As far as they know, Jimmy Graham and James Graham have never gotten each other’s mail or been involved in any other identity mix-up.
And it’s very doubtful that they’ve ever been mistaken for the other.
Jimmy Graham is the 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end of the Saints.
James Graham is the 5-2, 110-pound jockey competing at the Fair Grounds. Standing side by side, the difference seems even greater.
But they do have one thing in common: In New Orleans, they’re the best at what they do. Jimmy’s the Saints’ leading receiver, and James is the young season’s leading rider at the Fair Grounds.
So when they recently met for the first time, thanks to Saints senior vice president of communications (and racing aficionado) Greg Bensel, it didn’t take long for a mutual admiration society to develop.
“He might be short in stature, but he has a great heart,” Jimmy said. “Just talking to him, you can tell how competitive he is by what he has to do during a race and even before one.”
“Ever since he’s been with the Saints, I’ve been a big fan.” James said of his almost namesake. (Jimmy’s actual first name is Jimmy, not James.) “After finally meeting him, I can’t believe how big he is.”
Of course, to James, most adult males look big to him.
But being diminutive never kept him from being competitive in other sports.
In his native Dublin, James played rugby until “I stayed scrawny and everybody else my age caught up and passed me.”
And although he never boxed professionally, James knows his way around the ring.
“I wasn’t a great boxer,” he said. “But I was pretty good with my hands. If it came down to me and another guy about the same weight, I can hold my own. I sure wouldn’t roll over and die.”
Strong words from someone who last week was named a finalist for the George Woolf Award, a peer-voted honor for jockeys whose careers and character are held in the highest esteem.
Jimmy, as has been well-chronicled, was a basketball player at Miami before turning to football for a single season with the Hurricanes that impressed the Saints enough that they made him their third-round pick in 2010.
He’s parlayed that talent into becoming an All-Pro and the league’s highest-paid player at his position. But he can’t do what James does — at least not very well.
“Well, maybe if they were riding elephants instead of horses,” James joked.
Not that Jimmy doesn’t know a thing or two about horses. Growing up in rural North Carolina, he had several friends whose parents owned farms and ranches where there were plenty of horses around.
“I haven’t ridden in a while, but horse racing has always been interesting to me,” Jimmy said. “But the best job for me out at the track right now would probably be shoveling out the stables.”
And while James obviously would have a hard time cutting it in the NFL, Jimmy can appreciate what he does.
“It’s amazing to hear him talk about how he prepares both when he’s riding and in the offseason, which isn’t much for him,” Jimmy said. “He has to fight to keep his weight down, but more than anything else, the passion for what he does come through.”
Indeed, James’ devotion to his craft is increasing after 20 years of riding, the past 13 in the United States.
He won the riding title at Arlington Park in Chicago this summer and ranks 27th nationally in purses earned in 2014 at $5.9 million.
At the Fair Grounds, James scored nine first-place finishes, nine seconds and four thirds in the first five days of the meet, including a victory aboard Delaunay in the Thanksgiving Handicap, giving him an early leg up on the riding title after three straight second-place finishes behind the now-retired Rosie Napravnik.
“I don’t think about the money or riding titles, because I can’t ride that way,” he said. “I do this because I have a want and desire to win and to be as good as I can at what I do.
“But at the end of the day, my biggest reward is to be able to come home healthy to my family (wife Lisa, daughters Hannah and Ella and son Christopher) every night.”
Similarly for Jimmy, while he went to arbitration with the Saints and the NFL this summer over his contention that he should be receive the franchise tag as a wide receiver rather than a tight end, there’s personal pride that comes through in his wanting to do his part to right the Saints’ listing ship.
“Losing three in a row at home sucks,” he said. “We’re not used to it, and we’re not going to get used to it. We know Sunday (at Pittsburgh) will be a challenge. That’s why we’re preparing so hard for them.”
James won’t be able to see much of how Jimmy’s doing against the Steelers on Sunday. He’ll be riding in eight races, a symbol of how much he’s in demand.
And Jimmy doesn’t get much of a chance to get out to the Fair Grounds during the season, but he’s coming as James’ guest as soon as he can.
In return, Jimmy has invited James to go flying with him.
And both will be elevating the name Graham in New Orleans.
“One of these days, he’s going to make a reservation in his name at a restaurant,” Jimmy said. “And when I show up, they’re going to be really disappointed.”