Graham makes the transition

For Jimmy Graham, winning means everything.

He was part of head coach Frank Haith’s first recruiting class and a pivotal component to the revival of the University of Miami men’s basketball program.

Now, Graham looks to do the same with the football team.

This former power forward stands chiseled with an infectious smile. Graham, a four-year letter winner in basketball who used up all of his eligibility, is allowed one more year in another sport according to NCAA rules.

Graham chose football.

“Liger,” as teammates call him, has transitioned from dunking basketballs on the hardwood floor to carrying the pigskin on the gridiron.

Trading in his sneakers for cleats this summer, Graham ran a 4.5 40-yard dash. To add onto that, Graham has a 40-inch vertical jump.

“Being 6-8, 260 [pounds] and jumping a 40” [vertical] might come in handy during the schedule,” said Graham, who recorded 4.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in 120 career games for the Hurricanes basketball team. “I just want to play. Football was my first love and just the opportunity to play it at the highest level is what I’m really excited for. I just want to get in the game and catch the ball.”

The marketing and business major will no longer be on the court intimidating players with his defense and blocks. He ranks eighth in UM history with 104 swats. Instead, he will be on the scoring end and picking up new blocking schemes as tight end for the U.

“I’ve been working hard all summer and I’d just like to play,” the Goldsboro, N.C., native said. “I know we’ve got a great group of tight ends here and a great offensive coordinator and I just want to get in the game and just show what I can do to help this team win football games.”

Graham looks to join a list of successful athletes who have springboarded from college basketball to the NFL. Pro Bowlers Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates were college basketball stars at California and Kent State respectively, and now are household names every Sunday.

With the Hurricanes thin at the tight end position, head coach Randy Shannon approached Graham about playing football after the basketball season concluded in March.

He had to weigh the option of taking Shannon’s offer or traveling overseas on a professional basketball contract of possibly six figures. Eventually, he took Shannon’s offer even though Graham had not played football since he was a freshman in high school.

“Sometimes when you see a guy like that, you say ‘he’s an athlete, he can do it,’” Shannon said. “It’s just a chance for him. We are excited for him. He can help us out in so many ways.”

During the summer, Graham was out on the practice fields catching passes from starting sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris and running routes with the tight ends. In fall camp he has been working on his blocking technique and even earned red zone reps.

Even though Miami’s first game is four days away, Graham knows it will take some time to be ready for football.

“I’m getting better every day,” Graham said. “Football is just very different. There’s no more hardwood and no more air conditioning. Just getting used to the heat has been one of the hardest things. As for playing, I know I can catch the ball. It’s just getting used to the hit after the catch and the playbook.”

The Hurricanes will need Graham’s rugged body to contribute as much as he can this season. Graham is looking forward to the moment when he is running out of the helmet tunnel with the smoke smoldering over his shoulders for his first home game at Land Shark Stadium.

“That’s the big thing I’m waiting for. It’s going to be amazing,” Graham said.  “The chance to run through and see all the fans. People have already been coaching me on how to run through the smoke because you can’t just run full-heartedly. You have to feel where everyone’s at because you can’t really see in there.”

Lelan LeDoux may be contacted