|Tight end Jimmy Graham, a former University of Miami basketball
player, dunks the ball over the goal post following a
touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons last November.
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Jimmy Graham's childhood lacked some of the basics many take for granted. And that apparently figured in to the Saints' tight end's decision not to holdout for a lucrative, long-term contract as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
"I'm a humble kid from very humble beginnings and I feel blessed to be in the situation that I'm in, so all I'm going to do is go out here and play football," Graham said Saturday at training camp. "I think that's what I do best, and I think the rest of it will take care of itself."
There was a time when a young Graham, who grew up in North Carolina, dressed during winter in a tank top, shorts and shoes with holes in them. For a while, he didn't even have a true home, having been abandoned by his parents, though that changed when he was adopted by a volunteer youth group leader at his church.
Now, however, as Graham enters his fourth season of pro football, he may be positioned for one of the larger salaries ever paid to an NFL tight end.
In the final regular season game of 2011, Graham briefly broke the single-season record for yards receiving by a tight end, only to be edged out by New England's Rob Gronkowski, who finished with 1,327 to Graham's 1,310.
Hindered by a wrist injury last season, Graham saw a dip in production, but still managed a team-high 85 catches for 982 yards and nine TDs.
While Graham has chosen not to make his contract an issue, he has nonetheless seen the Patriots give significant contracts with two tight ends. Gronkowski received a six-year deal worth up to $54 million. And before Aaron Hernandez was arrested on murder charges and cut by New England, he signed a five-year deal worth up to $40 million.
Graham said he appreciates the wisdom of securing one's financial future, but he also wanted to be all-in with a Saints team that he knew would be hungry following a 7-9 record in 2012, and which was getting head coach Sean Payton back from his one-season bounty suspension.
"To each his own," Graham said. "All I know is after the season we had last year, now that we're back, I just want to be a part of it. I'm going to be here and I'm going to play with everything I have no matter what."
General manager Mickey Loomis said he and Graham's agent, Jimmy Sexton, have discussed an extension, but he offered no timeline for a deal.
"We have had a lot of success in keeping our core players here for the long run," Loomis said. "So hopefully there is some comfort in that to him."
Payton said he, too, does not worry Graham's contract status could become a distraction if it remains unresolved during the season.
"He's had a lot more pressure in his life than just a contract year," Payton said. "We expect him to be extremely productive.
"All that (contract) stuff will get taken care of," Payton added. "We'll handle that."
Graham, meanwhile, shows no interest in playing for any team that doesn't have Drew Brees, who is under contract with New Orleans four more seasons.
"He's helped mold me," Graham said. "I've never caught a pass from another quarterback and I don't intend to."
Brees said Graham's value transcends his obvious talent as a 6-foot-7, 265-pound target who runs well and has good hands.
"What a lot of people don't see, unless you really dig deep, is this guy's work ethic, his passion, fire and competitive nature," Brees said. "He wants to be great and loves football. He is a good guy. He is a great locker room guy."
Graham played basketball in high school, and then at Miami, where he also earned two degrees before using his final year of athletic eligibility to try football.
The Saints drafted him in the third round in 2010, and shortly after, University of Miami President Donna Shalala said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that Graham's childhood story was known around campus, and that he was widely admired for the way he emerged from it.
"He overcame it with a grace and intelligence that didn't give him a chip on his shoulder, just a drive that only champions have," Shalala said. "He would walk around campus just smiling, just so happy he was there."
Now he carries himself around Saints headquarters in the same way, even joking that Saints owner Tom Benson's 2012 acquisition of an NBA team makes playing in New Orleans even more attractive.
A new practice center for the Pelicans — formerly the Hornets — is nearly finished adjacent to the Saints' indoor practice field.
"Yeah," Graham began with a playful grin, "I'll get in there and dunk on somebody."