Photos: NFL Stars Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon and Brandon Fields Visit Troops in the Middle East on USO Tour

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.”

The Washington Redskins Welcome Servicemen to Training Camp

SPC Bradshaw is flanked by backs Clinton Portis (L) and Mike Sellers (R). (Photo credit: Pam Chvotkin)

By Brian Anthony Price/Special to the USO

On a miserable, gray Sunday last week, thousands of loyal Skins fans came out for open practice. They were back early Monday morning to watch in the blazing sun. Rain or shine, a sizable number of these fans were men and women from the armed services, who just can never get enough of Redskins football.

One of them, Specialist (SPC) Robert Bradshaw recently returned from a one-year tour in Afghanistan after having completed over 400 missions. Bradshaw came back to his native D.C. on Saturday August 14th. The next day, he was front and center at Redskins training camp: “This is the first thing I wanted to do, see my Redskins up close. Being here is just awesome.”

Turns out, Bradshaw was hoping to meet running back, Clinton Portis. So Zach Bolno, the Redskin’s former Executive Director of Communications, set a plan in motion. As he left the field, Portis was directed to Bradshaw and headed right over: “I hear you just got back from combat. Here, I gotta’ give these to you.” Portis handed the young soldier his workout gloves and sweatbands and signed all 20 of his football cards.

Fullback Mike Sellers was waiting on deck to join them and after the two players posed with Bradshaw for pictures, they thanked him for his service.

Sellers reminisced about growing up the son of an Army man: “My Dad was extremely strict. I always had a curfew, but it helped get me to where I’m at right now. Hard work, perseverance and never quitting: that’s what my Dad taught me.” He added that having a devoted and local fan base of military families and veterans “is a motivation that a lot of other teams don’t have.”

Other teammates agree. Linebacker Rocky McIntosh, whose father is an active service member, visited Elgin Air Force Base [near Valparaiso, Florida] and challenged some of the troops to a fitness contest. “They kicked my butt. From push-ups to sit-ups to pull-ups, they tore me up. I was still in the offseason, but they’re up bright and early training every day. I didn’t stand a chance!”

LB London Fletcher signs autographs for members of the U.S.M.C. (PC: Pam Chvotkin)

Guard Derrick Dockery is another player with family ties: “My father-in- law is a retired colonel and was deployed to Iraq several times. The troops are people near and dear to my heart.”

The Army wasn’t the only branch of the military represented at Redskins camp. The front office invited several active members of the United States Marine Corps out to camp that day. Sgt. Allen Waggoner was one of them. He’s been to Iraq twice and is planning on going back for a third tour. When asked why, his response was simple: “We reenlist. It’s what we do.”

The mutual respect between the Redskins players and the troops is a continual source of inspiration to both.

“They’ll leave [camp today] happy to have met a football player. I’ll leave just as happy having met people who have served,” said veteran linebacker, London Fletcher.

Since joining the Redskins, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has spent time visiting with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. “We enjoy going out to Walter Reed every year, giving back, and showing the troops our support. We have a lot of Redskins fans in the military. I love hanging out with them.” He added some thoughts about the team and the upcoming season. “There’s a lot of optimism and there’s a whole new vibe. We know the troops are watching and we want to get some wins for them.”

Shout Outs

Trent Williams, OT: “It takes a real man or woman to stand up and fight for our freedom. Be careful, God bless and come home safe.”

Andre Carter, DE: “Everything the troops do has not been forgotten. Now hurry up and home come safe. We love you and God bless.”

From Maury Povich, who was a special guest at training camp on Monday: “We have it good in this country and the reason for that is what everybody is doing for us overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where there are threats. Anybody who is an American understands exactly what their protection means and we’re all so grateful to our troops. I want to thank them dearly.”

Special thank you to Matt Taylor, Zach Bolno, Angela Alsano, the entire Redskins organization and front office and photographer Pam Chvotkin.