By Vince Casey

Late NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle began the tradition of USO player tours to demonstrate the League’s support for America’s fighting forces.

These “goodwill tours,” as he coined the trips, became an offseason tradition.

The first tour, featuring future Pro Football Hall of Famers Sam Huff, Willie Davis, Frank Gifford, and Johnny Unitas in 1966, marked the first time that a major sports organization had sent a group of players to Vietnam.

Nowadays the NFL’s goodwill heads far afield to bases in the Pacific or Iraq or to remote outposts in Afghanistan.

But even before Rozelle’s goodwill tours became an annual tradition, the NFL had a deep connection to the military.

In World War II, close to 1,000 active or former NFL players, coaches, and executives served in the military. Twenty-one of them were killed. Perhaps the best-known of those who lost their lives was New York Giants tackle AI Blozis, a mammoth man standing 6-feet, 6-inches tall and weighing 250 pounds. Blozis joined the Army even though he could have claimed an exemption due to his size. He was killed by machine-gun fire as he searched for missing members of his platoon on a patrol in the snowy Vosges Mountains of France - only six weeks after playing in the 1944 NFL Championship Game.

At least 226 NFL Players and personnel served in the Korean War (14 are known to have fought in both World War II and Korea, and one, Marine Colonel Ralph Heywood, served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam). Among that group was Washington Redskins quarterback Eddie LeBaron, a Marine lieutenant who spent nine months in Korea, seven on the frontline, where he was twice wounded.

LeBaron, nicknamed the “Littlest General” because of his size (5-feet, 7-inches), left cover under heavy fire to contact the forward observation post of a mortar platoon on Korea’s Heartbreak Ridge. After an assaulting rifle platoon in his area lost its commander, he took charge and resumed the attack. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his heroism.

Twenty-seven NFL players served in Vietnam, two of whom were killed in action - Buffalo Bills guard Bob Kalsu and former Cleveland Browns tackle Don Steinbrunner.

Lieutenant Kalsu died on July 21, 1970, when, following eight months of intense combat, his unit fell under heavy fire while defending Firebase Ripcord on an isolated jungle mountaintop. The Bills have named their practice facility after Kalsu.

Steinbrunner joined the Air Force and turned down a less risky assignment after being shot in the knee on an aerial mission. That decision probably cost him his life. His plane was shot down over Kontum, South Vietnam, on July 20,1967. For his service, Steinbrunner was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Rocky Bleier, a Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back, was drafted by the Army before his rookie year in 1968 and sent to Vietnam as an infantryman. On August 20, 1969, Bleier and his platoon were assigned to set up a secured landing position for helicopters to fly out casualties from an earlier battle. Almost immediately, the platoon fell under heavy

The most recent example of the NFL’s military commitment is Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals’ safety.

In 2002, Tillman shocked the sports world by turning down a lucrative contract, leaving the NFL, and joining the Army with the intention of becoming an Army Ranger. Although he never spoke directly about his decision, a talk he had with a reporter the day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, shows what prompted his decision.

“At times like this, you stop and think about how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed,” said Tillman. “A lot of my family have gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”

Tillman and his brother Kevin did indeed become Army Rangers and were sent to Afghanistan to help in the effort to root out Usama bin Laden. On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed in a friendly fire accident while fighting insurgents in the country’s Khost province.

A year later, the NFL, under the leadership of former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, helped build the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to honor Tillman’s service to his country.

For more than 43 years, 163 active and former players and coaches have traveled to 21 countries and territories on NFL-USO tours that have lasted anywhere from one to three weeks to shake hands, visit, sign autographs, and just “BS” with U.S. soldiers.

In 1966, when the goodwill tours began, the NFL appointed a leader to conduct the annual sojourns. Bill “Granny” Granholm, the NFL’s Special Assistant to the Commissioner, became the face of the trips from 1967 until his death in 1993.

“Ninety percent of the success of the USO tours had to do with Bill Granholm,” says former Buffalo Bills punter Paul Maguire, who went on a 17 -day trip to Vietnam in 1970 with Granholm and four other players. “Granny had story after story after story.”

Granholm had an outgoing personality ensuring that, moments after you met him, you were best friends for life. He had the perfect background for the job Rozelle gave him. He had served under General George S. Patton in World War II. He was also the nephew of an Army general and had been a military buff his whole life. And he had a football background, so he was a natural selection to lead the tours.

Granny’s football roots dated all the way back to 1946 with the Chicago Rockets of the All-America Football Conference. He moved to the NFL in 1949 as the equipment manager for the Los Angeles Rams, where he worked under the team’s general manager. Rozelle brought Granholm to the league office in 1967 and put him in charge of the NFL’s one-year-old USO tours.

“I wasn’t initially in favor of the job,” remembered Granholm in 1975. “It had always been my impression that a soldier would be in contempt of an able-bodied guy who was in the combat zone and was exchanging shots with the enemy. That’s the way it was when I was in the service. But in Vietnam, it wasn’t that way at all.

”[En route] you joked, played cards, and laughed,“ said Granholm. "But when you landed and looked out the window and saw those guns, fighter planes, and everyone armed, there was complete silence on the plane. The whole atmosphere changed. The troops would come up and say, ‘Do you have to be out here?’ When one of the players would tell them, 'We’re here because we want to be here,’ they couldn’t believe it.”

For Granholm, it was the comment of one young soldier that always stuck in his mind that made each tour worthwhile. “I’ll never forget,” remembered Granholm, “one kid who said to one of our guys, 'I’m not a football fan, and I don’t know who you are, but I thank you for coming.’”

It is those moments, those memories that have made a lasting impression on the NFL and keep the goodwill tours going year after year with both former and current players.

