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Graham named Bears' Payton Man of Year nominee


Jimmy Graham's first order of business after signing the Bears was vetting the financial records of local charities.

Graham had his assistant look for an organization with a worthwhile mission that also needed his help. He wanted to make sure his donation wouldn't get watered down by overheads and lavish salaries.

"I signed with the Bears right when the pandemic hit," said Graham. "I just wanted to make sure the first thing I did here was to help the community."

When Graham found Ignite, an organization that works with at-risk youth in Chicago, he was impressed with its mission and efficiency. With the nation gripped by the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Graham made a six-figure donation. To learn more about Ignite, click here.

It is little surprise that the tight end will be the Bears' nominee for the 2020 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide, which recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field.

Graham is being recognized for his work through the Jimmy Graham Foundation with at-risk youth and military veterans.

"It's a true honor to be nominated," said Graham, "especially for the Chicago Bears because of Walter Payton, what he did for this community, what he did for this organization and all he did for the NFL."

Graham expressed surprise in the nomination because he has worked to keep his philanthropic efforts private. As a teenager in a group home in North Carolina, he had mixed feelings about attention-grabbing events involving him.

"I know what it feels like when there are cameras around," said Graham. "That happened to me when I was in a group home. It was more of a PR stunt. I remember I always said it just felt washed down. It felt like I was being used. I never want to give anybody that feeling."

Instead, Graham's work is driven by a sense of civic patriotism. After a decade-long career that has provided accolades, fame and wealth, he sees his efforts as part of being a responsible citizen.

"I always bring it back to this: we all live in an amazing country," Graham said. "The U.S. is amazing, and we all have a lot of privileges here that a lot of other people don't in other countries. I think that if you take something from this country, it is your responsibility to give something back."

The Jimmy Graham Foundation's twin focuses on veterans and youth intersect with two elements of Graham's identity. Graham grew up in a military family and spent much of his childhood planning for a career serving the country. He also remembers being a teenager in need of an intervention and opportunity.

"Both of those things are so important in my life," said Graham. "I couldn't just do one or the other. It had to be both."

The third component of Graham's work centers around aviation. As a trained pilot, Graham takes participants on thrilling flights in helicopters and planes.

Through the freedom of flight, Graham seeks to build a personal connection and a positive memory.

"I take that experience very serious," said Graham, "Obviously, there's a bit of danger involved, but for me, it's always a bonding moment that I know that person for the rest of their lives will never forget."