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Where Are They Now? New Orleans Saints, former Air Force tight end Garrett Griffin

Griffin scored a touchdown with the Saints in the 2019 postseason. We catch up with the former Air Force football player.

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

I was lucky enough interview current New Orleans Saint, Air Force reserve officer, and Air Force Academy graduate from the class of 2016, Garrett Griffin, just days after he made his first touchdown catch from Drew Brees in the NFC Championship game. He was gracious enough to speak with me for forty-five minutes even after I told him it would only be a fifteen or so minute interview and we had a great talk.

Garrett had a modest football career at the Air Force Academy compared to other NFL players in his position, but from 2012 to 2015, he reeled in 41 catches for 678 yards and 8 touchdowns, which is still an impressive feat considering Air Force’s run-based offense. What jumped out at me when I was speaking with Garrett was his incredible sense of perspective. He has a humble confidence that’s incredibly genuine and he seems just as eager to serve his country in the Air Force as he is to suit up in the Saints’ black and gold for New Orleans fans.

If I had to sum up what I think Garrett’s philosophy is, it’s that he knows as long as he works hard and prepares at the highest level, good things will come. I truly believe his career is only just beginning, but whether or not we get to see him play each Sunday for the next two years or the next twelve years, he’s a great ambassador for the Air Force Academy and the Air Force as a whole.

Q: You caught a 5 yard pass from Drew Brees in the first quarter of the NFC Championship game. You had the safety John Johnson III beat, but then he ran into Marcus Peters leaving you open, and you stepped in front of Aqib Talib to make the catch in the end zone for a touchdown. What was going through your mind on that play?

A: To be honest, our tight end who had been playing 85% of the snaps got hurt that drive. It was pretty chaotic on the sideline. We use fifty-something personnel groupings, so trying to figure out who would take what was chaos. Usually I would be thinking about it, like ‘don’t drop it,’ but my head was really clear. We went over that play a lot in practice. Coach Payton and Drew are very meticulous about how they do things, so we repped that play probably five or six times before we got it right.

I was never the one that was supposed to get the ball. There’s supposed to be the fullback in the flat and and then Mike (Thomas), so that’s why the play took forever to develop. It was crazy how it worked out.

Q: I think most of the football watching world believes this should should be a Saints vs Patriots Super Bowl after a blown pass interference call at the end of the game. Benjamin Watson had strong words for Roger Goodell that he shared on Twitter. Are there any thoughts you have on the matter and how has the locker room handled the situation?

A: In terms of the locker room, we had a meeting the day after and everyone goes their separate ways. So I haven’t talked to too many people. I think until the Super Bowl is over, the fans in New Orleans are going to be upset about it. I think it’s going to take until next season to get over it.

Something like this happened last year, not in the ref’s control, but a crazy play that happened. We have a great group of guys in the locker room that can put it past them and have a good season next year.

As far as the call, I get it. It’s a bang bang call. They tell the officials, ‘if you don’t know, don’t call anything.’ I didn’t have a good angle of it and I can’t speak too much about the play, but what I will say is that we had other opportunities to win the game and you shouldn’t have to put yourself in a position where you need a call from the ref to win the game. If we could have gone into overtime, we could have won the game, but that’s really my thoughts on the issue. You can’t change it or control it. You do what you can to win the game.

Q: You were activated only a week prior to the NFC Championship. Can you explain what that week was like as far as your mentality goes? You went the entire season on the practice squad, did you feel like you were prepared?

A: I didn’t think I was going to catch a touchdown. It helped me a ton in my preparation that I played last year a little bit. We have a really good coaching staff and a lot of veteran guys at tight end that helped me a lot and I just tried to act like I did during the rest of the year. I worked hard in practice like I was going to play, even if that time never came, it would help me for next year.

I thought I was prepared for the situation, but at the same time, my first play of the year was in the playoffs and that’s kind of nerve-wracking. But once you get that first play over, it’s just football. I’d say the biggest credit goes to the coaching staff and the older guys for helping me prepare.

Q: What is the process of getting activated like exactly?

A: We use practice squad guys a lot. We bring guys up and down every week as active and inactive lists come out. Basically when you come in on Wednesday morning they have the plan ready and there’s a sheet that lists which tight ends will be on each play. So when you get in on Wednesday, you can kind of tell who will play that week, based on injuries. I got in and I was in on a few personnels, but it’s not official, and you won’t be brought in until Saturday. So on Saturday morning, I came in and was told to go see the guy in charge of contracts who works for the general manger and that’s when I knew I was playing.

