Jimmy Graham has a vision of his future that involves flying over NFL fields.
But not in the way the Chicago Bears tight end has for the last 12 seasons, when he used his 6-foot-7, former-basketball-player body to haul in 85 touchdown passes for four teams.
This dream involves the other passion he has built over the last decade, the one that will extend well beyond whenever he hangs up his football cleats.
He sees his “Huey” helicopter, filled with veterans, doing flyovers of NFL stadiums during the national anthem for the league’s Salute to Service campaign. Perhaps they would be accompanied by local military and then would attend the game, a perfect merging of the three worlds in which Graham spends so much time — football, flying and providing opportunities for others.
“It would be such a give-back, such a moment for these veterans,” Graham said. “And I’d be honored to be a pilot who can provide that opportunity.”
The idea is an extension of a project Graham, a licensed pilot with multiple certificates, started when he flew wounded warriors in his restored seaplane on off days while with the Seattle Seahawks. Two years ago while with the Green Bay Packers, he started a foundation in his name that focuses on giving flights to veterans and underprivileged children in his rebuilt Vietnam-era helicopter.
At 35, Graham has acknowledged he’s in the twilight of his football career.
His 15-yard touchdown catch from Nick Foles on Sunday to help fuel a victory over his former Seahawks team was thrilling, but it was also one of just 12 catches and three touchdowns for him this season. He has two games left before his Bears contract is up.
So the foundation, along with other business ventures and charitable contributions, is part of his preparations for life beyond football — whenever that might begin.
“I wanted this foundation to run well past my playing days because I knew I needed something to do,” he said. “I knew I wanted to reach out and help these people.”
Helping people is something Graham puts significant effort toward, whether it’s giving flight experiences to kids and veterans, donating to a Chicago organization that helps homeless youth or mentoring a Chicago gunshot victim.
Two years in a row, the Bears have named him their nominee for Walter Payton Man of the Year, which honors players who have a passion to affect lives beyond the football field.
For Graham, the work has been part of his mission to change his life’s trajectory after a troubled childhood.
“When I look back at that young kid who was lonely, scared and defeated many times, and then I see this man in the mirror, sometimes, many days, it seems extremely surreal,” Graham said. “The biggest thing is I’ve been perpetually busy since I was 14 to change my narrative. Soon I’ll finally be able to look back on some of these things, but right now, I’m on a mission to continue to change my life and to be a better man each and every day and to be more or less the role model that I never had.”
‘I hear you, man, and I see you’
Bryan Epting had just finished on a video call telling the story of the afternoon he was shot and paralyzed while riding home from his mother’s birthday breakfast — when a face popped up in a new window on the computer.
The former high school football player from St. Joseph and Oak Park-River Forest and longtime Bears fan broke out into a wide smile.
“Whoa, what’s up, man?” Epting said. “Jimmy Graham.”
And then Epting, Graham and Epting’s mom, Kanisha, just talked. About Bears football. About Epting’s story. And about what Graham saw in the 23-year-old from West Garfield Park.
“I’ve heard a lot of amazing things about you and about your resiliency and just how strong you are as a man,” Graham told Epting. “I wanted to get on a call today and give you a big smile and just say I hear you, man, and I see you.”
On Aug. 15, 2018, Epting was riding home from Bakers Square in the backseat of a car. Epting said when his mom pulled up to a stop sign near their home on Chicago’s West Side their car was caught in crossfire from a shooting. A bullet went through the back window and hit Epting in the back, and he immediately couldn’t feel anything from the chest down.
Epting’s mom rushed him to Mount Sinai Hospital, where a neurosurgeon told Epting he likely would never walk again. A little more than a month later, Epting began to move his toes, and after getting a second opinion at UIC, he had surgery to remove the bullet from his back. The years that followed have been a long road of acceptance of his new life and a lot of rehab, from using a wheelchair to taking steps in a walker to now trying to walk with a cane.
Epting received help from Devices 4 the Disabled, an organization that repurposes donated medical equipment for those who need help with their often-exorbitant costs. Co-founder Bob Shea stayed in touch with Epting throughout the recovery process, and when Kanisha mentioned that Epting was having a difficult time recently after the death of his beloved grandmother, Shea asked for help from the Bears, who have donated to the organization.
The Bears enlisted Graham’s help, and Graham jumped into a mentorship of sorts.
The Zoom call. Hosting Epting at training camp, where he greeted him with a signed football. Tickets for Epting and his uncle to the Bears-Packers game at Soldier Field. And an afternoon at Graham’s airplane hangar to see his seaplane, when they shared more of their stories.
Graham called Epting “a young warrior,” someone who “has such a positive outlook and who continues to work on himself and becoming a man.”
Epting took Graham’s advice to heart.
“(He said), ‘If you get over this challenge, you can get through any challenge in life,’ ” Epting said. “I kept that in my head and used that as motivation. Because it actually is true. … If you can get over this, ain’t nothing in life that can knock you down. You’ve just got to keep pushing.”
