KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Curtis Watson, who graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1973, met Tom Cruise at El Centro, California, as the actor was preparing for his role in the 1986 ‘Top Gun’ movie.

Throughout his lifetime, Watson has earned many nicknames. While he was a fullback playing football for UT, he was called the “Crossville Comet” The name would follow him when he played with the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers.

As a naval aviator and pilot for the Blue Angels, he was called “Griz.” However, this isn’t what Cruise called him during a preparation flight for Top Gun.

Watson talks with Tom Cruise
when he took the actor up in a fighter jet in preparation for the 1986 movie Top Gun. (Photo via UT)

“He was just 23 years old at the time and nervous, so he kept calling me Sir,” Watson said. “I asked him to call me Griz instead, and he said, ‘Yes, sir!’ Of course, he was in a totally unfamiliar environment. Trust me, there’s nothing like getting in the back seat of a fighter aircraft. You can’t simulate anything that’s even close to it until you get in the actual airplane.”

The premier of Top Gun’s sequel has led Watson to reflect on his time as a pilot. He started flying as a teen with his father. While in the Navy, he flew planes including the T-2 Buckeye, TA-4J Skyhawk, LTV A-7 Corsair II, A-4 Super Fox, and F/A-18 Hornet. He also completed 323 carrier landings and “scared (himself) 323 times.”

“What a great airplane the F/A-18 Hornet is, with all of its thrust,” Watson said. “You could take it out to the end of the runway and pull it right into vertical and just keep going.”

After the navy, he began flying for FedEx and took cargo around the world. He would log 9,522 accident-free hours before retiring in 2015.

Watson told UT the best times of his life were playing football and flying.

“There’s no closer bunch of people than a football team, and you think that’s the closest group of people you’ll ever be around until you get in a Navy squadron,” Watson said. “There it’s a little bit different, because if you mess up in a football game you lose, but if you mess up in an airplane you lose your life. We were really close friends—sometimes we were only 30 to 36 inches apart!”