It’s kind of a whirlwind for those three days. You’ll be told ‘hey you’re not playing this week’ if someone comes up healthy even though you thought you would play or you might think you’re not playing and someone goes down on injury and all of the sudden, you’re playing. So that’s a reason why I’m always preparing to play, because you just never know.

Q: How does your NFL status work as far as time on the practice squad goes since there’s a limited amount of time you can spend on practice squad?

A: I think it’s three years you can spend on practice squad, but you have to get a credited season to not be considered a practice squad member. To get credited, you have to play three games. So I got a credited season last year because I played three games. This year I’ve only played two, so it’s not a credited season. I think that means my time on practice squad is over. To be honest, the rules are kind of convoluted. You’re not sure because of how the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) works. There are a lot of rules out there.

Q: Your career so far has been interesting and you’ve spent a good amount of time on the practice squad, but I think the fact that you’ve been with the Saints the whole time, while many young players get shuffled around from team to team; and considering that it’s such a successful, well-run organization with people like Sean Payton and Drew Brees shows that they believe you will be a great, productive player for them. Have you had any discussions about plans for next year?

A: I re-signed for the next two years which doesn’t mean anything. It means I can go to camp this year. I think the fact that I’ve stayed around here means that they (the Saints) have a decent opinion of me. Even though I’ve been on the practice squad, I don’t think they would keep me unless they wanted me. When I came into New Orleans we had a really good group of tight ends. The next youngest tight end was going into his sixth year.

That was good for me to learn from them, but as far as trying to make the roster, it was tough because those guys know every situation and they’ve played a lot of football. So it’s tough to beat them out for the job. Since then, three or four guys have retired or gone other places, so that will help me in the future. I get both sides of it because they helped me out a ton and I don’t think I would be where I am without them, but I think I would have played a little bit more in my first three seasons if it was a different situation.

When you come from a service academy, it’s not the same type of football. You can’t be as matured physically as players from other schools because of the stress and requirements on your body. You’re not really made to play football. They tell you when you get into training camp, they tell you it’s basically your redshirt year. They told me ‘learn our system and get your body where it needs to be.’

Q: What kind of changes did you have to make to your body? (I forgot to ask about his beard)

A: I played in college right around 220 (pounds), I’m at 250 now. The biggest thing was the mental side of things. At Air Force we had no huddle, basic snap counts, our play calls are easy so we can go fast. When I got here, there’s seven different snap counts, every play you hear is a paragraph, and they ask the tight ends to do a ton of things, which at Air Force, tight ends aren’t as involved because of their offensive style. So it was tough learning the system and grasping all of the football stuff I didn’t know.

Q: What has been the craziest moment that’s happened to you that made you think, “wow, I’m really in the NFL?” As far as an interaction with a player, signing autographs, signing a contract, etc?

A: Any interactions I have with Drew Brees or Coach Payton. When you’re talking with them, they’re totally normal guys, but afterwards, you think ‘wow, this guy is a first ballot Hall of Famer or an all time leading passer.’ After I caught my touchdown, he (Drew Brees) came up to me and said, ‘hey congrats man, that was awesome.’ Just things like that. I don’t think it will set in until my career is over, but I just think ‘wow, I’m playing in the NFL.’

Q: I guess the one advantage I have over you is that I get to drink beer and eat hot wings on Sunday, but it’s a work day for you. But I’d imagine that even though you’re a younger guy, players like Drew Brees still see you as a peer and part of the system who will help them achieve the team’s goals.

A: [He did laugh at my joke] That’s the crazy thing about Drew and Coach Payton is that they don’t care who you are or where you came from. If you can play, you’re going to play. This year, Drew threw touchdowns to 17 different players and he’s thrown touchdowns to almost 70 different undrafted players.

Q: You’re still in the Air Force, and I spoke with Jay Feely a while back and he told me the schedule that the Patriots long snapper from Navy follows and it’s pretty crazy. He gets a day or two off each week and spends that time right back in his job and then it’s back to practice. Is that a similar schedule to what you’re following?

