METAIRIE, La. — Jimmy Graham flies airplanes upside down.
So when quarterback Drew Brees says "the sky is the limit" for the third-year tight end out of Miami, he isn’t kidding.
Graham argues that he isn’t so much crazy as driven to extraordinary things.
"I love flying, man. It’s very freeing, very challenging," Graham said after a training camp practice this week. "One day I want to do air races. I’ll dominate."
If Graham’s learning curve is as quick with stunt flying as it has been with playing football, he very well could be an air racing maestro one day. After playing four years of college basketball at Miami and only one season of football for the Hurricanes, it took him only two pro seasons to become Brees’ top target and a Pro Bowl tight end.
Last season, Graham led the Saints in receptions (99), yards receiving (1,310) and touchdown catches (11). An yet, as he heads into his third pro season with more fanfare than at any point in his life, this man who loves to fly has every intention of remaining personally as well-grounded as possible
"I feel like I did all those things just being Jimmy," Graham said. "So for me it’s not changing anything, always working as hard as you can and keeping everything in front of you, just one step at a time, not thinking that anything is too big, or that you’re too big for anything.
"I continually focus on staying humble and hungry and that’s how I’ll be the rest of my career."
Oddly enough, the 6-foot-7, 265-pound Graham was too big to be a fighter pilot, a childhood dream ever since he saw his favorite movie, "Top Gun."
"Then I wanted to be a Navy Seal or a Marine, but then I got even bigger, so I played basketball," Graham recalled.
During his junior year at Miami, however, he had an opportunity to sit in a single-engine plane with a pilot certified in aerobatics. Asked if he wanted to see what it was like to fly upside down, Graham said he did, and was hooked on flying ever since.
Shortly after turning pro, he started taking flying lessons and recently got his pilot’s license. While he never executes loops or rolls without an instructor in the seat next to him, he expects to be fully certified in aerobatics sometime in the next year.
His first order of business, however, is the 2012 football season. And it seems full of promise, given how much difficulty Saints defenders have had stopping him in practice.
"He’s tall, fast and can catch the ball. There are a lot of times where you’ll be in perfect position and you just can’t stop him, plus the fact that he has Drew Brees as a quarterback who can put it right where the defensive back can’t get it," free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He’s a special player. He’s really shown everybody what he’s got last year and he’s doing better this year. I think his route-running has been crisper. He’s understanding defenses and his offense."
Graham still sees a variety of areas in which he can improve, particularly his blocking. He also wants to run routes better and rack up more yards after the catch.
"I am kind of a perfectionist and I am always looking to get better any way possible," Graham said. "Whenever I look back to last year ... I had a lot of missed opportunities out there, a lot of balls that I could have gotten to, a lot of routes that I should have been more disciplined on."
When Graham talks like that, he sounds like Brees, who routinely laments missed throws after big wins in which he has passed for well over 300 yards. It would make sense that Brees’ influence would rub off on Graham, given that the Saints star quarterback routinely pokes his head into tight end film sessions to instruct Graham on improvements he could make to his route running.
"It’s all constructive criticism. I wouldn’t even call it criticism. It’s progress," Brees said. "I feel like we’ve been really good at doing certain things and yet I still feel like we can make some hay in a lot of areas and continue to get a little bit better.
"Jimmy Graham only had one full year as a starter. The sky is the limit for this guy," Brees continued. "The good thing about him is that he doesn’t necessarily need to be pushed or motivated. He is self-motivated. He is driven. He’s got a fire that burns inside of him. But then again, just like I am going to push myself, I’m going to push him as much as I can."
While Graham tries not to let his growing fame go to his head, he has been pleased with how it has allowed him to promote his social agenda — namely, helping at-risk youth find healthy foster home environments.
"It elevates my ability to help out kids and parents who really don’t understand how much they can do to affect their kids negatively or positively," Graham said.
Graham, the child of a single mother, grew up poor and lived part of his childhood in a group home for youth, where he was sometimes picked on and beaten up. His life turned around when he was adopted by a young woman in his hometown who led a youth prayer group at church.
Graham said he hopes orphaned or abandoned children, along with prospective foster parents, see how his life turned out, "and it touches them, and lets them know that it can be done. You just have to do it the right way."