Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee Jimmy Graham hopes to return to Bears

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Adam Hoge
·7 min read
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Man of the Year nominee Jimmy Graham hopes to return to Bears originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Jimmy Graham has some beef with the producers of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“I didn’t even know the thing was being filmed. I would have begged to be in it,” Graham said. “Maybe they’ll push it back and CGI me in there. That would be nice.”

The sequel to the 1986 hit “Top Gun” was already delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic and is set to be released July 2, so it’s probably too late to include the NFL’s most skilled aviation pilot.

“I saw the movie Top Gun when I was probably too young to see it and was obsessed with being a fighter pilot,” Graham said on The Hoge & Jahns Podcast this week. “Unfortunately, I grew to be 6-7, 270 and that doesn’t fit into too many fighter jets, so sports kind of took my way.”

Instead, the former college basketball player at Miami became one of the best tight ends to ever play the game of football. But that didn’t stop Graham from earning multiple pilot licenses. In fact, he tries to get a new license every offseason. From planes to helicopters, Graham can fly it – and that’s just one reason why he’s one of the most interesting players in the NFL.

He’s also one of the most respected, which is why Graham earned the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award nomination for the 2020 season. The league-wide award – with a nominee from all 32 teams for work on-and-off the field -- will be presented to the winner Saturday at the NFL Honors.

“I was speechless. It was right there in front of the whole team. Right there on the practice field, right next to the Walter Payton Center,” Graham said about being nominated by the Bears in December. “So that’s just magical.”

Graham isn’t one to flaunt his work off the field. Even the team had to do some extra investigative work as they determined their 2020 Man of the Year nominee. He doesn’t do many interviews, but when he does, they are extremely thoughtful.

“A lot of things I do, I always do kind of in the shadows,” Graham said. “It’s more about the kids and the veterans than it has ever been about myself. I was wondering why the Bears were doing so much digging into all the stuff I was doing off the field, but it all came back around and it all made sense.”

Graham might not be Maverick’s wing man, but he’s giving back to his country with his flying abilities. He organizes and conducts reconnection flights with veterans, as well as kids from the EAA Young Eagles, a program that exposes children to the aviation industry. Graham came from a rough upbringing that included a stay in a group home, so now he’s working to connect underprivileged kids to the aerospace technology industry, which is rich in jobs.

When Graham signed a two-year, $16 million contract with the Bears last March, the first thing he did was find a way to connect with the community, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic bearing down. He partnered with Ignite, an organization that has helped over 500 homeless children in the Chicagoland area. Graham immediately went to work helping get them food and shelter.

“I’m truly, truly honored to accept (the Bears’ Man of the Year nomination),” he said. “Obviously the emotions were extremely high on that field with my teammates and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

But if Graham, 34, earns the honor to wear the Walter Payton Man of the Year patch on his jersey in 2021, it could be with another team. His salary is not guaranteed in the second year of his contract, which means the Bears could release him and save $7 million in cash and salary cap space.

“We obviously have a lot of things to figure out this offseason and we’ll see what happens kind of once we talk to everybody and once they figure out what they want to do,” Graham said, acknowledging the uncertainty of his future.

But when the veteran tight end signed in Chicago, he said he wanted to retire as a Bear, and “that’s still the case,” he said Thursday. Even though the Bears are dealing with a lack of cap space and the need to upgrade at quarterback, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that Graham will be a cap casualty. He’s very popular in the organization, not only for his work off the field, but also for the 50 catches, 456 yards and eight touchdowns scored in 2020. He and rookie tight end Cole Kmet gave the Bears an impact at tight end that they simply didn’t have the season before.

And the relationship with Kmet matters too. If Graham returns, Kmet will almost surely take on a bigger role in the offense, but that’s all part of the plan for the 21-year-old tight end the veteran mentored this past season.

“The kid is going to be a beast. The kid really has unlimited potential, and I’m excited to see where he’s headed,” Graham said. “Hopefully I can still continue to help him get there. No matter where I’m at, I’m always going to help him. I’m always going to be close with him, and he’ll always truly be my little brother.”

Two other factors also have Graham highly motivated to stay in Chicago: 1) The playoff loss to the Saints, who drafted him in 2010 but traded him to Seattle in 2015 -- “I guess I haven’t really spoken about bring traded before, so that still sticks with me every day,” he said -- and 2) the fact that he didn’t get to play in front of Bears fans at Soldier Field in 2020.

“One of the most difficult things for me was not having fans,” he said. “That’s one of the main reasons I came to Chicago, was to be able to experience Bear fans live -- cheering for me instead of against me.”

Graham was a Green Bay Packer for two seasons before coming to Chicago, and he said he remembers Bears fans “with the towels going and everybody going nuts” when he played there as an opponent.

“That’s one of the main reasons why I love scoring, because you either hush a crowd or you hear a roar,” he said. “And that roar is extremely hard to emulate in any other part of my life, so those big moments when the crowd is going crazy and you can’t hear anything and it feels like the ground is shaking, that’s really why I play this game. So hopefully I get a chance to experience that next year. That was, for me, kind of the hardest thing.”

Perhaps Graham will be back in a Bears uniform with a Walter Payton Man of the Year patch sewn onto his jersey, but in the meantime, he’ll be flying his restored “Huey” helicopter from the Vietnam War. He once flew it from Miami to Seattle at 1500 feet above ground level.

“It took 29.5 hours of flying and 3.5 days,” Graham said. “Those moments are rare and special. When you’re able to fly something so old so far.”

And maybe there’s a way to land that thing at Halas Hall in late July when training camp starts.

“We’ll see what happens. That’s not on me and that’s not up to me. I know that there’s a lot of decisions that have to be made,” Graham said. “I hope so. I enjoy playing with all the boys. I enjoy playing for this organization. And hopefully I get to experience that true home fan experience.”

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