A: My situation was different when I graduated and Joe (Patriots’ long snapper) was different than Keenan Reynolds because he had done a year active duty while playing and I think they put him in the reserves after a year, and I think Keenan went straight to reserves. I graduated as active duty and went in the reserves last June. The first year was figuring out what they (the Air Force) wanted to do with me. I graduated and flew to New Orleans the next day for practice. I spent my sixty days (following graduation, Air Force Academy graduates are given 60 days of leave) doing that. Then they had to figure out what to do with me. I wasn’t sure if I was going to play, so it was a difficult process. Now I’m in the reserves and I recruit for the Academy, basically as an ALO (admissions liaison officer) in New Orleans. They defer all my service to the end of the season and I do it all in that three month off season.

This March, I’m going back to the Academy to do some training. Then I’ll go back in May to do a few more weeks. Down here, I recruit kids for the Air Force Academy and help them get through the application and do interviews for admissions.

Q: So you graduated in 2016, but I don’t remember hearing a lot about your efforts to go to the NFL. The following year, Jalen Robinette’s journey was highly publicized and now I think Austin Cutting the long snapper has made some noise by declaring for the draft and playing in the NFLPA game. So I think comparatively, maybe you were just flying a little under the radar, but what was that process like? Did you know the entire time you wanted to try to play professionally or were you approached by someone?

A: Our system (at Air Force) isn’t going to turn out a lot of NFL tight ends. It’s a lot of blocking. I think if there was anyone who had the best chance of making it was Alex Hansen. So I was going to do my pro day, do two years active duty, and train to see if I could make it. I had pretty good numbers on pro day and there were a lot of scouts there to see Alex.

One of the Saints scouts was there and invited me to mini-camp. I also went to the Chiefs mini-camp, but I didn’t do very well. I came to New Orleans and I actually missed the first day because I had to take a final. I did pretty well (at the camp) and talked to Coach Payton. He said he liked what he saw and that the organization wanted to sign me. They didn’t care about the military obligation. He said to do my two years and come back. Then I spoke to the quarterbacks coach (Joe Lombardi), who was an Air Force Academy graduate, and he said there was a chance I could play that year, but they would just monitor it.

So I went back to school, finished my finals, and during the week before graduation, the athletic director, my AOC (Air Officer Commanding), and all of those people told me there was a small chance to play that season. I had to do all the paperwork and see how the process would work. They told me to go to OTA’s (organized team activities) and training camp during sixty days and they would be in touch with me.

I got hurt a few weeks into camp. It was early and I tore my hamstring. Then they told me I would be on the practice squad. I got in touch with the Academy and they told me to stay in New Orleans because they hadn’t heard from the Pentagon.

All of this was after I thought I was just going to do my pro day and wait two years to play. That’s what Weston Steelhammer and Jalen Robinette are doing.

Q: So did you have an agent or anything?

A: There were a few talks that I would be drafted late and Coach Calhoun approached me and asked if I had an agent. I told him I didn’t know I needed one, but Alex Hansen had an agent, so I called him and asked him to represent me.

It doesn’t usually happen like that. Usually the agents are seeking out players, so that’s how I knew I was flying pretty far under the radar. One of the Saints scouts lives in Colorado Springs and that’s really the reason I’m down here.

Q: It sounds like you definitely have an innate talent that NFL teams can see that your average person may not be able to see. Even though you didn’t have big stats in college, it’s cool that they gave you a chance and it’s paying off for the Saints. It also sounds like it may be a little luck that you’re in the right place at the right time.

A: If you ask anyone who’s maybe a seventh rounder to undrafted, a lot of it is luck. It’s being in the right place at the right time and finding a place that will take a chance on you and develop you. Maybe someone gets hurt and you get a chance to play, or it could be that they just need a body for camp and you impress somebody. So there is a lot of luck in it.

Q: So it’s a small group of service academy graduates in the NFL, but you guys all kind of have a similar experience. Has anyone reached out to you?

A: I talk to Joe Lombardi because he’s my coach. I talk to Ben Garland quite a bit, not as much as I’d like to because we’re both busy, but we play Atlanta twice a year and we always talk on the field after the game for like 20 minutes.

Chad Hall, who was in private equity at the time of my pro day, was in for a talk to my finance class, so I got to pick his brain a little bit. Then he went over to the coaching side (Buffalo wide receivers coach) and he texted me when we played Buffalo last year and I got to catch up with him before the game.

