CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The muscles in Jimmy Graham's sculpted neck and shoulders clench as his face gets darkly serious. As Graham sits in a restaurant roughly a mile from the University of Miami, where he played tight end last year after a four-year career there in basketball, he is getting ready to block.
The memories of his mother's mistreatment of him, that is.
"I laugh when people say, 'Oh, he's a basketball player, let's see if he's tough enough [for the NFL],' " Graham said following a workout last Thursday. Earlier in the day, Graham met with Cleveland Browns tight ends coach Steve Hagen, one of many NFL types to take interest in him of late. "They don't understand what I've been through."
For most of an hour-and-half long conversation, Graham's otherwise positive nature comes sparkling through. He is a story in achievement, a poor kid who bounced from one residence to another and was even placed in a group home by his mother. He was once a failing student as a freshman in high school in Goldsboro, N.C., yet went on to graduate college in four years with a double major in business and marketing.
At his graduation in May 2009, Graham received special recognition from UM for overcoming obstacles. He stood next to school president Donna Shalala, who had taken such an interest in Graham that she even advised him to give football a chance.
"You could see that he was passionate about what he was doing when he played basketball," Shalala said. "He played with everything he had … he has a kind of inner spirit that, deep down, you get the feeling he thinks he's the luckiest guy on earth.
"He loved school, loved going to class, loved playing, the whole thing. He didn't just come here to play sports. He came here for the whole experience – sometimes you take chances on young people from troubled backgrounds and it doesn't work out. Sometimes you take a chance and you get Jimmy Graham."
Now, Graham stands roughly two weeks from turning his one season of college football into perhaps being a second- or third-round pick in the NFL draft. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Graham, who ran a stunning 4.50 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, has a couple of lingering questions to answer for people around the league.
Can he parlay his superior athleticism into being another Marcus Pollard(notes) or Antonio Gates(notes), college basketball players who thrived as NFL tight ends? Can he make it through the rigors of the professional game, which is as much mentally draining as it is physically? Can he simply take a hit?
Graham doesn't dismiss those questions. They are fair and his football résumé is too short for concrete answers. That said, there's no pain he hasn't felt already.
Try as he may, there is no blocking out the memory of him falling asleep in the backseat of his mother's car when he was 11 years old, then waking up at a group home to find his mother signing the papers to give him away, his older sister crying and yelling for his mother not to do it. There's no forgetting his mother leaving after dropping off his clothes and belongings in a pair of garbage bags. Or the picture etched in his mind of him trying not to cry that night as he stayed in a room with two boys who were both at least two years older. Or how he was beaten again and again by the other boys, all of them older and some well on their way to delinquency.
One time, as 15 of the boys sat in a van during a field trip, the adults from the group home stopped, got out and left the children alone. One by one, the older boys took turns punching Graham until the biggest of them, a kid Graham remembers as Danny, readied to take his shot. As Danny loaded his fist, Graham decided to go pre-emptive, hitting the bigger kid first.
The first-strike set off a reaction. The rest of the kids wailed on Graham, pinning him beneath one of the bench seats. The last thing he remembered was Danny's knee pinned against his temple. He heard a crack before the adults returned to break it up.
"I was in bed for like four days after that," said Graham, who has never met his real father even though he's named after him. "I called my mom to tell her. 'Mom, I'm really hurting.'
" 'Sorry, I can't do anything for you,'…" Graham said, mimicking his mother's response and then hanging up an imaginary phone.
Graham's dysfunctional family story is a common theme in the NFL. From Jason Taylor(notes) to Jeremy Shockey(notes) to Chad Ochocinco(notes), there are plenty of prominent players who have come from broken families.
For most of the others, there seems to be someone in their family who stood up for them. For Taylor and Shockey, it was their mothers. For Ochocinco, his grandmother.
Graham never found that kind of support until he left his family. His "grandmother" (Graham refers to the mother of his former stepfather that way) once told him in all seriousness, "Boy, you better learn to beg for quarters," implying that he had no hope for a successful future.
Graham wasn't just literally the redheaded stepchild. He was the redheaded stepchild who was also the product of a black father and white mother in a family where tolerance wasn't a high priority.
"My grandmother was pretty racist," Graham said.
