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Despite 'curses' ranging from a shark attack to hives, Air Force's Hayden Graham left a mark

March 3, 2017 Updated: March 4, 2017 at 1:13 pm
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Air Force forward Hayden Graham reacts after hitting a three-point basket to take the lead against New Mexico late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, at Air Force Academy, Colo. Air Force won 76-72. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A shark once bit Hayden Graham. True story. According to him.

He was a preteen wading in shallow waters off the coast of Texas when a tiny shark, no more than 15 inches long, took a bite out of his finger. A 1-inch scar remains.

His younger brother, Gavin, was with him but didn't see it happen and never fully bought Hayden's account of events. But Hayden swears by it.

So maybe a shark tale is tough to believe. But if years from now Graham recounts his snake-bitten days at Air Force, no one will doubt him.

Graham - the first Air Force player in 34 years to lead the team in scoring and rebounding for two straight years - will be honored during Senior Day events prior to Saturday's 2 p.m. game against Boise State. Zach Kocur and the injured Kyle Broekhuis, a Colorado Springs Christian School graduate, will also be honored.

"I just want to leave my mark," Graham has said several times when talking about his achievements at Air Force.

He succeeded, as he'll leave Air Force as a top-20 all-time scorer. But in a team sport, it's the record that counts, and what will ultimately define Graham's time will be that he spent 2 ½ years as the best player on a team that was never bad, but found numerous ways to stub its toe.

The Falcons were supposed to be loaded during his sophomore season. But senior Kamryn Williams went down in the conference opener with an Achilles' tendon tear. Leading scorer Max Yon was suspended for several games in the thick of the league season. The team turned to Graham as a key contributor, but when he finally got regular playing time, this quality shooter was suddenly abandoned by his 3-point shot. He has been a 38 percent shooter from 3-point range in his other three seasons at Air Force. As a sophomore he made just 11-of-64 (.172).

The team finished 14-17 that year.

During Graham's junior year the Falcons were hit hard by a rules change that dropped the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds. Under the new rule Air Force was often penalized by running its offense deep into the shot clock. It posted a .427 shooting percentage - its worst mark of this century. It didn't help that the team was without key players Tre' Coggins and Matt Mooney, who had both transferred.

The Falcons finished 14-18.

As a senior, Graham saw his production plummet for nearly a month after medication for the flu left him with itchy, painful hives. The team has searched through the whole season to find the right combination to break a pattern of-so-close losses, but at 11-19 and just one regular-season game remaining, the time is about out.

Even one of Graham's top performances, scoring 21 points - all in the second half - in an upset of New Mexico, was one he was in no mood to celebrate. His grandmother had died the previous day.

"I feel like we're cursed," he said in January after a particularly heartbreaking loss in Las Vegas.

Does Graham lament all of this? Maybe privately. But asked what he'll remember most when he steps away from the game it was the camaraderie, which been needed during so many tumultuous times.

"It's a family," Graham said. "Not having that to lean on every day when the season is over is going to be tough."

Graham has frequently talked of a desire to "leave his mark" in his time at Air Force.

The record book will attest he has. And unlike the little scar on his finger, this mark is one will no take no convincing on his part.

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