Jimmy Graham could be first UM player drafted

After 23 years, ``feeling different'' for Jimmy Graham has become the norm.

``Obviously, I look different,'' said Graham, a chiseled six-foot-seven, 260-pound former Miami Hurricanes basketball star and tight end who, despite playing only one year of college football, is expected to be chosen first this weekend among several NFL draft-eligible Hurricanes.
``I have red hair, freckles and I'm a black-and-white mix. I was a kid in elementary school that none of the black kids wanted to hang out with because I was too white, and none of the white kids wanted to hang out with because I was too black. But I always tried to look past what was happening at the moment and thought about the future.

``I was a different kind of kid. I was the kid who always dreamed big.''

Graham should get rewarded big this weekend in the NFL Draft. He is projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., to go as early as the third round.
No UM player is expected to get chosen in the first or second round, but others likely to be drafted are offensive tackle Jason Fox and linebacker Darryl Sharpton, with cornerback Sam Shields' blazing 4.28 40-yard dash at the UM combine giving him hope. Though the 2009 draft ended UM's heralded 14-year streak with at least one player selected in the opening round, another feel-good story -- Graham's -- emerged before the '09 season even began.

When he earned his degree with a double major in business management and marketing in 2009, Graham was read a commendation that began by praising his courage and ended by announcing he'd be playing football for the Canes.

``Madam President,'' the speaker announced to UM president Donna Shalala, ``this power forward known for his thunderous blocks has become a fan favorite over his four seasons with the men's basketball team. . . . and at this year's awards banquet he was named outstanding defender for the second-straight season.

``To say that Jimmy Graham is not only an exceptional student-athlete, but also an inspiration to those who face adversity would be an understatement. Due to his family circumstances, Jimmy raised himself from the age of 11. . . . Jimmy has gone from rebellious teen and straight-F student to college graduate.''

Graham's story is compelling : a father he never knew, a mother, he said, who left him on his own much of the time and put him in a North Carolina group home for children before he was a teenager. And a stepfather who didn't want much to do with him.

``The woman dropped me off at a group home right after my sixth-grade year,'' he said. ``I fell asleep in the car and woke up and I remember sitting at a table and seeing her sign me away. That's something you don't forget.''

Graham eventually met Becky Vinson, a church bible-study volunteer who became his mentor and legal guardian when he was 15. He moved into a small trailer with Vinson and her young daughter, and together they went without heat for two winters because of financial struggles. Graham's bedroom was so tiny that he could lie on the floor and touch all four walls.

The money was scarce, but the emotional support from his new family was plentiful. Graham's anger subsided and his grades improved.
``It's different when you're living through something and then you come out of it and realize, `Holy cow! We went through a lot,' '' said Vinson, who had no idea Shalala would single out Graham during graduation. ``I cried from beginning to end. Every parent is so proud of their child, but what are the odds that someone goes through what he did and not only gets by, but excels? He's phenomenal.''

Vinson now works as a nurse at Duke Raleigh Hospital, and the once lonely, depressed Graham has become a friendly, enthusiastic, candid young man who loves to talk -- and play sports. He gave up the chance to play basketball in Europe for the hope of being another Tony Gonzalez, a former hoops and football player at Cal who is a tight end for the Atlanta Falcons.

``Obviously you take a chance and roll the dice on a player, say, in the third round, that has the athletic ability that he has,'' Kiper said of Graham. ``I mean, with his size, the way he runs . . .''

Graham impressed Shalala well before he zipped to his 4.56-second 40-yard dash for NFL scouts, and before he broke the UM record for tight ends with a 40.5-inch vertical leap.

``There's a joy to him in everything he does,'' Shalala said.

Former UM and Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar worked with Graham last summer in Miami, calling Graham's ``thirst for knowledge and zest for perfection'' contagious. ``He's fantastic to work with because he's not satisfied with just being good,'' Kosar said. ``He's incredible. I don't think he'll get past the second round.''

After growing from five-eight to six-one the summer he entered high school, Graham played one year of junior varsity football in ninth grade as a defensive end at Eastern Wayne High in Goldsboro, N.C. But a subsequent move with Vinson to a new school took him away from football because the sport was not offered. He already could dunk a basketball with two hands by eighth grade, so basketball became his sport.
On the UM basketball team, Graham was known as an enforcer, using his power to intimidate opponents with blocks -- and fouls. His 290 career fouls in four seasons rank eighth most in UM history. His 104 blocked shots also rank eighth.

Graham's transition to big-time football was just short of amazing, his coaches say. Most players have four or five years to grow into their roles and master the playbook, not to mention four years in high school of learning the sport.

An NCAA rule that allows athletes to change sports in their fifth year of eligibility opened the door for Graham.

``Jimmy knew he had one shot to prove himself, and he took advantage of it,'' said UM strength coach Andreu Swasey. ``You saw the rawness, but he got better each game,''

Swasey still chuckles at the first pass that quarterback Jacory Harris threw to Graham in the opener at Florida State. It soared right by him. ``Instead of trying to get the ball at the highest point, he's trying to look at the defensive back to box him out,'' Swasey said of Graham's basketball instinct.

Graham also endured the criticism of dropping two passes -- each right in his hands -- in driving rain Sept. 26 at Virginia Tech.

After the loss, he vowed to make up for it. The next ball thrown to him was an 18-yard touchdown a week later in a victory against Oklahoma.
He ended the season with 17 catches for 213 yards, unspectacular numbers, but steadily improving over the season. His five touchdowns were second only to leading receiver Leonard Hankerson. Some analysts have questioned his toughness, but he insists he is eager to block and learn the intricacies that will help him improve.

Graham will be with his two best buddies -- they didn't play football -- during draft weekend. ``I don't want to watch it,'' he said. ``It's too hard. We're going to hang out and wait for the phone call.''

Graham knows the draft is unpredictable, no matter how much the experts pontificate.

``I just want the opportunity to prove myself,'' he said. ``One thing I take from growing up is that I'm not a quitter.''

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