When he is not soaring on a slant pattern, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is literally flying. After an offseason joyride following his rookie year, Graham devoted himself to becoming a licensed pilot and passionately trains in competitive aerobatics. “It’s one of the only things that can get my adrenaline pumping like a Sunday night or Thursday night game,” he says.
Some players have no idea how to spend their retirement, but Graham is already excited about his potential second career racing planes, a thrill Graham says is equivalent to “driving a Formula racecar on the highway through traffic.” It’s not a common indulgence, but Graham is leading a decidedly uncommon life. Having signed a four-year, $40 million contract before the season, and become pro football's representative for Degree for Men, he is having another big year and his team—although 4-4—sits atop the NFC South.
With a big game against the division rival San Francisco 49ers looming, Graham took a moment to chat with Maxim about how he learned to fly, how he redefined the tight end position and how he plans to help his team stack up some wins.
A lot of fans don’t know you’re training to be a competitive airplane racer. How did you get into piloting and what planes do you own?
I loved ‘Top Gun.’ I watched it all growing up. My VHS—I guess I’m getting a little older now—I literally burned a hole through it. I got into college and a gentleman gave me a ride in a plane and he flipped it upside down so we’re inverted flying, like it was nothing and from that moment forward, I fell in love with it. I said, ‘I've got to learn this, I’ve got to do this.’ So whenever I came to the league , that offseason I dedicated myself to obviously working out and being the best player and improving but also in my spare time to get my license.
I've gotten more certifications as each year has passed. This offseason I’ll have my commercial license and I’ll probably go and get my seaplane as well. So right now I have two planes. I have a Bonanza made by Beechcraft, a six-seater and then I have an Extra 330 LX, which is an aerobatic aircraft. So I’ve been training for the last year in pretty much aerobatics, just learning the complete ins and outs of it, what it takes and it’s extremely difficult.
It’s not enough to fly. You want to do tricks.
There’s three types of aerobatics you can do. There’s competition aerobatics, which everyone has kind of a—there’s a sequence and you have to do it perfectly, like you have to do a perfect line. And then there’s air shows, which is kind of like a free for all. You’re just out there to do whatever entertains. You’re flipping the plane as many times as possible. And then there’s air racing, which is very low, very fast and very dangerous. So later in life, I’d like to end up doing air races. But for now, for the next 15 to 20 I want to focus on competition to aerobatics and then once I leave the league I want to do airshows. It’s a passion of mine and it’s challenging in every way you could think, mentally and physically. It’s one of the only things that can get my adrenaline pumping like a Sunday night or Thursday night game. Especially in the Extra, if you can equate it to kind of normal senses, it would be like flying a Formula 1 race car.
What have your teammates and coaches said to you about such dangerous flying?
In the beginning, they were extremely - they were like, ‘Whoa.’ But, you know, unlike motorcycling or skiing, this is something that I've been professionally trained at. This is something I take very seriously. I love my body. I take good care of it. I love my life now and there is nothing I would do to put my life in jeopardy - or anyone else’s
I've flown in so many different types of situations and different aircrafts that they know this thing isn’t just a fad and that it’s what my life is about. They know that me flying after the season is such a big deal with the way I play because it’s one of the only outlets that I have. It’s one of the ways that I get away, to kind of clear my mind from the craziness of an NFL week.
Photo: Jamie Squire / Getty Images
Do you have a hair-raising flying story?
The first time I ever flew in a plane by myself - it was my solo flight - I had just started flying maybe that month and I had earned up enough hours and enough experience to fly solo for the first time. I got to the plane and my instructor, he said, ‘Well, all right, have fun. Stay in the pattern, take off and then taxi back.’ And I was absolutely terrified. You know, literally, going through the steps, I get to the runway, I'm cleared for take off. It was: ‘1-1-4-Foxtrot-Bravo clear to depart niner left.’ I’ll never forget it. So I get to the line and I go full power. I go to take off and I'm literally screaming for the first 500 feet. More of joy, I think. More of like, complete anticipation of: this is what I wanted to do and now I'm doing it. It was like a total sense of complete freedom.
You have changed the way the tight end position is used. At what moment was it was clear you were redefining the position?
I’ll tell you a moment that I’ll never forget. My rookie year, it’s the end of the season and we’re playing the Atlanta Falcons, our big rival, and we need this win to get into the playoffs. It is a must win in Atlanta. I think it was a Monday night or a Sunday night—it was a big night. We get down there, it’s in the fourth quarter and it’s like third and four or five [third and three with 3:28 left in the game]. Drew calls timeout, the offense comes over, Sean Payton—we’re all huddled together. And Sean looks at Drew and says, ‘What do you wanna do?’ And he says, ‘I wanna throw it to Jimmy. I want to split him out and throw it to him.’ Now, it sounds simple, but if you can think about that long ago, in that huddle was Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey, Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Lance Moore. That huddle was full of guys who had ranks, guys who had battles together, guys who had won a Super Bowl together and overcome all the odds and have gotten to the Promise Land.
Drew says he wants to throw me the ball to get us into the playoffs and to get this win. So, we go down there, I shift out, I split out two yards outside the numbers and I run a slant route and I caught it to put us into the playoffs. So if you can imagine that kind of moment and that kind of time in your career when you realize that maybe you’re just a little different.
It is not just the tight end position, but all positions on offense seem to be transforming. What do you think of the way offense is changing in the NFL?
Every team had big offensive linemen, big tight ends, big backs and they ran the ball. Now it’s like this speed and the athleticism of offensive players have changed it to where defenses draft that way. Defenses and safeties are massive now. Cornerbacks, those guys are getting bigger than ever because they have to guard guys like Megatron, guys sometimes like myself. And, because of that, the speed and the height of players is getting to crazy levels. Megatron is 6’6. I'm 6’7’’. Guys are just bigger. Last season I weighed 275, 6’7, so I think, in general, the league is getting dangerously big and fast.
The Saints were a popular Super Bowl pick, but the team stumbled to start the season. What must the Saints do to improve the rest of the season?
The first part of the season, honestly, we just weren’t finishing games. If you take out the Cowboys game where we got stoned and shocked by obviously a great team, we lost three games with last minute field goals or we lost three games that were literally the last few minutes of a game and overtime
We’re finally back to being No. 1 in our division and we’re back to moving in a positive direction, but it’s still only one game away from us being right back to where we were.
Photos by Wesley Hitt / Getty Images