New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham catches a pass during an informal workout Thursday morning on the field in front of Steamboat Springs High School. Graham stopped by to work out with a group of high school players and Sailors coach Lonn Clementson.

Photo by John F. Russell

New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham catches a pass during an informal workout Thursday morning on the field in front of Steamboat Springs High School. Graham stopped by to work out with a group of high school players and Sailors coach Lonn Clementson.

NFL star Jimmy Graham finds comfort in Steamboat

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NFL star works out in Steamboat

Check out footage of Jimmy Graham running routes with Steamboat Springs High School football players in an informal workout Thursday.

— On Wednesday, Jimmy Graham was just another athlete in Steamboat Springs.

The star NFL tight end pedaled up the Creekside Trail on Mount Werner, trading shoulder pads for downhill biking pads. He also did some laps on the gondola.

“Those things are pretty serious,” Graham said Thursday about the new downhill mountain biking trails at Steamboat Ski Area. “I’m body-armored up. I look like I have pads on when I’m on the bike. Some of those runs are serious.”

Of course, Graham is anything but just another athlete in Steamboat. The New Orleans Saints All-Pro tight end is a hulking figure. He stands at 6 feet, 7 inches and weighs 265 pounds.

Graham, who is entering his third year in the NFL, has spent parts of the past two summers in Steamboat. In the offseason, he lives in Miami and trains with former University of Miami football stars Ray Lewis, Jonathan Vilma, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne, among others.

But when he feels like he is at his peak in Miami, he comes to Steamboat for the altitude training. He spends two or three weeks here running routes, lifting weights, hiking and mountain biking. He also has worked with members of the Steamboat Springs High School football team.

“The week before (training) camp, I make sure I’m in Steamboat,” he said. “It’s to get those extra red blood cells. I can tell a big difference. Camp in the NFL — what you do in the offseason helps you survive camp.”

Graham burst onto the NFL scene last year, when he had 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. Considering it was only his third year of playing organized football, Graham said he is “just realizing what I can do.”

He played four years of basketball at Miami. He took graduate courses and played football for one season in 2009. It was the first time he had played football since his freshman year of high school.

But based on his one year of college football and his incredible measurables at the 2010 NFL draft combine — he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds and had a vertical jump of 38.5 inches — the Saints took him in the third round.

His first season, he caught 31 passes for 356 yards and five touchdowns.

“I think I can only go up from here,” he said. “The little that I knew last year, I know twice as much now. I’m going to carry that into this season.”

Graham’s meteoric rise to one of the best tight ends in football is rivaled only by his incredible personal story. Abandoned by his mother, at age 11 he was placed in a group home where the older children physically abused him. He was taken in by a church counselor and eventually became a basketball star in North Carolina.

“He’s a man on the field and a gentleman off the field,” said Steamboat football coach Lonn Clementson, whose team ran routes with Graham on Thursday. “You can have that kind of demeanor, and you can be tough on the field and a gentleman off the field. He shows all those things that we want our football players to be.”

Graham said he chose Steamboat not only for its altitude but also for its athletic community. He has spent much of his free time hiking and biking on local trails. Every day, he rides for three hours and at least 25 miles.

“You need to keep things fresh and new,” he said. “You have to keep the body guessing. I try and mix it up and keep it fresh.”

Graham is in town until Saturday. He’ll return for a few more days before going directly from Steamboat to training camp July 24.

“For me, it’s the community. For me, I feel like everyone’s mindset here is really outdoor training,” he said. “It seems like everyone is working out. Last movie you can watch here is at 8 p.m. People are in bed at 9 p.m. to go hiking at 6 a.m. To be around that is a great atmosphere.”

To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com

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