ORLANDO, Fla. — When the NFC roster broke loose for practice this week at the 2017 NFL Pro Bowl, there were countless reunions on the field between close coaches and players, along with former teammates.
One of the most memorable connections came between Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Before arriving in Seattle, Graham spent the first five years of his career being one of Brees' top targets on one of the league's most explosive offenses. Growing his way to stardom, Graham recorded 4,752 receiving yards on 386 catches and 51 touchdowns while with the Saints.
However, their bond goes significantly beyond the pass completions, receiving touchdowns and other accomplishments they set in the NFC South. Graham and Brees have an incredible relationship that's closer than what the average person can see, and one that is truly bigger than football.
"I was a young player there and he really kind of molded me," Graham said following the final day of practice before Sunday's Pro Bowl game."I remember coming in as a rookie and him telling me that I was going to be special, and I'm like, 'huh? OK.' He treated me like a little brother.
"Really, it's been awesome to see his family again and to really catch up. I love his boys, they're just a bunch of fun. I used to spend Thanksgiving with him and his family, so to really connect with them and spend some time has been awesome. It's been unbelievable to be able to talk to him about his year, it was special. He's such a special mind, so that was good."
Added Brees: "He really became like a brother to me, and we still stay in touch, we still talk. He was really like a part of the family, my kids love him. It was hard when all that went down (Graham's trade to the Seahawks), but I think that he's had some great opportunities up in Seattle. It's a kind of a different stage in his career transitioning to a new team, but to watch him grow and become the leader that he is and the player that he is and all those things, I just appreciate and very much value the time that we had together in New Orleans. I know that we're always going to be very close because he's like a brother to me."
An aspect that sometimes comes with brotherhood is witnessing one having to overcome adversity. A challenge came for Graham last season when he suffered the first significant injury of his pro career against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 12. Graham tore his patellar tendon and spent the next few months engaging in tenacious rehab. Despite being miles away, Brees' support remained.
"He reached out right when I got injured and and just told me if anybody can come back, I can," Graham said. "He knows my work ethic and it was awesome being able to connect with him through those times."
"I don't think anybody understood the significance of his injury and what he had to overcome, especially for a guy his size and the way he's required to move on the field as a tight end," Brees explained. "To overcome a patellar tendon injury and to have the season that he had – a Pro Bowl season, obviously — it just tells you everything you need to know about who he is and what he's had to overcome in his life. Whatever the challenge or obstacle is, he's going to overcome it."
In his second season with the Seahawks, Graham answered all questions regarding whether or not he'd be able to return to his All-Pro form. He caught 65 passes for 923 yards, both of which were single-season franchise records for a Seahawks tight end, and added six touchdowns while offering several jaw-dropping highlight plays in the process.The 923 yards ranked third among tight ends and he averaged 14.2 yards per reception, which ranked No. 1 at his position. Head coach Pete Carroll also raved about Graham's improvement as a blocker.
"Tremendously," Carroll said during the regular season when asked about his improvement in that area. "I don't know how much you guys notice that, but he has been a great perimeter blocker for us. He just kind of embraced the whole concept of getting after the line of scrimmage and much better than last year, I think better by far than in years past. He's a force and he's had a ton of highlight blocks and plays and stuff, he's such a great body, his wingspan is so big and he's so powerful that he's now applied it and he's been a big asset to us. He's really become a complete player."
Much like Graham set out to dominate his return to the field after injury, he has a plan for this offseason. Graham said he will link up with quarterback Russell Wilson to continue to grow their relationship.
"That's really why I'm excited about this offseason, being able to have an offseason with Russ," Graham said. "My first offseason I'm learning the offense and then this past year, I got zero reps with him. So this offseason, I'm going to go to L.A. a little bit and he'll come see me. I'm going to be up there and just really work on some things and get that chemistry down."
Photos of Seahawks fans at the 2017 Pro Bowl in Orlando, Florida.