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Graham a finalist for NFL's Salute to Service Award

Bears TE Jimmy Graham

Bears tight end Jimmy Graham has been selected as one of three finalists for the 11th Annual Salute to Service Award Presented by USAA, the NFL and USAA announced Thursday.

The other two finalists for the prestigious award are former Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson and Broncos fullback/tight end Andrew Beck. The Salute to Service Award recipient will be recognized at NFL Honors, a primetime awards show airing live Thursday, Feb. 10 at 8 p.m. (CT) on ABC from the YouTube Theater in Los Angeles.

"From advocacy and support to our currently serving military to ensuring our veterans successfully transition with employment after their service as well as supporting military children, all three finalists for the 11th Annual Salute to Service Award presented by USAA should be recognized for their commitment to America's military community," said Vice Admiral (Ret.) John Bird, USAA Senior Vice President of Military Affairs. 

"We thank and deeply appreciate Jarret, Jimmy and Andrew for joining USAA in always honoring and serving our military, veterans, and their families, and encourage all Americans to follow their lead in participating in acts of service and support for our military."

The Salute to Service Award is part of USAA and the NFL's year-round commitment to recognize and honor the military community. This season, NFL clubs nominated coaches, active and retired players, and team executives and personnel who best demonstrated support for the military community. Graham was the Bears' nominee for the second straight year.

USAA will contribute $25,000 in the award recipient's honor to the official aid societies representing each of the military branches. The NFL will match USAA's donation of $25,000, which will be donated to the award recipient's military charity of choice. The award recipient will receive a specially designed military challenge coin, recognizing their commitment to the military. In what has become a long-standing tradition, challenge coins are presented to members of the military community to inspire excellence, boost morale or to recognize a fellow brother or sister-in-arms.

The NFL announced nominees in November and the submissions were evaluated by a panel of judges, including last year's award recipient, Falcons/AMB Sports and Entertainment CEO Steve Cannon. Nominees' credentials are evaluated based on the positive effect of the individual's efforts on the military community, the type of service conducted, the thoroughness of the program and level of commitment.

Graham was born on the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina and has actively supported the military throughout his illustrious 12-year NFL career. A licensed pilot, he takes veterans on flights on two Army aircraft used in the Vietnam War that have been restored through his foundation.

"The military is a big part of my life," Graham said in August when the Bears hosted about 800 members of the military at a training camp practice in Lake Forest. "I spend most of my off days and most of my free time in the offseason flying our veterans and thanking them for the sacrifice that they've given for us to carry on and do the things we do.

"I believe that we all need to take some time and look around and thank those who have sacrificed for us. I continue to always look to do that because I'm very grateful for the life I've been given, the life I've earned and the life I was able to earn."

The two restored aircraft Graham flies are a 1957 de Havilland Beaver and a 1967 UH1 Iroquois helicopter known as a "Huey."

"It's a very special and unique kind of experience because I'm the pilot," Graham said. "I'm flying strangers and I'm reconnecting guys with an aircraft that a lot of the Vietnam guys, it saved their lives, so there's a lot of special moments. This offseason, I flew a couple Purple Heart guys, and one in particular was a pilot who lost his leg. It's the first time he's seen [a Huey] since 1972, so to give him that and really to have those conversations is priceless, it really is."

In 2020, Graham helped kick off the NFL's Salute to Service Week by reading the bios of several fallen soldiers and virtually surprising their families through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), an organization that remembers fallen soldiers and their families.

During the pandemic, Graham has participated in Zoom calls with veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project to thank them for their service and to lift their spirits.

In March 2014, Graham spent a week in the Middle East visiting U.S. troops on military bases. His longest stop was at Camp Leatherneck, a large U.S. Marine Corps base in Afghanistan.

"It was an eye-opening experience being on the Marine base with 30,000 Marines and eating with them every day and going 15 minutes at a time to a different group and speaking and sharing," Graham said. "I played a lot of basketball, a lot of desert basketball, with a lot of our men and women. Very unique. Very eye-opening experience."