Jimmy Graham in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship
Credit: Photograph by Daymon Gardner

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham loves being told no. "The best way to motivate me is to tell me I can't do something," he says. "I don't have chips on my shoulders, I have bricks. The naysaying makes me work harder." Since rising from a violence-ridden childhood in an orphanage to becoming a top-ranked high school basketball player, Graham has continued to beat implausible odds. Just months after turning down a European hoops career to try college football – a sport he hadn't played since ninth grade – Graham was drafted into the NFL. And when pundits dismissed his hiring as a fluke, Graham proceeded to rewrite the book on the tight end position – transforming a short-passing and blocking gig into a high-jumping touchdown fest. Graham has been defying expectations for so long now, he doesn't bat an eye when nonbelievers scoff at his latest ambition – to become a competitive airplane racer in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship. "In my life," he says, "the sky is literally the ceiling."

This year, Graham, 26, is having a breakout season. An aggressive player valued for his ability to leap over defensive backs, yank the ball from the air, and mow down anyone in his path, he was recently named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Month – the first tight end ever to receive the award. Graham loves getting in players' faces. Even after being tackled, he immediately jumps up and flexes his biceps at opponents. "I don't give people time to start talking junk," he says, "because I say something to them first."

Graham hasn't always been so confident. An Army brat, he was raised in Goldsboro, North Carolina, by his single mother until, without warning, she left him at age 11 at a group home for orphans and juvenile delinquents. "She dropped all my stuff in black garbage bags on the side of the road," he says. "I cried myself to sleep every night for a year straight." As the youngest and smallest resident among 15-year-olds with rap sheets, Graham was beaten on a daily basis. "Once, I was left alone in a van with seven older kids who jumped me," he says. "I went to the hospital because my eyes were swollen shut." Graham called his mother, pleading to come home, only to hear a click and a dial tone in response. "Every day was literally a fight," he says.

After about a year, Graham was taken back home, but more trouble awaited – his mother's abusive boyfriend. So Graham sought refuge in an after-school youth program at the Abundant Life Fellowship church, where a supervisor took noticed him. Becky Vinson, a former Navy ship electronics technician based in Guam, had moved home as a single mother to raise her six-year-old daughter, Karena. "He was normally very stoic," Vinson says, "but after about a year, he said, 'My mom is going to put me back into a group home. Would you pray for me?' " Although she was juggling nursing school, part-time jobs, and a young daughter, Vinson took him in. At age 14, he moved his trash bags of belongings into Vinson's mobile home on the outskirts of town. "We slept all winter fully clothed in the living room with the oven on," Graham says, "but it was the first time anyone had said they loved me, so it was awesome." Training daily with his basketball coach – who was also his pastor – Graham became the state's number one power forward, and upon graduation, he accepted a full scholarship with the University of Miami Hurricanes. (He was offered full rides from a total of 35 Division 1 schools.) "I wanted to start fresh in a big city with big lights and palm trees," he says.

At Miami, Graham was the team's muscle. "Coach asked me to be his enforcer," he says. "I played big and pushed people around – I committed more fouls than I made field goals." Graham amassed a lackluster four-year career, averaging 4.2 points and 16 minutes a game. But university president and Clinton-era U.S. secretary of health and human services Donna Shalala – a sideline mainstay – recognized Graham's raw strength. "She'd tell me, 'Hey, you're playing the wrong sport,' " he says. In 2009, Miami's football coach, Randy Shannon, offered him a tight end position on the team if he stayed another year. (NCAA rules allow college athletes to compete a fifth year if they play a different sport.) "He promised I'd actually play," Graham says. An extra year would also give Graham a chance to further his studies. Having already attained a dual degree in business and marketing, he wanted to take grad-school classes in philosophy. Graham could have earned a six-figure paycheck to play pro basketball in Europe – a life-changing prospect for a kid just a few years removed from poverty – but instead launched a Hail Mary for the NFL. "It was a very hard decision," he says, "but when Bill Parcells showed up at practice and followed me around, I knew this could be something serious."

In his sole college season, Graham scored touchdowns the first three times he caught the ball, but his inexperience was evident – he ultimately had only 17 receptions for 213 yards. Still, scouts noticed his strength and speed on YouTube clips and at the NFL draft combine. "He was as green as you could ask for," says New Orleans tight ends coach Terry Malone, "but you don't see guys his size who can run like that. And all his basketball highlight tapes were nothing but really hard fouls and block shots – he was a ferocious competitor." After just six months of playing football, Graham was drafted by the Saints in 2010. Despite a 2011 Pro Bowl appearance, he was still learning how to play the game. "I would ask veteran tight end David Thomas questions," Graham says, "and he would be like, 'Are you serious?' " After the Saints' abysmal 2012 season, Graham was written off: He wasn't even included in the NFL's 2013 list of top 100 players. So during the recent off-season, he worked daily with quarterback Drew Brees. "I wasn't being mentioned," he says, "and I wanted to prove to everyone the kind of player I am."

Early this season, Graham had four consecutive 100-yard receiving games – tying an NFL record and igniting national attention. When his contract expires at the end of this year, the Saints may have to pony up $10 million a year to keep him – a figure that would make him the highest-paid tight end in history. More broadly, his success is sending NFL scouts to look more seriously at college hoops stars. With exceptional speed, height, and hand-eye coordination, former power forwards like Denver's Julius Thomas, Cleveland's Jordan Cameron, and Graham can leap over cornerbacks and yank balls from the air as though they're fighting for a rebound. But not everyone can expect to make the transition. "You really have to be ready to hit and be hit at this position," Malone says. Still, LeBron James recently tweeted, "I wanna play one NFL game before it's over." A Miami Heat season-ticket holder, Graham says it's possible: "LeBron would definitely make a great receiver."

Following the NFL, Graham will be on to his next adrenaline shot – competing as a professional airplane stunt racer. After riding in a friend's aerobatic plane as he gunned the engine while flying upside down, Graham soon earned his own pilot's license and purchased a Bonanza G36 plane he flies between his Miami home and the New Orleans practice facility. This summer, he will also begin flying low-income critical-care patients from their homes to hospitals for the Angel Flight nonprofit."There are no cell phones, no cameras, no people," he says. "It's just you and the controls and the sky. It helps to clear my mind." His coaches don't wax so poetic about their multimillion-dollar franchise linchpin hurtling himself 200 mph above the Earth every week. "I just hold my breath every time he takes off," Malone says. But Graham is determined. He plans to compete against pro pilots flying single-prop planes through a series of floating-pylon obstacle courses. "I've been doing front flips and hammerhead rolls," Graham says. "I'm not going to just compete – I'm going to win."