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,” TitansOnline.com 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, 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 TitansOnline.com. “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.
“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