Bill Hass on the ACC: After Seven Years Away, Miami's Graham Returns to Football
Sept. 24, 2009
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) - In his short experience on the football field, Jimmy Graham of Miami has discovered he loves to catch the ball.
So when he made his first collegiate reception, which happened to be a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jacory Harris against Georgia Tech, it was especially sweet.
"It was pretty amazing," Graham said. "I've been telling people that I had been waiting 22 years for that moment."
If you know anything about Jimmy Graham, you know he's not going to do anything half-heartedly. He showed it for four years on the basketball court with his energetic, physical style of play for the Hurricanes. And he showed it for four years in the classroom, earning a double major in business management and marketing.
When he decided to give football a try, he knew he wasn't going to do it lightly. He passed up some tryouts for NBA teams and turned down good money to play basketball overseas. He also had an opportunity to work out for some NFL teams intrigued by his 6-8, 260-pound frame. But if he played football for the Hurricanes, he knew he would leave basketball behind.
"It was a big decision never to play basketball again," Graham said, "because I felt if I made the decision (to play football) I was going to do it right. I was going to try to be one of the best in the short period of time I had."
And he will only have this season to show what he can do. The NCAA allows an athlete five years to complete four seasons of eligibility in one sport. Typically, an athlete who takes five seasons spends one of those as a redshirt, either not playing at all or sitting out with an injury.
But if a player completes his eligibility in one sport in four years, he is allowed to play another sport in his fifth year. In a highly publicized example, Greg Paulus, who played four years of basketball at Duke, transferred to Syracuse to play one season of football. Graham is doing the same thing, just at the same school.
His return to football has been a long time coming. Graham last played the sport as a freshman at Eastern Wayne High School in Goldsboro, N.C. As he developed as a basketball player, he transferred to two different private schools that didn't have football programs.
Miami basketball coach Frank Haith, whose roots are deep in North Carolina, first scouted Graham at Community Christian School. That was before Graham made an impact on the national scene at a major camp against the likes of Greg Oden, now in the NBA.
Eventually, Graham signed with the Hurricanes, who had just become a member of the ACC. His defense, rebounding and shot-blocking helped Miami to an appearance in the NCAA and two in the NIT.
The football coaching staff, particularly tight ends and special teams coach Joe Pannunzio, had watched Graham play basketball and liked his aggressive style. The staff had talked about the possibility of Graham coming out to play football, but not directly to him. When his senior year of basketball ended, they approached him.
"We had a scholarship open and we felt like if he comes out and helps us out, come on out," Shannon said. "He came in, we talked, I told him to take time to think about it. He enjoys it, he likes it, he thinks it's kind of fun and it's good to have him on this team."
Graham said Shannon was convincing in their meeting.
"He sat me down and told me not only that I could play football but that I could be pretty good at it," Graham said. "He said Coach Pannunzio had been to a lot of my basketball games and had seen how aggressive I was on the court - I mean, I was never a shy player - and Coach Shannon said that could translate to the football field. I met with Jacory and he threw to me a little bit and it seemed like second nature to me. I just don't believe in dropping balls."
Graham liked the close-knit feeling the players had for each other and he sensed that the 2009 season could be something special. That helped sway his decision.
"Obviously everybody likes to win and I would like to win a (championship) ring," he said. "I'm about to be 23, and however that may happen, I really want to win one."
Although he did not participate in spring practice, Graham went through the off-season program and reported when preseason camp opened in August. He enrolled as a graduate student in a one-year program in which he will earn a Master's degree in liberal arts.
"I was actually honored at graduation by the University of Miami," he said. "I had a lot of people there and spoke a little bit about basketball, a little bit about my life and my grades. It was a special moment for a little kid from Goldsboro to come that far and to do that much. Now I'm in grad school and I'm loving it."
While preseason camp and practices during the season are necessary evils for many veteran players, they are essential for Graham. He might be regarded as a football novice, but he's learning quickly.
"I never felt like there was a day in camp when I didn't take a step forward." he said. "Every day was something new to learn and something to get better at. One day it was working on getting out of a break right, one was getting my footwork right on blocking.
"I've only been doing this for about eight weeks now and things are looking up. I've been having fun. The coaching staff and the players around me, it seems like everybody is pulling for me and it's really easy to be successful in an environment like that."
Graham's good hands were evident from the start. Shannon also liked the way he could stop and turn quickly, another basketball skill that translated well into football.
"He's improved since he came out in August," Shannon said. "Now he's on our kickoff return team, which he wasn't before. He's working himself onto all the special teams and (in) his role on offense he's really doing a good job. He's blocking a lot better than when he first started."
Graham wasn't just assigned to special teams, he had to earn his way on them.
"Miami and Virginia Tech (the Hurricanes' opponent this week) put their main guys on special teams because they believe that's the way you win games," he said. "I take tremendous pride in it.
"On kickoff returns I play the wedge, so I'm protecting the runner. It's just kind of going out there and doing my thing. I wouldn't have it any other way. On our field goal team, I'm the end guy, I've got to punch out and take care of the edge."
After getting in for about a dozen plays in Miami's opener, a win over Florida State, Graham's playing time increased last week and resulted in a touchdown.
"I felt (against Georgia Tech) that the game had slowed down for me," he said. "I think if I keep doing the things I'm supposed to do, Jacory is going to keep looking for me. He makes great reads and great passes and I'm just excited to be on the other end of those."
The game at Virginia Tech will be crucial to Miami's chances of making it to the ACC championship game. A win in Blacksburg would give them a 3-0 start in the Coastal Division and force everyone else to play catch-up.
Having risen to No. 9 in the Associated Press rankings, the Hurricanes will have their work cut out against the Hokies, who have won the last two ACC championships. But playing in a big game on national TV is nothing new to Graham, even though the atmosphere has changed from the intimacy of basketball to the huge arenas of football.
"The first game of my (football) career was at Florida State," he said. "We got off the bus and there're 2,000 fans yelling at us, screaming at us, saying things. It was a little different and it gets pretty crazy.
"In basketball you can actually see the faces of the people screaming at you. I loved it. I played at some of the biggest stages in basketball - played at Duke, played at Carolina and got a win, played at Kentucky in front of 27,000, played in the NCAA tournament. Those things have helped me make the transition as far as being on a big stage on national TV. I've been there and done well."
Ultimately, Graham hopes to keep developing as a football player and earn an invitation to the NFL Combine, where he can showcase his skills and turn them into a pro career. He admits to being inspired by Antonio Gates, who played basketball at Kent State, was signed as a free agent by the San Diego Chargers and became an all-pro tight end.
But Gates played football in high school and initially enrolled at Michigan State to play both sports. There's a lot for Graham to overcome after being away for seven years, but he believes he's up to the task, no matter how his football experience turns out.
"I would like to know that I had no regrets," he said. "I would like to know that I played as hard as I could, and that no matter what happens that I left it all on the line.
"I just think that one day I can be good at this football thing."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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