It’s football season downrange.
While the official NFL season ended last month, a trio of professional football players are continuing the tradition of traveling to the Middle East for an offseason USO entertainment tour. New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields are currently meeting, playing catch with, and even getting carried around by (see the slideshow above) U.S. troops downrange.
“This experience for me has truly been life-changing,” said Graham, who caught an NFL-best 16 touchdowns last season. “The personal connection I’ve been able to make is something that will be with me forever. I grew up in a military home and this just makes me more of a patriot. I have more of an appreciation for the little things we have back home each and every day.”
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is used to winning. He added another accolade to his resume earlier this month when he received the NFL Salute to Service Award.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh meets Army Gen. Ray Odierno (top) and mingles with troops during a 2009 USO Tour. USO photo
The award – presented by USAA – is given to one member of the NFL community each year who goes above and beyond to support and honor America’s troops and veterans.
Harbaugh participated in the inaugural USO NFL Coaches Tour in 2009. He traveled to the Mideast that summer with Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, then-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher and former NFL head-coaches-turned-TV-personalities Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden.
“We do some great things in the National Football League, but to me the Salute to Service games are by far the most meaningful because the support goes to the right organizations,” Harbaugh told the USO in 2012. “The USO is one of these great organizations. What they do for troops is first class all the way. I feel like America is in good hands as long as these very special people keep making very special sacrifices to keep sane those who keep us safe.”
The USO has a long relationship with the NFL. The league gifted NFL Game Pass subscriptions to USO centers overseas this past season so troops serving abroad would still be able to watch their favorite teams on Sundays. That gift kept games streaming to service members during last fall’s government shutdown, when TV service to troops in Afghanistan was limited.
Troops gather at USO Kandahar in Afghanistan to watch football in late September, courtesy of NFL Game Pass. USO photo by Daniel Wood
The recent government shutdown – which ended on Thursday – left troops downrange with a slimmed-down version of the Armed Forces Network, and the prospect of missing their favorite football teams on Sunday nights.
However, NFL Game Pass – which the league offers free of charge to USO centers outside the United States – kept the games streaming for troops at sites like USO Kandahar.
“They really saved the day here,” said Daniel Wood, duty manager at USO Kandahar.
Here’s what troops in Afghanistan told the USO’s Eric Raum on Oct. 6:
- Spec. Gary Stripling: “I thought we just weren’t going to get to watch the games this week. A buddy told me the USO was still going to show the NFL over an Internet connection so we all came down early to get a seat.”
- Staff Sgt. Brian Duchsne: “It’s something we look forward to all week, it gets you through, knowing you’ll relax for an evening and watch football, so we were pretty excited to hear the USO was still going to be showing the game.”
The USO has partnered with the NFL to bring regular season games to troops stationed outside the U.S. who can’t subscribe to a wall-to-wall football cable packages like their counterparts in the states.
The NFL Game Pass program is already up and running at centers like USO Kandahar in Afghanistan, where games are live streamed on Sunday nights. Since USO Kandahar can play one additional game not available on American Forces Network, they hold a vote throughout the week to see which extra contest (beyond the games shown on AFN) troops will get to watch. USO Kandahar duty manager Daniel Wood said the center had more than 60 people stop in to vote on what game they wanted to see last week, with the winner being the bonus game streamed that night. Kandahar will hold a vote again this week, and expects to continue having big turnouts on Sunday nights.
–Story by USO Story Development
Pictures from the tailgate and watch party held at the new USO Warrior & Family Center on Fort Belvoir
Last night millions of people got together with their friends and family to eat party food and watch one of the most popular TV events of the year: the Superbowl. But there are still countless troops deployed far away from the comforts of home. That’s where the USO steps in.
At USO centers around the globe, troops got to settle in for food and football and smiling faces! Here is just a sampling of some of the fun:
This Sunday is one of the biggest days in all of sports: The Super Bowl. Pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots in a near-identical rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl, the fan rivalries are heating up. Surely Tom Brady will be looking for revenge after his perfect season was ended by the Giants in the Super Bowl four years ago. As the nation prepares for the showdown of the season, here’s a look back at the long and proud partnership between the USO and the NFL.
In 1965, then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle was looking for a way to demonstrate the NFL’s support for United States servicemen and women in Vietnam. He conceived the idea of sending NFL players to Vietnam on “goodwill tours” to visit and inspire the troops. After partnering with the USO they became the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam.
From 1966 to 1973, NFL players visited remote firebases, aircraft carriers, and other installations in Vietnam, Guam, Thailand, and Japan. Since then, active and retired NFL players and coaches have lifted the spirits of America’s troops by participating in countless USO tours in places like Somalia, Bosnia, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
More recently, since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the NFL, with the help of the USO, has sent many players and coaches to the Middle East. Commissioner Roger Goodell became the first sports commissioner to visit troops overseas when he toured Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 with Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants.
In 2005, the NFL and USO again teamed up to preserve the legacy of Pat Tillman, a former Arizona Cardinal and Army Ranger killed in action in 2004, by constructing a USO center in his honor. Former New England Patriot and current New York Giants Assistant Special Teams Coach Larry Izzo traveled to Afghanistan to take part in the grand opening of the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base.
No matter who comes out as this weekend’s victor, remember the men and women sporting America’s camouflaged away uniforms. The USO is proud of their long history with the NFL and is grateful for the opportunity to better lift the spirits of America’s troops and families. Who do you think we should send next? - Joseph P. Scannell, USO New Media Intern