By Eric Brandner

They take off their helmets to watch him put his on.

Still, Pierre Garcon didn’t realize how connected to football American troops in Afghanistan were when he arrived there in early March.

“They wake up early to watch the games,” said Garcon, a receiver for the Washington Redskins. “That’s one of the [best] bonding times they have because everybody’s waking up for the same reason at an odd hour.

“If their team wins or loses, that’s how their week goes. That’s what they talk about the whole week.”

Garcon, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Miami Dolphins punter Brandon Fields visited more than 1,800 troops in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates during a USO/NFL Tour in early March. Many of those same troops will wake up and hustle to a USO center at 5 a.m. local time on September 25 to watch Garcon’s Redskins take on the New York Giants.

Photo credit USO photos by Dave Gatley

Pierre Garcon, center, Jimmy Graham, left and Brandon Fields, right pose for pictures with troops during their USO tour to the Middle East in March 2014.

When compared to their predecessors, today’s deployed troops have many more ways to communicate with friends and family back home. Technology has helped them stay connected to the people and teams they love while fighting on the front lines.

Troops routinely swarm USO centers downrange on Monday and Tuesday mornings, where they can watch live streams of games thanks to the USO’s longtime partnership with the NFL.

“A lot of people out there loved sports,” Garcon said. “Sports was the one thing that kept them together. It was very surprising how dedicated they were to watching the games and keeping up with their team. [It made] them feel like [they had] a piece of home.”

The trio of NFL players made 25 total tour stops, including a three-day whirlwind tour to bases around Afghanistan.

Garcon—who set a Redskins record with 113 receptions last season—laughed at the suggestion troops were lining up to throw him passes. While he did throw the football around, the group also spent time playing basketball (Graham went to the University of Miami on a basketball scholarship) and video games with the troops.

In short, they felt like they fit right in.

“It was like … going over a friend’s house and visiting,” Garcon said.

The Redskins receiver said he had a cousin in the military and several more college friends and acquaintances who chose to serve. Their actions motivated him into pursuing the USO tour opportunity.

Garcon returned to the States with a bag full of patches, T-shirts and coins troops gave to him. And he said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again if the NFL and military would have him.

“[We had] all kinds of interactions,” he said. “Everybody was excited that we came, that was one of the things that stood out the most.

“It was definitely a memorable time.”

– Eric Brandner is the USO’s director of story development.