Hayden Graham is another Air Force athlete affected by Academy’s changing stance about when pro sports careers can begin

In late April, the Air Force decided it would no longer allow athletes from the Academy to defer two years of active duty and join a professional sports team straight out of school.

Hayden Graham planned to pursue a pro basketball career after college. That changed when the Air Force changed its pro athlete policy in April. (Jake Roth/USA Today Sports)
Hayden Graham planned to pursue a pro basketball career after college. That changed when the Air Force changed its pro athlete policy in April. (Jake Roth/USA Today Sports)
Hayden Graham, left, planned to pursue a pro basketball career after college. But in April, he learned he’ll first have to serve two years of active duty before he attempts to. (Jake Roth/USA Today Sports)

Jalen Robinette and Hayden Graham were on their way to Denver for an NFL Draft watching party when they first saw the news leaking out social media.

In late April, as the two were making the drive north from Colorado Springs, reports began to surface that the Air Force decided it would no longer allow athletes from the Academy to defer two years of active duty and join a professional sports team straight out of school.

Robinette, a wide receiver on the Air Force football team, and Graham, a forward on the Falcons’ basketball team, were puzzled. Robinette expected to be picked in the NFL Draft that day.

“It was terrible weather and stuff,” Graham said. “And then we saw the things come out on social media. We dug into it and found out it was the case.”

Robinette, who was projected to be picked in the later rounds of the NFL Draft, and Graham, who once hoped to pursue a professional basketball career immediately out of college, are two of the athletes who’ve been affected by the Air Force’s abrupt decision.

Graham led the Falcons in scoring (12.6 points per game) and rebounding (5.8 rebounds per game) last year as a senior. On Thursday, he went through a Denver Nuggets’ pre-draft workout alongside a handful of other college basketball players who are eligible to be picked in next week’s NBA Draft.

Graham said he now plans to complete his two years of active duty. He’ll work in the learning strategies department at the Academy for at least the first year of it. Graham will also serve as an assistant coach with the Air Force Academy Preparatory School’s basketball team. When he finishes, he said he’ll once again pursue his goal of playing professional basketball.

“Whatever’s available,” Graham said. “I’ll be able to stay in shape coaching and playing with the prep school kids every day.”

Asked if he’d be chasing a professional basketball career right now — in the U.S. or overseas — if it wasn’t for the Air Force’s decision to disallow athletes from deferring two years of active duty, Graham said, “Absolutely.”

“I mean I’ve thought about it a few times. Overseas would be a cool opportunity that I’d probably consider very heavily if it was available.”

In 2016, the Department of Defense altered its pro athlete policy so that service academy graduates could apply for the ready reserve and, if their application was approved, play for a professional sports team straight out of college. But in late April, news leaked out that the Academy would not approve deferral requests.

“The Air Force notified Academy officials that the service would not approve requests to waiver active duty military service commitments for cadet athletes,” the Academy said in a statement at the time. “Cadets will be required to serve two years active duty prior to entering Ready Reserve status, which would permit their participation in professional sports.”

Graham understood that the Air Force’s decision could affect him down the road. At the time, however, he was more worried about how Robinette, his best friend, would cope with it.

“Honestly, he handled it the best out of anybody,” Graham said. “No kidding, he kept a smile on his face and was more positive than anybody in the entire room (at the draft party). I don’t know how he did it. He’s an extremely humble guy. He knows exactly what he got himself into at the Academy, the obligations that he’s very willing to do. You couldn’t see him fazed at all. He seemed just fine.

“Obviously, he was probably internally a little bit distraught because he finds out on his big day. Which, I mean, if I was in that position I would’ve been a little confused and distraught as well.”

It’s unclear what Robinette’s next course of action is. In May, the Denver Post reported that Robinette did not walk at the Academy’s graduation. The Air Force later said in a statement that Robinette’s graduation status was not related to criminal wrongdoing nor his professional football pursuits.

Graham did graduate on schedule. He said that while the Air Force’s decision this spring threw a wrench in his plans to pursue a professional basketball career immediately after graduation, he wasn’t bitter or disappointed about it.

“My main goal is to serve. That’s what I was brought here to do. But obviously basketball has been my love since I was yea big,” said Graham, holding his hand out just above knee level. “It’s everybody’s dream to be in a facility like this and get to work out and continue playing. So, I mean, I think it’s more of a blessing if, going forward, something can come from this after I serve my time.”

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Christian Clark

Author: Christian Clark

Christian Clark covers sports. He's worked for outlets that include the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Oklahoman, Columbia Missourian and Dave Campbell's Texas Football magazine. He likes music and Mexican food. Lots and lots of Mexican food. Got questions? Tips? You can reach him at cclark@denverite.com.