Jimmy Graham powers forward with gamble

The little church in Goldsboro, N.C., is where believers gather, and it is where Jimmy Graham found people who believed in him.

The couple of miles between Graham’s home and the Abundant Life Church seemed like a short walk for the then-high school freshman to get a free hot meal. But there was more than food waiting for Graham, now a University of Miami tight end.

A teenager basically raising himself, Graham gained a foundation through his weekly visits to the church. He discovered fellowship, a pastor who would become his high school basketball coach, a guardian who gave him stability in an unstable life, and a congregation joyful with encouragement.

“It was like everybody there believed in me,’’ Graham said. “My whole life, I always felt different and out of place, and I finally felt like people cared about me and people wanted me to succeed.

“They told me I was too smart and too talented. It was like that entire church believed in me. They used to tell me every day, ‘You’re going to do great things in this community and in this world,’ and that support meant everything.’’

After that year, Graham gravitated toward people who believed in him. From a college basketball coach in Miami to a college football coach who persuaded him to give football one more chance in lieu of a six-figure contract, Graham is living on a foundation of support. On Thursday, Graham will see whether a team believes enough to draft a tight end with power forward moves into the NFL after only one year of college football.

The leap of faith is something Graham has learned to accept throughout his life. He grew up in a small town in North Carolina under the most troubling of circumstances. Graham’s mother exhibited erratic behavior that often meant Graham was on his own. His older sister was placed in a group home until she was 18. Graham also ended up in a group home for a short while.

When he returned home, Graham took care of himself. When he wanted to play football in middle school, he ran 5 miles to practice and walked home. It wasn’t until a coach saw him making the hike that he began to get rides to and from practice.

When Graham entered his freshman year of high school, he struggled to focus in class. He played basketball and football. And in the evenings, he would walk to the church near his home for the free meals for teens. The more he went, the more he became involved.

Guardian at his gate
Carlos Peralta was a pastor at the church and a private school basketball coach. In Peralta’s first interactions with Graham, he said it was like a neon sign hovered above his head asking for help.

“We were just trying to help him,’’ Peralta said. “He was abandoned and a very angry young man, as you can imagine.’’

Becky Vinson, a member of the church, addressed Graham’s need. At about 30 years old and raising a young child of her own, Vinson volunteered to become Graham’s legal guardian before his sophomore year of high school. She was a Gulf War veteran and a nursing student.

Graham’s mother signed the paperwork, and he moved into Vinson’s trailer, where she supported him and her daughter on about $3,000 and student loans.

They didn’t have much because Vinson was getting by on an unpaid nursing internship. For entertainment, the trio focused on doing things that were free, she said, such as playing ping-pong at the church and playing tennis at the local park.

They didn’t have heat for two years and had to be creative to stay warm.

“I remember we used to all sit in the living room wearing everything we could find, long sleeves, and a jacket,’’ Graham said. “I slept in shoes and pants and we would turn on the oven and sleep in the kitchen.’’

Yet even with the financial struggles, Vinson provided support that made him feel like he was living a life of riches.

“Financially, it wasn’t great, but as far as the support, it was at a maximum,’’ Graham said. “I always tell people money isn’t everything; when you’re surrounded by people who love you for who you are, that makes up for it.’’

“As crazy as it sounds, at the time, it was the right thing to do,’’ Vinson said. “In my mind, I didn’t understand how someone couldn’t help a kid.’’

Graham transferred to Charis Prep his sophomore year and turned his focus to basketball because the school did not have a football team. Peralta was his coach at the start-up school. In Graham’s early days, he possessed a shot that Peralta joked was nothing but ugly.

“His heels would come together, he would lean pronouncedly to the left, and after his shot, his arms would cross over his head,’’ Peralta said. “It was the ugliest thing in the world.’’

That shot would change, as did his skill. College coaches began to take notice. Tim Fuller, who was coaching at nearby Elon University, eagerly recruited Graham. But when Frank Haith was hired to coach at Miami, he hired Fuller to join the program. Fuller passed along the details about Graham to Haith and a scholarship offer eventually made its way to Graham.

In four years of playing basketball at Miami, Graham recorded 104 blocked shots, ranking him eighth in the program’s history. Teams from overseas were interested in bringing Graham on board, while NBA teams wanted him to stick around for tryouts. All the while, Graham had an itch to play football.

Draft intrigue
After a couple of conversations with Miami football coach Randy Shannon, Graham was presented with a one-year scholarship for the 2009 season.

“A lot of people told me to stick with the money,’’ Graham said. “I’m a kid from a trailer, so whenever there is money thrown at you, that’s not something people turn down a lot. To turn down six figures, I didn’t want to do something I was just good at. I wanted to follow my dream.’’

In his only season with the Hurricanes football team, Graham caught 17 passes for 213 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games. His frame of 6 feet 6 inches, 260 pounds attracted NFL teams. Graham was invited to the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. He worked out with former Miami and NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar and reached out to former Hurricane tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey for tips.

If an NFL team had a question about his commitment, Graham was ready with an answer.

“I think when they look back and see that I turned down all of my pro basketball tryouts, and I turned down all my overseas money, they see I am sold out for football,’’ he said. “I turned down a lot to come back to college and play this game. That proves in itself how much I love this game.’’

If a team is curious about Graham’s potential, it is likely to be in the middle rounds, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said.

“It’s not easy, but obviously you take a chance and roll the dice on a player maybe in the third round that has the athletic ability that he has,’’ Kiper said. “Sure he was a little bit unnatural catching this year. Sure he didn’t look like a guy who could play in the NFL, but who would have expected that [after one year]?’’

When teams have asked Graham about his football toughness, he just recites stories from his life. About three years ago, Graham said his mother called to apologize for how she treated him. He didn’t want to give her name for this story, but he said he believes emotionally she is in a better place.

“I forgave her for a lot of things she did to me as a kid,’’ Graham said. “It’s certainly not stuff you forget.

“She’s a different person now. She’s grown up a lot. At the time, she wasn’t ready to be a mother. I can’t fault her for that.’’

Now, all Graham is looking for is one more person to believe in him.

“I’m a kid that just works hard, and if a team’s willing to take a chance on me, I’m not going to let them down,’’ Graham said. “I have high expectations of myself.’’

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