get into a tight end room that's super talented, super diverse, has the opportunity to do a lot for this team, for this franchise, I think I have a lot of knowledge to share there. And obviously I'm feeling better than ever, I'm still 6-7, and I like the red zone.

"I know everything that happens in this building is earned. This is a place that everything and every opportunity that you get, you have to earn it. I know I'm going to come and I'm going to earn any opportunity that I do get."

Too, Graham brings extra incentive with him to make an impact.

"I definitely came into this with a chip on my shoulder," he said. "And there was something to prove, obviously, not being in the game and then coming back like that is very intriguing. And you have to prove yourself. You basically have to prove yourself every day when you're trying to do what I'm doing right now, especially in this building.

"That started on Monday when I came out here and ran as many routes as they asked. This is a place where you're going to work. For me, I'm definitely coming here with a chip on my shoulder and ready to compete, ready to compete on every level that I can and at every opportunity that I can."

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