After his mother divorced his stepfather when he was 9, she left him with the stepfather for a year. After she took Graham back, she gave him up again when her boyfriend, who Graham said beat him on occasion, told her to dump him.
"Here I am, 11 years old, and I had more common sense about who this guy was than my mother," said Graham, who spent a year in the group home before his mother came back to get him. "It ends up that he was married, too, cheating on his wife with my mom the whole time."
Graham isn't looking for sympathy, just stating the facts at this point. These days, his connection to his mother is tenuous. They talk once every couple of weeks and Graham has a wall of mental blockers up against her.
"I tell her, 'I forgive you, but I'll never forget,' " Graham said.
Finding salvation via hunger
Graham's thirst for emotional support as a child was quenched through his literal hunger. When he was a freshman at Eastern Wayne High School, he started attending a small church run by the family of a school friend.
"They were giving out food and I was hungry," Graham said with a smile and a chuckle. "Hey, free food, I'm there."
At the church, Graham met Rebecca Vinson, a youth counselor. As time passed, they talked and Graham shared tidbits about his life. Other clues were obvious.
"He's showing up in the middle of winter in a tank top, shorts and shoes that had a bunch of holes in them," Vinson said. "No one would choose to dress that way."
The tipping point in their relationship was a prayer meeting the kids had one day. There were the typical requests by one kid after another: Say a prayer for my sick grandmother. Keep my aunt in your thoughts. Hope God looks over my cousin.
Then came Graham: Keep me from having to go back to a group home. My mom is thinking about sending me back there.
"He was petrified," said Vinson, who quickly offered to take him in. "It was one of those moments that just snaps you up. How do you hear that, close your eyes, pray and then go home and think you never heard this and don't do something?
"You could see potential in Jimmy. It was there. He just needed somebody to tell he could do it, that he was capable."
Really, that's all Vinson had to give at the time. This is not like Michael Oher(notes) running into some benevolent, rich family. Vinson, now 37, was struggling herself. A veteran of the first Gulf War after enlisting in the Navy as a teenager, Vinson had a young daughter she was raising on her own while going to nursing school and doing an internship. She lived in a single-wide trailer in a terrible area. By her estimate, she made roughly $3,000 on odd jobs the first year after Graham moved in.
"I was beyond poverty," Vinson said.
"There were times she'd come back and say, 'OK, what do we want, water or electricity, because I don't have money to pay for both?' " Graham said.
While things got better after Vinson got a nursing job making roughly $50,000 her first year, life still wasn't easy for Graham.
"My first year in high school, the first semester was really easy. They had me in all these easy classes so I'd stay eligible for football," Graham said. "Then, I'm taking real classes. I get my first report card and it's all F's. I showed it to Rebecca and she got on me. It was school work first and I just worked every day."
Graham's focus on education became simple. He saw what a nursing degree did for Vinson. The same could happen for him. Even as he grew to be a top 100 high school recruit in basketball by his senior year – the school he transferred to didn't have a football team – he kept his focus on getting a degree.
But even after graduating and getting a scholarship to Miami, Graham was barely getting by.
During his first semester at Miami, all he had for bedding was a sheet. He slept on the plastic cover of the bed, using the sheet as a blanket. Finally, a girl from the women's basketball team made him a blanket.
Through all the shortcomings, Graham stayed focused with Vinson's help.
"This kid has been through hell on earth," Vinson said. "Most kids who grow up in an environment like that, they don't make it or they go the other way. You have to be beyond tough, stuff that most adults don't understand.
"It cracks me up when I hear people wonder about his toughness. He's tough enough for football and anything that he wants to achieve in his life."
The longer Vinson talked, the closer she got to breaking down in tears, her voice quavering.
"I love him as if he's my own child," said Vinson, who attended Graham's graduation. Graham's mother and other family members did not.
"I can't imagine my life without Jimmy. My life is better because he's in it … sitting at his graduation, I was a complete wreck. I was crying and words can't describe how proud I was of him.
"I hope for the rest of my life, I never forget that feeling. It makes me tear up just thinking about it."
Hardwood to gridiron
There are strong indications Graham has the right temperament for football. As he likes to point out, he had more personal fouls than made baskets during his college hoops career.
In fact, it's not real close. As a power forward who specialized in rebounding and defense, Graham channeled the spirit of Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer, piling up 277 career fouls and 201 career baskets. At one point in a three-game span of his freshman year, Graham had 11 fouls in 30 minutes of game action.
