Jimmy Graham has become a very special Bear

  • Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham is the Bears' candidate for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the second straight season.

    Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham is the Bears' candidate for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for the second straight season. Associated Press

Updated 12/10/2021 11:57 AM

The National Football League's Man of the Year Award honoring the player deemed to have the most positive impact on his community and philanthropy is widely recognized as one of the most important honors a player can earn, perhaps even more so than an MVP.

It was renamed the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1999 following Payton's death.


Tight end Jimmy Graham is the Bears' candidate for the second straight season, which Graham spoke about this week.

"I mean truly special, I didn't know you could do that twice," Graham said. "(I am) extremely grateful from the organization, from ownership and, obviously, the Payton family.

"It's a special thing here and to be a part of that back to back and just hoping to win now, and (it's) pretty cool that all that's being done in the community by all the players is being recognized and being held up as an important part of the NFL."

A great deal of Graham's work in the community centers around helping veterans.

"There's a lot of families that are affected daily, not only by our current and past wars, but even as far as Vietnam," Graham said. "I, on a daily basis in the offseason, look to give out those experiences and connect families.

" ... It's truly special and I'm grateful that I have the ability to do that and to facilitate those experiences."

The product of an extremely difficult childhood, Graham was raised by a single mother that constantly struggled to make ends meet until she left him at the age of 11 at an orphanage he once called a "kid jail."

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He struggled there until, after begging his mother, she eventually brought him home only to be physically abused by her boyfriend.

He was finally saved by attending a weekly prayer group led by the woman who would become his adoptive mother and change his life forever.

Graham also followed a unique path to the NFL, playing four years of basketball at the University of Miami before spending just one year at tight end afterward.

After catching just 17 passes in 13 games at Miami, Graham became a near instant star with the New Orleans Saints, catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns in just his second season.

Mild controversy has dogged him wherever he's gone. He was eventually forced out of New Orleans over a contract dispute and becoming the first player ever fined by the league for refusing to cooperate with the media in Green Bay. He then landed in Chicago, where general manager Ryan Pace has been continually panned for Graham's contract.


But since his arrival in Chicago, it has been stunning to realize he was actually fined for not cooperating with the media. He has been one of the team's best spoken and most cooperative players, and he is constantly recognized for his performance and leadership by teammates and coaches alike.

As competitive as they come, when he was asked about the propriety of this week's opponent Aaron Rodgers' comments about owning the Bears, he told us, "This isn't golf. You know, it's a game of whooping the other man across from you, simple as that. I think people forget that. We all hit each other and we all have car accidents every Sunday, so it's a part of the game and it's a part of the game that I love.

"Yeah, I've said that to almost every organization that I've scored on, so, I mean, that's real. I don't know what people think is being said out there. There's a lot worse that I've said. Yeah, we've just got to stop them."

At this stage of his career, Graham is a borderline candidate for Canton, but what is most impressive about him is the gleam in his eye when explaining the man he is now, both on and off the field.

There are 32 richly deserving candidates for this year's Payton Award, but it is hard to imagine one more so than Graham.


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