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Nice To Meet You, Mr. Graham.

Photo credit Gary Lott / Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs
Photo credit Gary Lott / Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs

This time of year you can find Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham glued to the TV like most sports fans following the NCAA Tournament.

"I pay attention to it quite a bit. I played in the NCAA tournament. For me it's interesting to see how basketball has changed," Graham said.

Okay, he's a little different than most fans in that his 6'7" frame spent four seasons on the court at the University of Miami before he ever stepped on the football field for the Hurricanes. Graham played in 120 career basketball games, shot about 50 percent from the field and averaged around four points a game. He wasn't the most offensive-minded player because he had a feel for football from the start.

"I made basketball a contact sport as well. I was always fouling. I was always hitting people, well, fouling people very hard," Graham said with a chuckle.

His big frame and physicality made him a natural fit around the basket and became a transferable skill on the football field.

"In basketball there are tight windows a point guard has to thread to get you the ball as close as possible to the rim. Or if you're on the block you have to make these passes through traffic, and also rebounding you got to go up and get that rebound in traffic. It's just like that in the red zone. I think that's why I have been most at home down there because those windows do get tighter and smaller and for some guys that messes them up but for me it's normal."

That was evident during his one season of college football. Graham caught 17 passes for 213 yards and five touchdowns. That success continued after the New Orleans Saints made him a third round draft pick.

Graham's 4,752 receiving yards are the most for any tight end in his first five seasons in NFL history. More importantly, of Graham's 50 receptions in the red zone, 35 have resulted in touchdowns.  

"Throughout my career I've been targeted quite a bit down there," Graham said. "For me I expect the ball even when I know I'm the third option. I still expect them to get to me because more than likely down there I'm the only one he can see because I'm 6'7". I know [the quarterback] knows that whoever I'm up against the matchup is going to be in our favor."

It's not just having the build to outmuscle opponents it's the instincts Graham learned on the court that make him so effective.

"[In basketball] you build muscle memory to react to anything that happens and stay with your principles. Offensively you're running plays but when those plays break down it's just 1-on-1's," Graham explained.

Those types of skills don't get honed the same way on the football field, because the strategy, timing and personnel are so different.

"With football it's like a strategic game of explosive chess," Graham said. "It's extremely physical, but this game now is so fast and so explosive that now it's more mental."

He's not one to shy away from contact or from the fans. In fact, he craves the interaction, which shouldn't come as a surprise to Seattle fans that saw him play at CenturyLink twice in 2013.  

 "For me the thing I miss the most [about basketball] is the interaction with the fans," Graham said as he compared his basketball and football careers. "It's a different aspect because [in basketball] you're not wearing a helmet and you're not removed from the fans. On the football field you're far away from any interaction with them, but when you're playing a basketball game and you're diving for a ball on the side of the court you're going to run into people. You're taking the ball out right in front of people so I always had interactions with fans and people. Sometimes that's good and bad because I've always liked to talk on the basketball court."

That vocal aspect is still part of his game. It's part of what fuels his passion and energy on the field. But there's more to Jimmy Graham than what you see on the field.

The story of his childhood sounds more like a nightmare. His mother left him at a group home when he was 11 years old where he endured daily bullying. He didn't find a stable home until he was in high school. He says now that the trials helped develop his toughness. Despite the hardships, Graham has an easy-going laugh, a smile that can be heard in his voice and a willingness to help others.

"Last week I flew an Angel Flight mission to pick up a burn victim and her husband so she could get to treatment at a hospital in Florida," Graham said.

Graham didn't fly on a commercial plane. He flew his own plane. He's been involved in Angel Flight, donating time and resources for patients needing medical transportation, for the past two years. He calls his missions with Angel Flight "very rewarding and very cool."

Flying is a hobby he picked up after his rookie year in New Orleans when he discovered he had free time in his schedule for the first time in 10 years.

"You work out year-round and now you have an offseason. So you have a small break and you have money for the first time in your life. For me what I did was I woke up every morning at 6 a.m. and drove to the airport to learn how to fly."

And do stunts.

"The plane I fly can climb inverted and do inverted spins, snap rolls and lomcevaks, which is a front flip which is like barrels," Graham said proudly. "I can front flip an airplane so that's kind of unique and extremely fun."                                           

Some might call it dangerous. Graham sees it differently.

"There's a discipline about it. Everything you do, you have to do it every time you fly. Every time you fly you have to walk around and do your preflight and check the oil and check the fuel and know how much fuel you have for the mission you're trying to do. All of these things you have to manage during the flight so for me it's a form of discipline, and for me when you're flipping and twisting a plane the way I do it's extremely challenging."

Graham doesn't expect to have much time for flying this year as he works to learn the Seahawks offense and build rapport with quarterback Russell Wilson.

"It's going to be exciting to get on the same page with him, really not even a page I'm trying to get a chapter in his book so I'm excited to start."

He's already started to feel love from the 12s and knows there's high expectations and optimism surrounding the team.

"It's been very pleasant to see everyone accept me with open arms," Graham said of the fans. "Everyone is as excited as I am. And I'm the kind of person that I believe that Pete Carroll believes in me and that gives me a spark. It feels good to be wanted and I'm going to do everything I can to help this team win. I'm excited."

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