SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
It’s difficult to miss the 6-foot-5 frame of 1st Lt. Hayden Graham, 50th Mission Support Group executive officer, at the 50th Space Wing headquarters building.
He’s not just at his desk or in the halls, but also in a photo on the third floor pulling up for a left-handed jump shot during an intramural basketball game.
It’s symbolic of Graham’s college athlete life, which he left behind to serve in the Air Force. The former U.S. Air Force Academy Falcon had a five-year basketball career, including one year at USAFA’s Prep School, but Graham had to fight for the opportunity to play collegiately.
“I didn’t get much love from anyone coming out of high school,” Graham said. “The Air Force Academy was one of my three actual scholarship offers. Other schools showed interest but never officially offered a full-ride scholarship.”
Graham built resilience and confidence during his sophomore campaign at an away game against San Diego State Dec. 31, 2014. The final 15 minutes of the Falcons’ matchup against the Aztecs changed Graham’s career.
“My teammate Kamryn Williams ruptured his Achilles tendon and coach [Dave Pilipovich] went back and forth down the bench and must have passed me four times,” Graham said. “Finally, he said, ‘Graham! You’re in!’ And I ended up having a great game. Obviously, I didn’t want Kamryn to be injured – that was tough to see – but I’m happy I was able to step up in his place.”
Graham carried that momentum the remainder of the season and throughout his junior and senior years. Graham led the Falcons in scoring and rebounds his junior season and averaged 12.6 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per contest in his final year at USAFA.
It was the first time in 34 years a player accomplished the feat, according to Goairforcefalcons.com.
“I feel like I proved to myself internally, there was no one in the Mountain West [Conference] I couldn’t hang with at that time,” Graham said. “That was reassuring because, for whatever reason, I grew up lacking confidence. Once I got out there on the court and proved to myself and others I could play, I knew there was nothing that could stop me from rising to the occasion.”
Graham parlayed that success into a pre-draft workout for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets June 15, 2017. Graham, however, got off to a rocky start.
“I had to set aside the fact that I was the Air Force Academy guy and just go out there and realize I had nothing to lose,” he said. “Once I did that, I had an amazing workout and was super confident.”
Graham understood, though, he’d need to cherish the opportunity since it’d be his closest taste to professional basketball for at least two years.
During an NFL Draft party near Castle Rock, Colorado in April 2017, Graham and his friend, Jalen Robinette, former USAFA wide receiver, learned they’d have to fulfill a two-year commitment to the Air Force prior to being eligible for the NBA or NFL Drafts.
“We found out through Twitter that the new [Department of Defense] policy had broken,” Graham said. “[The policy] stated all athletes coming out of service academies, upon incurring their commitment, had to serve two years before leaving active duty to play professionally.”
Despite the rule change, Graham isn’t bitter about a shot at the pros and said he’s grateful to be in the Air Force.
“I will always love and cherish the game of basketball and opportunities it provided me, but now I’m investing in the Air Force, which has invested so much into me,” Graham said. “I put my best foot forward every day. You put yourself aside to serve others. My father told me my whole life that I’ve had this calling to be somebody for the people and to always find a way to make change and uplift those around me.”
Airman 1st Class Zachary Jones, 50th Force Support Squadron career development journeyman, can vouch for Graham’s selflessness and generosity.
Jones and Graham crossed paths while Jones played basketball at Johnson & Wales University and during Graham’s final year at USAFA. The pair officially met at Schriever and connected through their love of basketball.
“It’s been awesome to relate with someone who you can connect with on our level of sports,” Jones said. “He’s been a mentor to me, especially with him being on the officer side and me being enlisted.”
Now, Jones said he goes to Graham for advice and remains influenced by Graham’s positive attitude toward the mission and his dedication to improvement.
“He’s always great when it comes to leadership and knows how to take charge,” Jones said. “He’s talked to me about his experience from the Academy and his day-to-day tasks. He’s always honest with me and he’s someone I know I can trust.
“It’s been great seeing how he goes about his tasks because I look at what he does and know I can take that out of his playbook and use it for mine,” Jones continued. “He’s someone I consider a brother and I’ll always keep in contact with him.”