By Sandi Gohn
Watching NFL football is as American as apple pie.
Every week, millions of NFL fans across the country tune in to watch their favorite team play – hoping they’ll make it to the Super Bowl – and it’s no different for thousands of U.S. service members deployed to locations like Iraq, Kuwait or Turkey, even if that means staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. to catch the game.
That’s why, since the 1960s, the USO and NFL have joined forces to keep service members stateside and overseas connected to family, home and country through special entertainment tours and other events featuring active and retired players, coaches, cheerleaders and mascots. Through the years, representatives from the San Francisco 49ers, Indiana Colts, Houston Texans and more have headed overseas to visit deployed troops through the years.
Even big names like Peyton Manning, Pierre Garçon and Frank Gifford have headed overseas, bringing a much-needed moment of joy to hard-working troops protecting our freedom.
In honor of Super Bowl LV in Tampa, Florida, this Sunday, we dug into the USO archives and pulled 12 of our favorite images featuring a few USO-NFL highlights through the decades. Take a look:
In 1968, shortly after the first USO-NFL tour, Jack Kemp of the Buffalo Bills headed on a USO tour with fellow NFL players Andy Russell, Bobby Bell, Bill Brown, John David Crow, Bart Starr, Wayne Walker, Ernie Green and Lance Alworth.
Russell, a military veteran, talks extensively about his USO tour to Vietnam and Thailand in his book, A Steeler Oddessey
Later that same year, Rosey Grier, who was newly retired from the Los Angeles Rams, headed with Bob Hope on his annual USO Holiday tour to Vietnam, called “Operation Holly” that year. Grier, also a veteran, traveled with a slew of other stars - including Ann-Margret - to entertain G.I.s in Long Binh, Cam Ranh Bay, Da Nang, Chu Lai and Phu Cat, in addition to several carriers.
“Everyone came out to see us. The hills around the stage were coated with green from all the soldiers sitting out there,” Grier said of the experience in a 2014 story on VVAVeteran.org.
In 1970, the USO and NFL hosted a Pacific hospital tour featuring NFL players Dick Butkus, Jim Marshall, Dave Whitsell and George Webster.
A few years later, in 1974, the USO sent NFL players John Gilliam, Franco Harris, Bill Munson, Jim Mandich, Art Thomas, Diron Talbert, Jack Youngblood, along with then-Special Assistant to the Commissioner Bill Granholm, on a USO tour.
In 1983, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders headed on a USO tour overseas – something they became quite famous for since their first trip in 1979.
According to a Dallas Morning News story, as of 2016, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders “have made more international tours with the USO than any other entertainment group.”
A year later, in 1984, then-Washington Redskins player Mark May headed on a tour of the Pacific with Gregg Bingham, Mike Davis, Russ Francis and Ray Wersching.
According to an AP story, when the tour visited the DMZ in South Korea, May sneakily placed a Redskins sticker underneath the desk in the neutral hut used by both nations to conduct talks.
“I didn’t tell anyone until we were on buses heading back to our hotel in Seoul,” May wrote in his book, Mark May’s Tales from the Washington Redskins.
“ABC got wind of the story while television the Seoul Olympics the next year…the network sent a camera crew to the DMZ and, sure enough, the sticker was still there.”
In 1996, the San Francisco 49ers Cheerleaders headed to Bosnia along with the band The Gin Blossoms to entertain deployed U.S. service members.
The cheerleaders visited nine base camps on their trip, including Alicia, Angela, Colt, Gentry, Guardian, Kime, Lisa, McGovern and Steel Castle.
“I think we really boosted these guys’ morale,″ said Tara Snellbacher, a then-22-year-old cheerleader from Sunnyvale, Calif., in an AP story about the tour.
A few years later, in 1999, former Steelers quarterback and Fox Television sports commentator Terry Bradshaw joined a crew of entertainers, cheerleaders, sports figures and comedians as part of then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen’s third-annual holiday tour and USO show.
Bradshaw headed back on the road with the USO in 2000, this time traveling with fellow NFL veteran Mike Singletary during the holiday season on Cohen’s fourth and final holiday tour to Italy, Germany, Kosovo and Bosnia.
The pair was joined by a slew of celebrities, including MLB player Ernie Banks, singers Jewel and Carole King, astronaut John Glenn, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and Medal of Honor recipient Sammy L. Davis.
"I wouldn’t miss this,” Bradshaw said at one of the shows, according to the DoD. “This is the greatest honor for me. I wish we could bottle you up and take you home. You keep us the most powerful country in the world.”
Two years later, in 2002, former Oakland Raider Howie Long headed to Naval Air Station Sigonella as part of a USO tour.
Former Seattle Seahawks player Brian Bosworth headed to Iraq in 2010 on a USO tour sponsored by Tostitos in conjunction with the Fiesta Bowl. The tour’s main event was a special football game between two teams compromised of service members and college stand-outs like Bosworth, Rocket Ismail, Tommie Frazier and Tony Casillas.
Legendary college football coaches Barry Switzer and Tommy Bowden coached the two teams and the event kicked off with a pep-rally. There were even cheerleaders from the University of Colorado-Boulder.
NFL legend and then-Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning journaled his way through a USO tour overseas in 2013, reflecting on the deep impact the trip made on him.
The tour, which was lead by Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also featured retired MLB pitcher Curt Schilling, NFL’s Austin Collie and Vincent Jackson, two Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and signers Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young.
-USO Sr. Digital Archivist Mike Case contributed to this report.
-This article was originally published in 2020. It has been updated in 2021.
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