I haven’t talked to the Navy guys like Keenan Reynolds or Joe Cardona, but we do have a similar experience, and I’d say the Air Force guys are really close because there’s not too many guys who have gone through it. They gave me a lot of great advice, but even they had to do two years in the Air Force before they played, so they still had a different story than me. But it’s great talking to all of those guys and it’s nice to have somebody.

There’s also a strength coach in Green Bay and a running backs coach in Oakland who went to the Academy. I haven’t talked with them, but it’s a really cool little community.

Q: Let’s talk USAFA. I think a lot of graduates see the Academy in one of two ways. Either they did really well and saw it as a great experience because they took advantage of the academic programs, traveling, and extracurriculars. Then there are people like me, who kind of struggled academically and got a lot out of it because it makes you sort of tougher on the other side.

A: I struggled really bad. I got into school without a blue chip slot. I was valedictorian of my high school, I was awesome at academics, then I got to the Academy and I think I had a 1.7 GPA my first semester. You get there and realize everyone here is smart. You’re not the smartest kid in the world. You actually have to study. You can’t just show up to class and get an A like I did in high school. That was huge going through that. Teaching myself to study and use resources to learn different subjects I had no idea that I would be taking. I think it made me a better person going through that struggle. There’s plenty of people who go through and have no problems, but I think 80% of the people who go there are going to struggle in at least one aspect and I think that’s the reason the academies are so hard. You struggle and that makes you a better person.

Q: There’s a Navy player who transferred to Notre Dame because he wants to get to the NFL. I think that’s something a lot of players could consider if that’s their number one goal, but you rarely see transfers like that. In what ways do you think your path of sticking it out at USAFA has helped you and it what ways has it made it more difficult?

A: I would say that a majority of the players that go to the academy aren’t going just because they think it will get them to the NFL. And the Academy doesn’t want to recruit kids just to send them to the NFL. That’s not why the service academies exist. Me, personally, to go to the Academy, just the time management stuff, which I think is huge in the NFL and the rest of your life. You have so much on your plate and you just know how to get stuff done. We know how to multi-task and I think the biggest thing is the mental side. You’re around so many top people in terms of athleticism, how smart they are, and their ambition in life. Being around those type of people every day can only help you out and make you better yourself everyday. It’s such a strong support network and you make the best friends of your life just because you go through so much together. That’s one of my selling points for the Academy. You’ll meet people you have by your side for the rest of your life. No matter what problems you have going on in your life, you can call one of those guys and they’ll be there in a second.

Q: What was recruiting like for you in high school? Were you approached by the Air Force Academy?

A: My dad was a high school football coach and he had a player, when I was in fourth or fifth grade, who was recruited to go to the Academy. I went with him on an unofficial visit and it was the first time I saw the Academy with the facilities, the mountains, and Colorado Springs. I didn’t know much about it, but I was just in awe, and I thought it was a place I could see myself going to. When I started the recruiting process, I always kind of wanted to be in the military. Also, my parents are both teachers and worked at my high school, and they told me I needed to challenge myself and go somewhere that can help me become a better person instead of just going to a school and graduating.

It was really when I went on my visit that I knew I wanted to go. If you don’t have a military background, you can get a certain perception of military people, especially the Academy, that people are going to be like robots. But the guys were awesome. I saw that there were people that were like me, some who would struggle like me, and you’re going to make friends. That was a huge selling point.

When you’re at the Academy, sometimes athletes get a bad reputation because people think they only went to play football or other sports, but everyone has their own reasons for going. Sometimes parents will push their kids because they want them to be a doctor or something and everyone just has their own motivations.

Q: What’s the best meal at Mitch’s for an aspiring NFL player?

A: I was a big chicken strip guy. It’s not the healthiest, but I was a big fan of chicken strip day.

Q: What was your dipping sauce of choice? A lot of people are into barbecue sauce, some people will make a honey mustard, some people even go with ranch and Cholula hot sauce.

A: I did honey mustard. I was a ketchup guy for my first two years, but once I grew into my own, I became a honey mustard guy. I had to learn the art of mixing condiments.

Q: What piece of advice would you give to anyone considering the academy or to current cadets?

A: What I would tell cadets is you’re going to be so proud on graduation day, proud of your accomplishments, especially if you’re going through hardship. It’s hard to even put into words how proud you are. As soon as you graduate, you kind of forget the hard times. You forget how long the days are and you can finally look back and laugh at it and remember the good moments. You’ll remember how everything you went through was with your friends. So I would say use that as motivation and know that all the tough times will be worth it.