"When you watched him play [basketball], he played more like a football player playing basketball," UM head strength and conditioning coach Andrew Swasey said.
"He took more charges than anybody else on our team," said UM basketball coach Frank Haith, whose team made the NCAA tournament when Graham was a junior and the NIT his senior year. While the Hurricanes went 20-13 last season, Graham's absence was obvious to Haith.
"We missed his leadership, toughness and aggressiveness. All the little things that don't show up in the stats that go into a team winning, he did that. … Jimmy could have been a better scorer, but he loved defending and rebounding," Haith said. "No question, he's my favorite player I ever coached because he was selfless … as a coach, those are the guys you love."
Graham's lunch-pail/enforcer mentality also played well when he showed up for football. This wasn't some trash-talking hoops guy who thought he could walk onto the gridiron and dominate.
"That's what the football guys appreciated most about him," Swasey said. "He didn't come in looking for a bunch of attention or talking about himself."
Early on, the football coaches had to repeatedly tell him not to tackle people in practice. First of all, this was just practice. Second, he was playing offense, so it wasn't really the point of what he was supposed to do.
Graham, who turned down several six-figure-a-year offers to play basketball in Europe, was also smart enough to know what he didn't know about football. He hadn't played since freshman year in high school and even back then didn't do much more than get by on athleticism.
"I didn't try to take it all on in one day because that was never going to work," said Graham, referring to the small details such as hand placement, reading coverages and running routes. "I broke it down into little parts then did each part one day and then worked on the next part."
It took awhile for all the parts to come together. The season opener at Florida State was a prime example. On the first throw to him, Graham looked back at the ball and went into basketball mode.
"He blocked out the guy defending him," Swasey said, laughing. "He looks back for the ball and goes for the block out instead of jumping for the ball. The pass sails right past his head. It was hysterical. We were all laughing."
By the end of the season, Graham made enough progress that he finished with 17 catches for 213 yards and, most importantly, five touchdowns. With his size and speed, NFL scouts, coaches and executives see X's and O's dancing in their head.
The Detroit Lions have shown serious interest in him, resulting in head coach Jim Schwartz spending a lot of time with Graham personally.
"He was talking about using me in a four-receiver set with me and [tight end Brandon] Pettigrew in the slot to help out [quarterback Matt] Stafford," Graham said. "[Schwartz] said they want to do everything they can to help out Stafford."
Plenty of other teams have similar thoughts.
"Trust me, this kid is climbing the charts in the draft," an NFC general manager said. "You watch him from the beginning to the end of the season and the progress is unreal. He completely looks like a football player by the end."
As Graham drove around Miami after his meeting with Cleveland, former UM and NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar calls for a full rundown of the day. Kosar, who still has strong ties to the Browns from his days with the team, wants to know every question the Browns asked and wants a review of the answers. Kosar, in fact, is one of the first to prep Graham.
Last spring, after Graham decided to play football, Kosar began driving three days a week from his home in Fort Lauderdale to the UM campus to throw passes to Graham and then talk about reading coverages.
"Bernie was telling me before I even got on the field that he thought I could be a big-play threat in the NFL," Graham said. "Hearing that from a guy like him, man, you don't know what that does to your confidence."
Truth is, a little support is all Graham has ever really needed. He craved it desperately as a child and drinks it up now.
"He just needed somebody to tell him he's OK and you see what's happened," Vinson said.
There's plenty of residual damage when it comes to trust. Graham admits that his circle of friends is very tight, including roughly a half-dozen people he has met since high school. None of them are from before he went to live with Vinson. Forming relationships, particularly with women he wants to date, is a careful process.
"I tell every woman I meet, 'If you're interested in getting married, you better move on, I'm waiting a long time,' " Graham said. "I'm thinking probably 32. It started off at 30, but now it's going up … and if a woman comes up to me wanting to go out, no that's not happening. I have to pursue her."
Graham puts his hand up slightly as he says that, putting up another block. His shoulders and neck don't clench this time, but the line is still drawn. Graham is ready to protect himself from the pain.
And he's willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.
"The level of appreciation this kid had for what he's got was amazing," Haith said. "This is a kid who easily could have been angry and taken it out on everybody around him. He never did. Instead, he just worked and worked and worked."