An encouraging word
Given his experiences as a kid, Graham understands what a little of his time and some encouraging words can do.
When Graham was 11, his mom dropped him off at a group foster home, and he lived there for nearly a year. He has told his story throughout his career, including to ESPN, of being bullied there, later suffering abuse at the hands of one of his mother’s boyfriends when he returned home and enduring an unstable living situation until he was adopted at age 14.
“I would have benefitted greatly if somebody like myself would have reached out to give me a helping hand or really just even a word,” Graham said. “And at times I really didn’t have that, especially when I was extremely young. That’s one thing I will never stop doing is giving people hope and belief that you can change anything in your own life, that you are in complete control, and you can’t allow other people — the things they do or the things that they say — to affect your course in life forever.”
Graham uses his money to help those in need. Last year he gave a sizable donation to Ignite, a Chicago organization that helps youth experiencing homelessness. It helped them when their costs skyrocketed during the pandemic while they kept open their housing options and drop-in center.
But he also participated in a Zoom call with youth from Ignite and facilitated donations of supplies to help with the pandemic, athletic wear for Christmas and Thanksgiving meals.
“He’s really interested in the well-being of the young people on multiple levels,” Ignite President and CEO Stephanie Piccirilli said. “So while he certainly has given gifts to Ignite, he has really invested in what their futures will look like and who they are as individuals, and that’s what we appreciate so much. He’s looking at every young person as a young person and not just looking at his gift to a program.”
For Epting, that attention has inspired him to share his story with others. He is studying public speaking with Toastmasters International and will give his first speech in early January at a Devices 4 the Disabled board meeting.
“He didn’t have to help me,” Epting said. “But he told me his story about him coming from nothing and being in foster care, and now look at him, he’s an All-Pro tight end, he flies planes, he helps people like me. So I think, if he can do it, I can do it.”
It was a natural fit that Graham’s desire to affect others also be paired with flying.
The gift of flight
After spending time at Fort Bragg as a kid, Graham always had dreamed of being a fighter pilot, a goal he discarded when he grew to 6-7.
But the desire to fly didn’t dissipate, and after first going up in an aerobatic plane when he was 19, he pursued his pilot’s license his first offseason after his rookie year with the New Orleans Saints.
“Most people, after their first year, you have money for the first time in your life, you have time off for the first time since you were 14 because of all the work you’ve put into it,” Graham said. “I decided I wanted to work out and keep my mind busy, so I enrolled in flight school. I did the flying thing because one, I always wanted to do it, but two, I really wanted to have something to do besides vacation and just being with friends. I wanted to stay focused.”
Nearly every offseason, he expanded his flying skills with new certificates and ratings.
After former Seahawks owner John Nordstrom took him up in his seaplane his first season in Seattle, Graham got his seaplane rating and then bought one to restore. He flew into Seahawks practices some days, and on Mondays or Tuesdays during the season, he hosted veterans, showing them the facility and flying them around.
He became involved with the EAA Young Eagles program, which gives kids their first flight. And then he got the “Huey” and started the foundation with the idea he could give a memorable experience to children and servicepeople and their families.
He spends much of his free time in the offseason offering such flights, which Tim Fahl, Graham’s college roommate and The Jimmy Graham Foundation treasurer, estimated already have transported hundreds of people over the Miami coast.
Graham said he has flown three generations of families and seen veterans share stories with their loved ones they never before have told.
“It’s incredible really,” Fahl said. “To have the feeling that somebody is willing to open up on the flight or after we’ve given the flight when they’ve kept stuff pretty close to the chest their entire lives, it’s a pretty awesome feeling, and many that we’ll never forget. It impacts us just as it impacts them.”
Steve Crawford, 73, of Delray Beach, Fla., was an Army crew chief in the Vietnam War for the 170th Assault Helicopter Company, the same company that Graham’s helicopter came from. After Crawford contacted Graham’s foundation requesting to take a look at the “Huey” in summer 2020, Graham hosted him and his brother, Jim, who served in the Air Force, “like VIPs” for a 45-minute ride.
“That thing started cranking up, I felt like I was 19 years old again,” Crawford said. “I really did. What a connection it made. I had a lot of good and bad memories from Vietnam. … Finally seeing the helicopter itself and to share with my brother and to touch a piece of my history, it was a very meaningful event. For Jimmy to do what he’s doing, it’s just amazing.”
Several months later, on Veteran’s Day, Crawford received a phone call from Graham, simply saying thank you and catching up.
Graham sees it as doing something good for people who have sacrificed a lot for their country. And at the same time, he gets to do something that gives him the same type of adrenaline kick as playing in the NFL.
He has several other dreams for whenever his retirement arrrives — flying in airshows, getting his license to teach flying and building a hangar for his aircraft where he can set up video podcasting equipment.
He will take veterans for a ride, make some coffee when they return and then sit down to listen to their stories.
“We live in the greatest country in the world, and I think people sometimes take that for granted,” Graham said. “We all take something from this country, and I think it’s also our responsibility to give something back. And for me, this is my give-back.”