Bears tight end Jimmy Graham was driving down a Miami turnpike in the early morning of March 4 when he saw a police car backing down an off-ramp. He moved his SUV over two lanes as he reached the top of a hill — only to see a disabled car in the center lane.
Graham, who said he was driving about 90 mph, had about 15 yards to avoid the car. He swerved left and was headed toward a bridge when he decided the only way to slow down in time was to flip his car. He turned hard right, tumbling four times before skidding for 100 yards on his roof, police told him.
When his SUV stopped after scattering sparks and glass, Graham, in his seat belt, was fine. So was his vizsla, Ginger, who was in the back seat.
“It really felt like a game,” Graham, who was not charged in the single-car accident, said before mandatory minicamp Tuesday. “Everything was really slow. I can remember making every decision. I can remember my phone floating up in the air. I could see the time.”
Later, Graham checked the heart monitor on his smartwatch. His heart rate never got above 87.
Why would it? Graham is a stunt pilot in the offseason. In fact, he had his car towed to the airport, which was his early-morning destination, and did flips in the sky.
“I think football and a little bit of flying and all the aerobatics I do kinda train the body and train the mind to be calm and focused during those moments,” he said. “So I’m pretty lucky, just extremely blessed.”
Graham decided around that same time that he wanted another year of adrenaline. The 34-year-old thought about retirement. He even had a walk-off moment: As the clock expired in the Bears’ playoff loss at the Superdome, his home for his first five seasons, Graham caught a one-handed touchdown pass and walked directly up the player tunnel.
The loss, though, bothered him. As he talked to general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, Graham realized he wanted to play another year. His body still felt healthy.
“I never want to outlive my time,” he said. “I feel like I can still be used and I can still be a weapon and I can still be a leader for this team. And help these young kids to make a run and to share some of my knowledge of what I’ve learned in this league.”
Graham’s 699 career receptions are tops among active tight ends, while his 82 TDs trail only Rob Gronkowski (87). Graham, though, has never reached the Super Bowl; he’s played in only one conference championship game.
“He wants to win the Super Bowl,” Nagy said. “That’s the only thing he cares about. So for him to decide to come back here and continue to play, he’s not doing it for records. He’s not doing it because he just wants to play a little bit more or get one more year in. He’s doing it because he believes we have the ability to be really good. He knows that.
“And he is a valuable, valuable piece of this offense in so many different ways — in the classroom, in practice and on game day — that just is worth every penny.”
In his two seasons with the Packers, Graham averaged 46.5 catches and 541.5 receiving yards. In the first season of a two-year, $16 million deal with the Bears, he had 50 catches for 456 yards. He caught eight touchdown passes, though, after totaling only five in two years in Green Bay, and mentored rookie Cole Kmet.
The Bears consider Kmet’s growth during the season a validation of Graham’s influence. Ten years from now, Nagy said, Kmet will consider Graham one of the best things to ever happen to his career.
Graham will be retired and doing airplane flips by then. Just not yet.
“I’ve got a lot of unfinished business,” he said.