North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
As a basketball player at Miami, Jimmy Graham was best known for his defense, rebounding and physical play as a 6-foot-8, 256-pound power forward. He was also known for having a penchant for committing fouls.
It’s a trait that caught the eye of university president Donna Shalala, who after watching Graham play a few times suggested that he try out for the Hurricanes football team.
Graham hadn’t played football since ninth grade back home at Charis Prep Academy in Goldsboro when his adopted mother forced him to give up the game to spend more time on his academics. But with the aid of former Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, who helped him prepare for his return to the gridiron after his basketball eligibility had expired, he decided to give football another try.
“At least now, I can’t foul out,” he said at the time, only half-jokingly.
As it turned out, Graham’s size, aggressiveness and 40-inch vertical leap made him a natural as a tight end. Although he caught only 17 passes during his one college season, five of them went for touchdowns. The New Orleans Saints saw enough from him that they selected him in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
He caught 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in his second pro season, becoming the first tight end in Saints history to post a 1,000-yard season and earning the first of his five Pro Bowl selections. He led the NFL in touchdown receptions in 2013 before moving on to the Seattle Seahawks, where he became the team’s all-time leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns among tight ends.
Graham has also played for the Green Bay Packers and is now a member of the Chicago Bears. In 10 seasons, he has amassed 649 receptions for 7.883 yards and 74 scores.
As impressive as those numbers are at face value, they’re even more amazing considering the obstacles Graham had to overcome — above and beyond his lack of football training. At the age of 9, he was left by his mother at a group home, where he was subject to physical abuse on an almost daily basis. It wasn’t until he was taken in by a woman named Becky Vinson that he finally found some stability and began the journey that will likely lead to Canton, Ohio, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.