At NFL Training Camp, Titans Support the…Eagles?

Peter King (center) poses for a picture with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division. Courtesy photo

When prolific pro football writer Peter King embarked on a Mobile USO tour of 22 NFL training camps on July 30 to show support for the military, he knew it was the kickoff of something special.

“We all owe our troops as much as we can give them,” King told me at Atlanta Falcons training camp on July 31.

Throughout the nationwide tour, King, the USO, and NFL franchises gave our men and women in uniform up close and personal access to stars of their favorite NFL teams.   The events of August 18 in Nashville, Tenn., marked the culmination of the special cross-country Mobile USO tour, as well as another fine chapter in the USO’s successful partnership with the NFL.

During the 2010 season, the Tennessee Titans electrified the country by hosting a military family’s surprise reunion in the middle of a game against the Washington Redskins.  This year, the Titans helped get the 2011 season off on the right foot by inviting 250U.S. troops stationed at Fort Campbell, which sits on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, to watch a day of training camp.

“(I’ve) been back from Afghanistan for about three months,” Sgt. Jeffrey Williamson told Mobile USO Program Manager Leigh Edmonds.  “(This is) a great opportunity to come out here and see these guys.

“Sometimes when we are on a mission and we come back, football is the only thing that we have to look forward to, especially us infantry guys after we have been fighting,” the soldier added.

When a football fan hears the word “Eagle,” he or she usually thinks of Philadelphia.  But almost all of the 250 American troops watching the Titans practice were Screaming Eagles of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which has shouldered some of the heaviest burdens of war since the 9/11 attacks.

“Thank you for your dedication to our country,” quoted Titans head coach Mike Munchak said to the visiting warriors.  “It’s great to have you as guests.”

According to an article by Craig Peters, soldiers were invited inside the practice bubble – a place normally off limits to visitors – when thunderstorms forced players, coaches, and fans off the outdoor practice field.  That’s when one of the day’s most memorable moments occurred.

Ahmard Hall (left) talks to Army Spc. Kristopher Post. Courtesy photo

Ahmard Hall, who served with the United States Marine Corps in Afghanistan and Kosovo, is now a fullback for the Tennessee Titans.  At the end of the practice, Hall walked over to Spc. Kristopher Post and whispered something to the injured Afghanistan combat veteran, which prompted troops watching nearby to stand at attention.  This NFL practice wasn’t about the “warriors” of the football field, it was about the real warriors of the battlefield.

“One of the things the military taught me is to never taking anything for granted,” Hall told  “I know what these guys are doing on a daily basis, putting their lives on the line so we can enjoy this simple game of football.

Spc. Post told the USO that the moment gave him a big boost as he recovers from his injuries.

“Today was a very special experience,” he said.  “I really enjoyed being out here.  I think it was important for all of our soldiers to experience that.”

For King, who chronicled the USO Mobile Tour around NFL training camps on his Sports Illustrated blog, the experience at Titans camp was a perfect ending to one of his career’s most unique journeys.

“The Titans came up very big Thursday with 250 troops from the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky.,” King wrote.  “That includes fullback Ahmard Hall, the former Marine, who was eloquent in greeting a (service member) wounded in Afghanistan, and Matt Hasselbeck, who signed and/or took photos with every one of the military members.  Every last one.”

Hasselbeck, who has appeared in a Super Bowl and three Pro Bowls, told the USO that he feels a close bond with our men and women in uniform, and would never miss an opportunity to say thanks.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck talks to troops and signs autographs. Courtesy photo.

“It’s so much like a team – you’ve got guys coming from all different parts of the country that would probably never be friends if they had never left home,” Hasselbeck said.  “But they come together as a team and form just an amazing bond where they can count on each other and depend on each other.”

As a new NFL season dawns, U.S. troops are connected to pro football like never before.  From relaxing inside Mobile USOs, talking football with Peter King, getting insider access to practices, and talking with NFL coaches and players about the road to the Super Bowl, Training Camp 2011 was one to remember for our men and women in uniform.

“What we do is fun – it’s a game,” Titans kicker Rob Bironas told the USO.  “They are over there fighting for our lives, our freedom.  To the guys who couldn’t be with us today: we wish they could have made it.  Come home safe!”- Tom Sileo, USO Director of Story Development

The USO <3’s Madison Pettis

The average 13-year-old girl usually wants a new cell phone, trendy clothing and items covered in the face of the latest teen heartthrob as birthday presents. Madison Pettis is no ordinary 13-year-old girl. In lieu of gifts, she instead asked all her friends and fans to make a donation to the USO.

Then twelve-year old actress Madison Pettis stresses the importance of United Through Reading on today’s military families at the 2010 USO Gala on October 7, 2010. The youngest entertainer to take part in a USO tour, Pettis’ brother is a member of the U.S. Army and served in Iraq in 2008 and 2009. (USO photo by Bill Auth)

Born in Arlington, Texas, the Disney star has been entertaining audiences since the age of five. The youngest USO entertainer to go out on tour, Pettis is no stranger to supporting the military. “My brother is in the Army so I know what it’s like to have family in the military. It’s hard not being able to see the people you love everyday and I’m just glad I can help.” She sure did, helping raise more than $2,500 for our service members!

Pettis took time to answer a few questions for us!

What made you want to get involved with the USO in the first place?

My brother, Sergeant Steven Pettis, is in the US Army. I know how much I missed him when he was in Iraq for a year, and I know that there are other kids out there with parents and siblings serving overseas that miss their loved ones as much I missed my brother. I hoped that there was something I could do, to let other kids know that they are definitely not alone in missing their loved ones. I also wanted to be able to tell the other kids how thankful I am for their family members’ service to our country. I know it’s a big sacrifice for the entire family to make. I am honored that the USO invited me to do educational tours, so I could visit with kids of our troops to tell them how much I appreciate what their brave family members do for us all everyday.

What’s one of your favorite USO memories?

I have so many amazing memories of the times that I spent on USO educational tours in Hawaii and Germany, so it would be really hard to choose just one favorite. I really just enjoyed getting to meet all of the kids who have parents serving in our military and hearing their stories. Because of their parents’ service, they move around to different places a lot. And often one of their parents–sometimes even both of their parents—are away serving a tour overseas. It’s not easy being a kid of someone in the military. But all of these kids are so strong, and so brave too! They work hard in school and help out a lot at home to keep the family together. They should be really proud of themselves! It’s so nice that they get excited to meet me because I’m on TV and in movies. But in my eyes, THEY are the SUPER STARS!

What would you like to say to all the service members and their families right now

For the service members, THANK YOU SO MUCH for your service! You have the toughest job in the entire world, and I respect you so much. I appreciate everything you do to keep us all safe. And for the families, I have been in your exact same position, and I know what it’s like to miss your family member who’s away serving. I know it’s a sacrifice the whole family makes together. Just stay strong, and remember that your loved ones are doing something we are all very proud of!

Happy birthday Madison, let’s hope this year reflects your kindness and warm heart! – Vyque WHite, USO Director of New Media