Last summer, Jimmy Graham was a hero. He was a superstar tight end trying to learn how to fit his All-Pro-sized game into the Seahawks’ offense for the first time.
Now, he is humbled. He just got done learning how to walk again.
It was a different, slimmer, more team-oriented $40 million tight end that spoke Wednesday at training camp following his first practice since a ruptured patellar tendon in his knee ended his debut Seattle season on Nov. 29.
“To have to learn how to walk again,” Graham said, “it’s humbling.”
Graham returned to practice after missing all offseason, then the first nine practices of camp while on the physically unable to perform list. He wasn’t a full participant on his first day back. He caught a few passes at the start, then took off his shoulders pads and watched the rest of the day’s drills. It was a reminder his return will be a gradual one.
It’s not paramount, maybe not even all that likely Graham will appear in any of Seattle’s four preseason games. He certainly won’t play in the first one, Saturday at Kansas City.
So what. To be on the field again was, Graham said, “probably the best it’s ever felt.
“When you are away from it as long as I’ve been, it’s very sweet when you get the opportunity to do it again.”
His knee was immobilized in a brace three months following the surgery in early December. His was a procedure that is far less common in sports than knee reconstructions for anterior cruciate ligament tears have become. He didn’t begin walking again until March.
“If you could imagine not walking for 11 to 12 weeks, and then even after that it was kind of learning how to walk again, learning how to stand and all that stuff,” Graham said.
He did the first stages of his rehabilitation near his offseason home in South Florida. But it was far from all sunny there for him.
“There were some dark days,” he admitted. “You know, it’s been eight months. I’ve never been through something where every day you have to do something for it. Every day you wake up and until you go to bed you are doing some type of rehab. And it’s been like that for me for eight months — and it will continue to be like that for me for the next eight months. It’s something I am always going to have to pay attention to. It’s part of life now.
“It makes me appreciate the game more. Being out there today, I feel a passion, full of fire. I get goosebumps just walking out that door. So it was a great day.”
Graham’s return also further illustrated what is perhaps coach Pete Carroll’s greatest accomplishment in his six seasons as Seattle’s coach.
A signature characteristic of this most successful stretch in Seahawks history has been almost all players — proven veterans, rehabilitating starters and prove-it rookies alike — buying in to Carroll’s program and message, plus the locker room’s loose, free, sharing vibe. At times in his Seattle debut last season Graham looked to be searching to find his place in his new environment, both on (a career low in touchdown catches) and off the field.
“Last year, I think across the board, it was a rough start for all of us,” Graham said.
Wednesday, he looked and sounded much more “all in,” to borrow Carroll’s ubiquitous mantra.
Some of that is natural in his second season with the team. But much of it is from the close relationship he has formed with quarterback Russell Wilson.
In May 2015, Wilson skipped the only practices he’s missed in five NFL seasons to fly to Florida to be with his new tight end at the funeral of his manager, Tamara Fox Meyerson, a mentor Graham considered to be a mother. When he was 9, Graham was dropped off at a social services office by his father, and later by his mother at a state home for foster children and orphans in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Last month, Graham flew to England to be a member of Wilson’s wedding party the day the quarterback married R&B singer Ciara at a countryside castle.
“Me and him over that last year and a half, have been through a lot,” Graham said. “Russ has been there for me through some tough times in my life; I’ve been through quite a bit over the last year and a half. Personally and on the field, he’s a guy who stood by me at all those moments, even with passing of a very close person to me.
“For me (his wedding) meant a lot. And that’s why I flew half way around the world for it.”
That can’t hurt the Seahawks this season when it’s third and goal at the 8.
Graham also made a point to publicly thank teammate Richard Sherman for poking his head into the training room “every day” once Graham returned to team headquarters, to encourage the tight end to keep grinding through his rehabilitation.
“Every time I’m running, he steps out there,” Graham said of Sherman. “(Fellow tight end) Luke Willson, (tight ends coach) Pat (McPherson), everybody in this building has been nothing but positive and nothing but encouraging about everything. Telling me how much they need me and how much they can wait until I get back.
“So you know, just having to hear that every day, all the love that I get from this building. It just definitely helps.”
There’s less of Graham to be “all in.” He lost 15 pounds during his rehabilitation to leave him at 260. That, he thinks, is another big plus.
Referring to the play in the end zone of CenturyLink Field Nov. 29 against Pittsburgh on which his knee buckled and pain seared through his body: “Back to my young weight, which is good. … Being 275 running go routes down the field, probably not a good idea.”
But this time last year the Seahawks were concerned with making Graham, one of the NFL’s most prolific pass-catching tight ends, into an adept run blocker. Seattle has since drafted rookie tight end Nick Vannett and signed free-agent veteran Brandon Williams to handle interior blocking. That will presumably return Graham to his more comfortable role as an inside and outside receiver down the field.
That is, when he returns. No one — including offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell — is guaranteeing Graham will start the opening game Sept. 11 against Miami.
When asked if he had any doubt he will be playing in that first game, Graham smiled and said, “I can’t answer that. I’m not allowed to answer that.”
Graham said he has talked to Victor Cruz, the New York Giants wide receiver who had the same injury two seasons ago and has yet to return to play a game. Cruz has had assorted injuries on his other, not previously repaired leg since his patellar tendon injury.
Graham said his takeaway from talking to Cruz is: Don’t rush back.
Yet his return to the practice field, even for limited participation, cements the fact the Seahawks expect Graham and fellow PUP-list returnee Thomas Rawls to be playing when the games get real next month.
“It is a process that you’ve got to go through,” Bevell said. “As long as things continue to go the way that they are then, you know, we feel good about it. There is still a long way to go and a lot of work for them to do, but we are just excited to see them out there again.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle