METAIRIE, La. ― When Jimmy Graham was a junior at the University of Miami and playing basketball and nothing else, his only thought was finding a way to make his future.
He had the idea that when he grabbed his last rebound, recorded his last block and made his last basket that he’d figure out what to do next.
School President Donna Shalala had a different idea.
“I think it was my junior year, she came up to me and said, ‘You know what? You need to be on the football field,’ ” Graham said. “I guess I was fouling so much.”
Then-Miami Head Coach Randy Shannon agreed and asked Graham to be his tight end the next season.
And now, as the Saints (10-4) get set to play Atlanta (12-2) on Monday night, Graham is one of the hottest young tight ends in the NFL, with 17 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the past five games.
Graham isn’t the first former basketball player to make his name in the NFL. Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez and San Diego’s Antonio Gates both paved the way.
But while Graham admits that they led the way for his potential success, it’s a tight end much closer to home who never played basketball that has been more influential in the rookie’s success.
“I owe a lot to them,” Graham said. “But my biggest mentor is (Jeremy) Shockey. He teaches me everything. He’s there every day in practice and every game telling me what I’m doing wrong.”
Shockey, now in his third year with the Saints, has relished his role as mentor for Graham. That goes back to when he came into the league with the New York Giants and had miles to go. Then, it was Dan Campbell helping out the young player.
Now it’s up to Shockey and the veteran is passing along tips on how to combat bigger defensive ends among other issues he’ll deal with during this career.
What has stood out to Shockey, though, is how quickly Graham has picked up on Sean Payton’s multiple and varied offense.
“My rookie I remember all the offense, I was with Sean and I was like, damn, that's a lot of things to remember,” Shockey said. “The first couple years, it sucked. I'm not going to lie to you. And he's done a great job with knowing what to do on some things and obviously he wants to get better.”
Shockey, though, isn’t the only one heaping praise on Graham. It’s coming from all over, including quarterback Drew Brees and Payton, New Orleans’ head coach.
“The biggest thing I love about him is he’s obviously really enthusiastic,” Brees said. “He wants to be a great player. He wants to work at it. He’s so pleasant to be around. If you tell Jimmy there’s more work, there’s pep in his step.”
“I think when we were in training camp we were seeing that the learning curve was going along pretty quick,” Payton added. “He’s somebody that is a sharp study. It’s very important to him. During the course of training camp, heading into the preseason, we began to see the signs of someone who was progressing at a fast rate given the amount of snaps he’s had…”
In last week’s loss to Baltimore, Graham caught two touchdown passes, including an athletic stumbling one-hander that gave New Orleans an early lead.
It’s athleticism like that that he brings to the football field from the basketball court. He compared the ability to go up and get catches to going up and get rebounds.
And all it took to get him there was a suggestion from the school president.
“I’ve got to send her a lot,” Graham said. “Hopefully if I keep getting better, maybe I can go back and give something back.”