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John DeShazier: Fourth of July holds special meaning for Air Force product Garrett Griffin

Saints tight end says holiday is time 'to reflect on the sacrifices that the people before us have made'

You'd expect Garrett Griffin to be introspective regarding Independence Day, given the service he already has rendered, and was willing to provide on a lengthier term if the chance to play in the NFL hadn't availed itself.

The New Orleans Saints tight end played four years at Air Force and if he wasn't in the NFL, he currently would be stationed at Eglin Air Force Base near Destin, Fla., as a finance officer.

"It's kind of a time to reflect on the sacrifices that the people before us have made," Griffin said. "So many people have done so much for the country that kind of allows people to go out and enjoy the time with your family and friends, so it's kind of a time to reflect, sort of like Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. I think those are three days that are dedicated to celebrating America. So it's kind of a time of reflection, in my opinion."

Reflection, but also a time to work for Griffin, who still is in the process of transitioning to the Air Force reserves while he pursues his NFL dream.

His current devotion is to earn a roster spot with the Saints, after spending last season on the practice squad. And his road is one that's less traveled by NFL players; service academy athletes rarely even allow themselves to dream of playing professionally.

"It's tough," Griffin said. "When you're a service academy athlete, when you're on the field that's your main focus but you know that for the majority of the people, that's probably the last time they're going to play the sport. So if you have the opportunity to go play at the next level, it's a great opportunity.

"But whenever you go to a service academy, you don't go there expecting that you're going to play in the NFL. You go there because you want to get a world-class education and actually serve. So it's one of those opportunities that just came as you're playing.

"But while you're at the academy, you don't think about it. You have thoughts of going on with school and the military, and football on top of it. But there's no difference between guys that make it to the NFL and not. Everybody is working as hard as they can and you're just kind of driving."

Griffin's drive brought him to the Saints, first as a tryout player at rookie minicamp last year who turned enough heads to eventually be signed to the practice squad, then as a player that the Saints signed to a reserve/future contract this offseason.

Again, in terms of the system that he was brought in to play, the fit wasn't a smooth, conventional one for the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder.

In 44 games and 17 starts at Air Force, Griffin caught 41 passes for 670 yards and eight touchdowns. In his best season, as a junior, he caught 16 passes for 307 yards and four scores.

The Saints have been a team that strongly has utilized their tight ends as receivers under Coach Sean Payton: 50 receptions for 631 yards and three touchdowns by Coby Fleener last season; 74 catches for 825 yards and six touchdowns by Benjamin Watson in '15; 85 catches for 889 yards and 10 scores by Jimmy Graham in '14; and 86, 85 and 99 receptions by Graham in the three seasons prior to '14.

"Coach Payton said, 'We don't care how long your commitment is, we're going to work with you,' " Griffin said. "I got put on the practice squad. I think I needed it. Coming out of the system I came out of, it wasn't really a passing system and I needed to get bigger from where I was at.

"It was a really good year to learn the system, and it was awesome that they took the time and investment in helping me develop as a football player. I'm very grateful to the organization. All the coaches have been awesome working with me, and all the personnel department and everybody has been great working with me."

And Griffin understands the concept of work. A grueling schedule at Air Force helped prepare him for NFL life.

"I think there are a lot of similarities, especially at training camp, to military life," he said. "You've got a real tight schedule and you're busy all day. A lot of people see in the NFL the physical side of it, but there's the time that goes on where you're studying plays, working your install every single day, you've got to be into it mentally.

"At the service academy, you've got a really set schedule with long hours. You have football for four or five hours a day but the rest of the time, you're studying, you're doing military stuff. There's always something going on and you're always trying to learn and that's a big similarity to an NFL training. The (football) hours aren't as long as they are in training camp but it's harder on your body. You're kind of mentally fatigued as the season goes on."

Still, Griffin said, he's in a win-win situation.

"I'd be happy either way," he said. "The Air Force is great. All of my friends that are serving now, they love it. I couldn't have gone wrong either way.

"I'm pretty blessed to have the opportunity that I have but either way, if they wouldn't have let me play football – obviously, I'm grateful for that opportunity and I'm grateful to be with the Saints – but you can't beat the Air Force. It's a great way to spend your life."

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