By Christian Pelusi

The USO and NFL celebrated their 50-year partnership this month with a handshake tour of U.S. bases in Japan.

Last week, Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano led a huddle of his players to visit service men and women, talk football and extend America’s gratitude for the jobs they do on behalf of our country.

“I’m extremely grateful for the chance to participate on my second USO tour,” Pagano said while overseas. “It’s always an honor to meet with our great service men and women who sacrifice so much to protect our country and our freedom. They are truly heroes and we are so thankful for their service. Just like the members of our military, we embrace the chance to serve and give back. Those core values are represented in the USO and the Indianapolis Colts organization. Our entire group was thrilled to take part in this opportunity and it was a tremendous experience.”

Joining Pagano were linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (second USO tour) and safety Mike Adams, offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo and punter Pat McAfee, who participated in their first USO tour.

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Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano signs an autograph for a service member during a USO tour stop at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan, on Feb. 19.

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Coach Pagano along with players Pat McAfee (right), Anthony Castonzo (third right), D'Qwell Jackson (fourth rights) and Mike Adams (fourth left) pose for a photo with the Marine Corps K-9 Okinawa team during a USO tour stop at Kadena AFB in Okinawa, Japan, on Feb. 19.

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Jackson (left) and Adams (right) autograph the jersey of a young fan during a USO tour stop at MCAS Futenma in Okinawa, Japan, on Feb. 19.

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Coach Pagano (second left), McAfee (left), Jackson (third right), Anthony Castonzo (second right) and Adams (right) pose for a photo with a Shisa during a USO tour stop at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan, on Feb. 19.

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Coach Pagano (center), McAfee (left) and Adams (second left) encourage the children of service members after running them through football drills at a USO tour stop at a kids’ after-school athletics program at Fleet Activities Yokosuka naval base on Feb. 17.

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Jackson (left) tosses a football with the children of service members during a USO tour stop at a kids’ after-school athletics program at Fleet Activities Yokosuka naval base on Feb. 17.

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McAfee (in white left of banner), Adams, Coach Pagano, Castonzo and Jackson pose for a photo with the participants of an after-school athletics program at Fleet Activities Yokosuka naval base on Feb. 17.

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Jackson (second left), Adams (third left), McAfee (third right), Anthony Castonzo (right) and Coach Pagano (second right) pose for a photo with service members on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan at Fleet Activities Yokosuka naval base on Feb. 18.

The group met with service members and their families at eight bases plus a naval ship – Camp Zama, Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Camp Foster, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Camp Kinser, Kadena Air Base, Camp Shields, USO Camp Hanson and the USS Ronald Reagan – from Feb. 15-21. Kids enjoyed the chance to toss the football and run some plays with the NFL standouts while the players experienced the just-opened USO center at Camp Kinser and a special 75th USO anniversary party at USO Camp Hanson.

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The tour continued the 50-year tradition of NFL players working together with the USO to bring parts of America to military members serving overseas and stateside. The NFL teamed up with the USO for the first time in 1966 and became the first sports organization to send players to Vietnam and other parts of Asia.

In June, the organizations are scheduled to deploy their second, “team-themed” tour as the Atlanta Falcons are poised to send general manager Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Dan Quinn, kicker Matt Bryant, fullback Patrick DiMarco, defensive lineman Grady Jarrett and linebacker Paul Worrilow to bases in Hawaii and Guam.

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.