Jimmy Graham didn't know where he was going. He was relaxed enough to fall asleep alongside his sister as his mother drove them to an unknown location, completely unaware of how much his life was about to change when he woke up. When the car came to a stop and Graham opened his eyes, his surroundings were no longer familiar.
"I woke up and it was a new place with many, many new people who I’d never met, who automatically for some reason didn’t like me," Graham said.
His mom had dropped her 11-year-old son off at Goldsboro Community Orphanage in North Carolina, and she wouldn't be back to pick him back up. Graham would spend the next three years at the over-capacity group home, a difficult and sometimes violent experience that shaped him into the man he is today. With his red hair, freckles and a nationality unrecognizable to the other kids living with him, Graham was the subject of constant bullying. Now a three-time Pro Bowler who has caught 51 touchdowns in his five-year career, the new Seattle Seahawks tight end talks about that experience, how it shaped him, and the start of his second career in Seattle.
Interview by Jordan Zirm (@clevezirm).
Complex: How'd living in that group home shape you into the beast on the field that you are today?
Jimmy Graham: It changed my make-up as a person. To go into that situation, and watching your own family member drop you off there and pretty much give you away, it made me extremely strong. It forced me to grow up at a really young age and to try and take control of my life. I had to think about how to get out of that situation. Not many kids at 11 years old are thinking about how to better their future and to try and climb out of a situation.
You've said the other kids at the group home didn't exactly take kindly to your presence there.
Unfortunately, so many of these places can be overpopulated. The [supervisors] can’t be around everything and they can't monitor every situation. They can't be there to police all the things that can arise. Because of that, every day I had to fight. At this group home, I was 11 and everyone else in the cottage that I was in was 13, 14, 15. So I was the youngest, I was the smallest and I was the one who looked different. Red hair, freckles. They didn’t know what I was—black, white, Spanish. They just knew I was different. And because of that, I fought every day. It was a battle. Every day you’re worried to be caught alone. You don’t want to be jumped. That’s how it was every day.
Every one tells me that I’m a pretty fast eater. I’ll sit down to a dinner and I’ll finish in two minutes while everyone else will take 30 minutes. That came from my childhood. That came from that group home. I was the youngest so I ate last. There was only enough food for half of us to eat. So I would sit down and eat quickly so I could get more. That home and everything I went though there has really shaped me and still resides in me to this day.
If you could sit down and talk to a kid facing a similar situation, or with yourself when you were in that car, what would you say?
This period in your life doesn’t determine who you are. I would just give them that hope that, this is a temporary situation, and that it's all about what you do with the situation and how positive you stay through the negative. There will be days where it will be great, and some days you have questions in your life about, "Why can’t I have a perfect family with a mom and a dad? Why do I have to go through these things?" And in the end, you use all these situations and all these circumstances to motivate you to do better, to go to college. And then you learn from these situations, so when you have a child, you’ll give them everything you never had.
I was the youngest, I was the smallest and I was the one who looked different. Red hair, freckles. They didn’t know what I was—black, white, Spanish. They just knew I was different. And because of that, I fought every day.
Has that experience in the group home helped you deal with other challenges as you've gotten older?
I played college basketball. When I first decided I was going to play football, there were a lot of people telling me that I wasn’t going to make it. Telling me how hard and how improbably it was for me to make a team and to even have an opportunity to play in the NFL. For me, trying the NFL and trying this football thing, because of the home and what I went through in there, to me it was no big deal. It was just another opportunity for me. I didn’t see that bigger, grandiose picture of it, I just took it one day at a time, like how I took it in the group home. The way that I made it through that group home, I just tried to make it through one day at a time. I didn’t look down the road. I didn’t know how long I would be there. I took on one day and I tried to win that day.
That’s what I did trying to play football. Playing at the U, literally I’m going to win today. I think it was August 7th that I started playing football. I didn’t even play spring ball, I just showed up in a jersey and a helmet. Then I’m at the combine, Then I get drafted two months later. I’m going to win today in rookie camp. I’ve done that literally every day. I have my first game coming up this weekend. Yesterday I was like, "You know what? I’m going to win today. And I’m going to make sure that I’m my best today." I still do that in every circumstance and challenge that I have in my life.
The move from New Orleans to play in Seattle couldn't have been an easy one for you. That's a big life change.
Logistically, moving from Miami and New Orleans all the way to Seattle isn’t the easiest thing. Really for my dog, she was kind of the biggest hurdle to get here. I’m used to situations like this. I was thrown in that [group home] and I had no idea. This situation was much easier than that situation.
We all played in high school and then when you go off to college, you're going into an unknown. You're meeting thousands of new people and having expectations to be good. For us, our job is football, and if we don’t do well at work, thousands of people see it on TV. I feel like starting at the group home prepared me for college and for the NFL, and even the transition phases of the NFL.
at times in my career, you go in to a game and, I know on third down I’m going to get 10 targets. I’m the red zone target. Well this team is so good, you truly don’t know.
When you envision the 2015 season, your first with the Seahawks, how do you picture it going? Do you feel like you need to prove yourself all over again?
Our team is so special. I just want to do something special to help this team win. The team is so good. We have so much talent on the defense, we have so much talent on the offense. I just want to be out there and help us win games. I feel like at times in my career, you go in to a game and, I know on third down I’m going to get 10 targets. I’m the red zone target. Well this team is so good, you truly don’t know when you’re opportunity will come. I want to take every opportunity and make a play that helps us win each and every one of these games. That’s how this offense is built. It’s explosive plays and they run the ball. So I want to be one of those explosive plays. Several of them, actually.