A seasoned 12-year NFL veteran who will turn 35 next week, Bears tight end Jimmy Graham enjoys mentoring his young teammates.
When the 6-7, 259-pounder emerged as a star early in his career with the Saints, however, he fulfilled a much different type of leadership role.
"In New Orleans, I was more of an emotional leader I think," Graham said Thursday at Halas Hall. "I was kind of savage in the way I played. That was back before the taunting rules [were emphasized], so I taunted with the best of them."
Regardless of what fueled his success, Graham quickly became one of the NFL's top tight ends with the Saints, catching 386 passes for 4,752 yards and 51 touchdowns in five seasons. He was voted to three Pro Bowls and named first-team All-Pro in 2013 when he led the league with 16 touchdown receptions.
Graham credits several mentors with helping him excel in New Orleans, including coach Sean Payton and teammates Drew Brees, David Thomas, Jeremy Shockey and Marques Colston, among others.
"I had these guys prepping me when I was a young kid who knew nothing about the game, knew nothing about life," Graham said. "They got me to being an All-Pro player. That's my role right now, and I take that on. It's something that I didn't think I'd be the old guy ever in the locker room, but here I am."
The "old guy in the locker room" is likely headed to the Hall of Fame; Graham is one of only three tight ends in NFL history with at least 700 receptions, 8,000 yards and 80 touchdowns, and the other two—Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates—are already enshrined in Canton.
This season has been a frustrating one for Graham, though. Durable throughout his career, he recently missed two games due to COVID-19, and then in his return last Monday night in Pittsburgh, he caught an apparent touchdown pass that was nullified by a controversial penalty.
Nevertheless, Graham has not wavered in his preparation or willingness to help young teammates, most notably second-year tight end Cole Kmet.
"I know I have many different roles on this team," Graham said. "I know I've got to be ready when my number's called. But I know I also have a leadership role with these young guys and with my boy Cole and getting him right, and seeing his growth throughout this season is awesome. I celebrate each and every guy's success on this team because I was there and I had many helping hands to get me where I am today."
Graham's desire to help others isn't only evident as a member of the Bears. Born on the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina, he has actively supported the military throughout his NFL career. He created the Jimmy Graham Foundation, which aims to provide life-changing and impactful experiences through the freedom of flight to veterans while also providing flights for underprivileged youth as an introduction to aviation.
Graham was recently selected as the Bears' nominee for the NFL's prestigious Salute to Service Award presented by USAA for the second straight year, an honor he also received with the Saints in 2014.
"It's beyond special because it's not about myself," Graham said. "It's not about the work that we're doing. It's about the people we're doing it for and the things that they've sacrificed. I've been in a military family, so I understand the massive sacrifice that comes, for even the family."
A licensed pilot, Graham takes veterans on flights in his two recent U.S. Army aircraft restorations: a 1957 de Havilland Beaver and 1967 UH1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopter. This past year, Graham provided over 50 rides to veterans.
"To be able to get an entire family together and take them up for that special experience, you've got people crying and telling stories that they've never told," Graham said. "This offseason, I had a couple chances to fly three generations all at once. That's a rare thing, especially when the grandfather flew that exact helicopter in the war.
"It's moments like that I'll never forget. It's really changed me as a person and it just continues to make me want to give more. That's why basically every off day I have in the offseason, I'm working with veterans and kids. It's truly special bringing some awareness because I think sometimes when wars go to the wayside, you forget about the aftermath of it for people, so thank you [for the nomination]; I take it with great honor."