When it comes to Jimmy Graham and his passion for flight, the 30-year-old Seahawks tight end credits an early allegiance to a 1986 film about fighter pilots featuring actor Tom Cruise.
"For me, flying goes back to when I was a small child," Graham recalled. "I've always loved the movie Top Gun. I watched it as a very young kid and just fell in love with it, probably watched it over 1,000 times.
"I remember I used to always look up in the sky and every time I heard a plane going over just wondered, 'How is that possible?'"
Flash forward to his college years at the University of Miami, where Graham played basketball and football, and Graham started to find answers to the question he had posed.
"The first time I ever flew I was 19 years old and I was in college," he said. "I flew in an Extra, which is an aerobatic aircraft. I was lucky enough for my first flight to be aerobatics. We were over the [Florida] Keys in Miami and he turned the plane upside down. I was hanging from the seatbelt, just seeing the world from a different perspective and I told him that day that I'm going to do whatever it takes to do this one day."
Graham would follow through on that promise to himself. After his rookie year with the New Orleans Saints, instead of spending his early NFL earnings on an offseason vacation, he opted to enroll in flight school.
"Just really decided, you know, what's a better way to spend my time?" he questioned. "So I followed the dream."
Flying started as a personal hobby for Graham, "I kind of did it in the shadows at first," he said. But over the years he began to open up about his aerial adventures. Now, Graham actively participates in the Angel Flight Soars program, which arranges free air transportation for people who need to travel for lifesaving medical treatment but lack the means, and his Instagram is filled with entertaining accounts of his time in the sky.
"It's a moment of just pure joy," Graham described. "It starts from the moment that I even open the hangar. Leonardo Da Vinci he said, 'For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will long to return.'"
Flying and football carry several similarities, Graham said, both mentally and physically.
"For me, flying and football are very similar mentally," he said. "Both of them require your complete focus. Every time before I get into the aircraft, like going through my preflight, checking the fuselage, it's just like my pregame. Every morning I wake up my Sundays are the same. I read through my notes, I make sure that my mind is fresh, feeding my body the right stuff, and I'm studying up until the game.
"The feeling during the games is very hard to match," he added. "That feeling of adrenaline, that feeling of running over another man, or that feeling of scoring a touchdown. For me it's been very difficult to find a way to get back to that feeling, but flying brings me to that level of adrenaline, and it brings me to that level of competition really not only with myself but with the aircraft, with nature, with the winds, with all things that involve flying."
Graham said he hopes his post-football career will be spent "entertaining people by the thousands in a plane."
"I have a life goal that I want to do air shows and I want to bring that level of entertainment to people," he said. "I also want to bring my passion and my life experiences. I want to show a kid that no matter where you come from, no matter what you've done, you can accomplish anything. Literally the sky is the limit."
Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham flew with stunt pilot Sean D. Tucker on Wednesday, Aug. 2 as Tucker prepared for his performances at the Seafair Air Show this Saturday and Sunday.