Years before the touchdowns, record-breaking seasons and accolades,
football star Jimmy Graham was just a kid from Goldsboro, N.C. But he wasn’t
your average kid, and his childhood was far from ordinary. His path to the pros
was paved with hardship, resilience and dogged determination.
At the age of 11, Graham moved into a state-run group home, where he was
bullied and beaten up by older kids before a youth counselor adopted him and
showed him love for the first time. His grades improved from F’s to A’s, and he
earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Miami. He graduated with a
double major in marketing and business management and stayed on campus an extra
year to take
graduate classes and play his one and only season of college football before
being drafted by the NFL.
The inspiring but little-known story of Graham’s journey from personal perseverance to professional triumph is told through “Churn,” a
biographical 60-second film that opens the next chapter of the "Just A
Kid" campaign for POWERADETM
We caught up with the soft-spoken, 6-foot-7, 270-pound
tight end a few days before his first game of the season.
What was it like to see your story in the POWERADE film?
It was surreal, and
brought back a lot of raw feelings from my childhood. Seeing two kids who look
just like me and hearing the voice in the background motivated me because it
helped me to appreciate even more where I came from and value the journey my
life has taken to this point. Watching it was emotional… to go back and relive
a lot of those moments, and see it done so well. It was like rewinding time.
What do you want viewers to take away from it?
That I truly am just a
kid from Goldsboro, and that all of us are just kids from somewhere. It doesn't
matter how you start or where you start from, you know? It’s what you do with
that start. Individually, we can overcome anything. I know there are a lot of
kids going through similar situations, living in small towns or big cities.
Hopefully, they’ll be inspired through this video and POWERADE to truly keep
pushing. Because in the end, you can be anything you want.
How did you find the strength to keep your chin up and, 'climb out' as
the voiceover in the film says?
As a young kid, I was shown my worth by
everyone older than me, including my parents. But I never lost belief in myself
and in my future. Those moments strengthened me. Challenges obviously can be
taken negatively, but I used them as motivation. When someone tells you you’re
not going to be anything or you’re not good enough, that’s motivation for me to
prove them wrong and strive for something better. To work hard in school and
try and get a scholarship. I took on each and every mountain in my life with
that same attitude… of going at this as hard as I can to prove everyone who
said I couldn’t do it wrong.
You’ve credited your mentor, Becky Vinson, with making you feel valued
for the first time in your life. Have you wondered how your life would have
turned out if she had not taken you in?
Definitely. She came to
my rescue when it was truly needed. I was going to go back into the home. Who
knows what would have happened if she hadn’t done that? She’s a saint for all
she did to make me better. When she took care of me, things weren’t easy for
us. I think we lived off $12,000 a year for the three of us in a little trailer with
no heat. That helped me grow up quickly and learn to appreciate things. And it
motivated me. When you’re in high school and wearing clothes that don’t fit,
and you can’t afford McDonald’s, that lets you know that you need to get to
work and do something to change where you’re at.
In one frame of the film, we see a teenage version of
you staring up an airplane. You now have your pilot’s license and are starting a flight-related
charity for inner-city kids. What do you love most about flying, and what do
you think about when you’re in the air?
wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to fly fighter jets and dreamed of
joining the Air Force as a kid. I ended up being 6-7, 270, though… so guys like
don’t really fit in planes! I used to dream about the
freedom of flight. Because that’s truly what it is… it’s the one moment where
there’s no media, no emails and no critics. It’s just me and the aircraft. I
fly long distances and sea planes now, but for me the aerobatics is truly where
the freedom is. It’s just you and this machine, and you’re up there… doing
multiple flips and rolls. I’m one with the plane, and it’s complete freedom.
It’s both extremely challenging and relaxing.
How do you compare the adrenaline of flying with the
adrenaline of scoring a touchdown?
Well, I’ve been
fortunate to have scored a lot of touchdowns. In the off-season, I struggle to
find an outlet for that same sense of adrenaline. When I take off in a plane,
I’m doing these maneuvers at 8 Gs and negative 6 Gs. It’s extremely aggressive.
Every muscle in my body is tight, I have to breathe a certain way, and
literally some of these maneuvers are whipping your body within the aircraft.
The adrenaline rush I feel when I’m in the aircraft doing aerobatics is really
similar to when I’m up in the air about to catch a ball over a defender.
You’ve said you were scared as a kid… and that you’re still
scared today, but in a different way. Can you expand on that?
When I was
younger, I was scared of my circumstance. I was scared of being in that home
every day, of being beaten up, of being in fights. Of my whole situation. But
now, being scared is a positive in my life. I’m scared to fail at anything...
on or off the off the field, in business or in my personal life, or even in
flying. Someone once asked what keeps me
motivated after all my accomplishing this and that. I’m motivated because I’m
terrified to fail.