“I think about that trip every day,” says Huff, recently retired after a 27-year career at the Marriott hotel chain and now a radio analyst for Redskins games. “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”

“I’d go back in a heartbeat, anytime, anywhere,” says New England Patriots three-time Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis, who visited military hospitals in Guam, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s. Now living in Hawaii, Francis remembers, “Those were life-changing moments, the time we spent with the men and women of our armed forces.”

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who provided some of Super Bowl XLIII’s most exciting moments last February, visited troops in Iraq and Kuwait earlier this year. “It was an amazing experience,” he says. “We wanted to make sure that the troops knew we haven’t forgotten about them back home.”

Beginning a new tradition this summer, five current and former head coaches - Tom Coughlin, Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, and John Harbaugh - headed to Iraq on the inaugural NFL-USO Coaches Tour.

Visiting Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul over the Fourth of July, the coaches not only brought smiles to the troops, but also learned a few new locker room morale boosters of their own. Baltimore Ravens coach Harbaugh, impressed that the full-field pack 1st Cavalry soldiers were operating in 120 degree heat, said his players had better not complain about the temperatures in training camp.

“Ever since I got into coaching, I’ve been in the business of leadership,” said Giants coach Coughlin, a personal friend of General Ray Odierno, Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq. “Now I’ve witnessed this kind of leadership in the presence of heroes. You know what all of us coaches did over there? We watched and we learned. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

In the NFL, nobody is above contributing their time to the legacy of visiting service members.

In 2008, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell - whose father, the late US. Senator Charles E. Goodell (N.Y.), served in the US. Navy during World War II and the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War - joined New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora on a seven-day, three-country (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait) USO Tour.

“Several things about the trip were very striking - how our servicemen and women never complain about anything, how much I admired them, and how much the NFL meant to them,” Goodell recently told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. “You can never complain after seeing the conditions our troops live in. The positive attitude and pride they take in their mission and our country are inspiring. You go over there thinking you’re doing something for the troops, but you return recognizing it is one of the most meaningful things you have ever done for your own sake.”

Andy Russell/Linebacker Pittsburgh Steelers

1968 USO Tour to Vietnam and Army veteran: “We arrived the day before the Tet Offensive started. On the way to our hotel, our escort officer handed me an M-16 with a double clip. He said, 'Lieutenant Russell, here’s your weapon. You’re riding shotgun because we don’t have anybody to do it. We know that you were in the service and qualified with this weapon, so you have to be sitting shotgun on your trips.’ That’s how we started our journey. That night we had to protect every entry point of the hotel So I pulled guard duty for two hours, with my weapon pointing down a stairwell, and I was ready to use it. That experience, though, couldn’t compare to the soldiers who risked everything to support our way of life. They faced these dangerous situations daily. We were thrilled to pay our respects to the troops.”

Sam Huff/Linebacker New York Giants

1966 USO Tour to Vietnam: “It was dangerous. A lot of people were getting killed on both sides. I’d never been past New York, let alone to Vietnam. We were in 22 different places in 12 days. We also took off and landed on three aircraft carriers out in the ocean-the Ranger, the Hornet, and the Enterprise. And the aircraft carriers were not sitting still! They were moving when our planes landed on them. We had a young pilot flying our plane, landing on a moving aircraft carrier out in the ocean. Those kids were just so grateful to see you. They were all wonderful guys. It was one of the most exciting things I ever did.”

Paul Maguire/Punter Buffalo Bills

1970 USO Tour to Vietnam: “I took the phone numbers of all the soldiers from the Buffalo area I met during the trip. When I got back to the States, I called their parents. All the NFL guys on the trip did that. The soldiers appreciated the fact that we were there. Did they want to be in Vietnam? No. Just like the kids today in Iraq and Afghanistan. But you just support the hell out of them. You just don’t realize how young they are. They’re kids. But they assure you that there’s a reason for them to be there. There’s no reason why I or any of the NFL players wouldn’t go on a USO trip again.”

Hank Bauer/Running Back San Diego Chargers

1979-80 USO Tour to European and Pacific hospitals: “The highlight of my career has nothing to do with playing a game or coaching or broadcasting. The highlight for me was to visit the troops in Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, Hawaii, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Germany. For a month, we flew in every means of transportation, visited every branch known in the service - some unknown - from tracking stations on the mountaintops of South Korea to the DMZ to the northern training area in the jungles of Okinawa to some of the remotest bases to the biggest bases. We even landed on the Midway. It was an amazing experience. It was the highlight of my football life, maybe the highlight of my whole life. It changes your life.”

Drew Brees/ Quarterback New Orleans Saints

2007 USO Tour to Kuwait; 2008 USO Tour to Okinawa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait; 2009 USO Tour to Guantanamo Bay: “My grandfather, Ray, was a Marine in World War II. My other grandfather, Gene Brees, was in the Army in the war. I called my grandfather Ray from Okinawa, and started to cry when I talked to him. I was just so proud to know that my grandfather was part of that. You grow up as a kid listening to your grandfathers tell stories about their experiences in the military. I always felt that if for some reason, football didn’t work out, I would have seriously considered going into the military. I just have so much respect for it.”

Mike Rucker/Defensive End Carolina Panthers

2008 USO Tour to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan: “Sometimes you see those commercials that talk about 'priceless.’ Our trip was priceless. When I went over there and saw the men and women in uniform in sync with each other, that really blew my mind. To see what they do on a daily basis to keep us over here sent me back a changed person. I had a newfound feeling for their sacrifices. I remember going to a US. military hospital and seeing a young child who had lost his leg due to shrapnel The doctors treated the kid, and to see the thanks, the gratitude by the kid’s father towards the Americans for saving his son and saving his life, I’ll never forget that picture. I want to thank our troops for what they do. My plan is to go back.”

–Vince Casey worked in public relations for the NFL for 16 seasons, and is now a freelance writer.