Jimmy Graham: Flying High
Credit: Photographs by Kurt Iswarienko - Fashion by Patti O'Brien

Abandoned once, Graham now keeps his own counsel – and a tight, trustworthy inner circle. A successful Miami businesswoman whose son he coached in basketball manages his career. He has forgiven his mother but doesn't allow contact from family members he hasn't seen in the past 10 years (from roughly the time he was adopted by Vinson). "Just because somebody is blood-related doesn't make them family," Graham says. "I have so many people who have helped me get to this point – I consider those people family." He travels the country with Ginger, a five-month-old vizsla puppy the size of a rolling pin. "In fourth grade, I had a dog like this that got killed by a car," he says, petting the puppy. "It was red like me. Now she flies with me everywhere."

Graham remains equally guarded with his personal life. He has a girlfriend but won't go into details. He rents a place in New Orleans' bohemian Warehouse District and an apartment in downtown Miami Beach but avoids the crowds. "It can get pretty hectic in New Orleans whenever I go shopping," he says. "So I'll fly to Houston, buy my groceries, and then come back – nobody cares there because I'm not J.J. Watt." Graham uses flying to avoid temptation. "There is no drinking and flying," he says. "There's not many groupies at the airport."

Graham's other mode of transportation is slightly more subtle – a black extended-cab hardtop Jeep with 35-inch tires and a red Spartan helmet painted on the hood flanked by the word savage. The Jeep is coated in indestructible Kevlar, giving the vehicle's exterior a pebbly texture akin to full-grain leather. Graham defies most expectations save for this tank – it looks exactly like the kind of superhero-vehicle signing bonus delivered to a newly minted gridiron celebrity. As gnats swarm the late afternoon air, he ties Ginger to the front-bumper winch, sets out a bowl of water, and smiles. "Custom spray job I ordered down in Texas," he says. "Never have to wash it. I love-tapped someone the other day and destroyed their back window – not a scratch on mine." He pauses. "Of course, I stopped to give them my information."

Collision damage is never far from Graham's mind – his two passions, football and flying, are constantly at odds. Every year, pilots are required to undergo strict physical evaluations to ensure they have a low risk of blacking out while in the cockpit – an unmanned plane essentially becomes a missile. While Graham has so far managed to elude a concussion, he thinks about head injury. He flies for Angel Flight, a nonprofit that arranges for pilots to transport patients to hospitals, and is starting his own flight-related charity for inner-city children. A concussion could cause him to fail the FAA evaluation – and end his days in the cockpit. "It's very serious because if anything happens, then I can never fly again," he says. "In football, you have to look out for yourself and know when that ride is over. That extra inch after you've already got the first down – what's that going to get you? Not much."

But despite the risks, Graham plays in the NFL the only way he knows how – with full abandon. "If the ball's in the air, I'm going to go get it," he says. "It's my job." Similarly, Graham continues pushing his limits as a pilot. He has begun flying an aerobatic plane built for high-altitude stunts like flips and spins. The plane is so dangerous, it comes with an ejector seat – the flying equivalent of BASE jumping. "One day," he says, "I'll compete in the Red Bull air races."

A nearby jet engine roars. Graham picks up Ginger, sets her in the Jeep, and turns the ignition. "People ask why I fly," he says. "You know, in New Orleans, I take off right over Lake Pontchartrain, the most peaceful thing in the world. Cruising at 12,000 feet, there's no cell phone signal. There's no email. There's no analyst. It's just me and my iTunes. Manipulating that machine with my hands feels like freedom."