By Danielle DeSimone
For more than 55 years, the USO and the NFL have worked in partnership to strengthen the well-being of the people who serve, and their families, no matter where their mission takes them.
As one of the nation’s leading military support organizations with over 250 USO Centers worldwide, the USO is uniquely positioned to support our service members and military families through programs and events both at home and abroad. And as one of the cornerstones of American culture and tradition, the NFL provides the military community with a connection to home, whether they are watching the game on the couch with their loved ones, or at a USO Center on the front lines overseas.
Together, the USO and the NFL are a winning team. Here are 9 facts about the USO and the NFL’s partnership that you might not have known.
1. The USO and NFL first became partners in 1967
The NFL joined forces with the USO in 1967. Through this partnership, the NFL became the first sports organization to send a group of athletes to Vietnam and other parts of the southeast Asia on a USO Entertainment Tour, providing a morale boost for service members deployed in the region during the Vietnam War.
2. NFL legends regularly visit troops on USO Entertainment Tours
From Donnie Edwards, Tony Richardson and Amani Toomer, to representations from entire teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, to two-time NFL Super Bowl Champion Vince Wilfork’s most recent travels on the the 2023 USO Holidays Tour, hosted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff – NFL players, coaches and staff regularly travel around the United States and overseas each year with the USO to interact with service members and military families.
Their visits serve as crucial morale boosts for members of the military community, who face unique challenges throughout their time in service. Since the USO-NFL partnership first began in 1967, more than 250 NFL players and coaches have joined USO tours to nearly 30 countries.
3. The NFL helped the USO build the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center – the first USO Center in Afghanistan
In April 2005, the USO opened the Pat Tillman Memorial USO Center at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. It was the first USO Center to open in Afghanistan. The center was named in honor of former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who put his career in the NFL on hold to join the U.S. Army after the attacks of 9/11, and was later killed in action in Afghanistan.
Thanks to the NFL’s generous support, the USO was able to fund the construction of this USO Center, which served as a home away from home for the service members who were deployed to the region.
4. Many NFL players travel to front-line locations on USO Entertainment Tours
The USO likes to say “we go where they go” – with more than 250 locations around the globe, and with expeditionary teams who travel to locations where there aren’t even brick-and-mortar Centers, the USO is always by the side of the people who serve, no matter where their service takes them. This includes our USO Entertainment tours.
From Terry Bradshaw visiting troops in Kosovo just months after the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, to Peyton Manning throwing a football around with service members in Helmand province in 2013 during the Afghanistan War, these members of the NFL community are committed to visiting service members even in front-line locations.
In showing their appreciation for our troops’ service by traveling to these regions with the USO, NFL players and coaches show the people who serve that their sacrifices are not forgotten.
5. The NFL has recently helped the USO build one of its first-ever USO Centers on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier
When underway, a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier can be home to as many as 5,000 service members – the size of a small city. Living aboard roughly 4.5 acres and 60,000 tons of floating structural steel for 8-9 months at a time, with very few port visits, leaves service members with little space to get away and find time for themselves. These conditions can be stressful and isolating for sailors who are separated from their family and friends for nearly a year.
That is why the USO has begun building unstaffed USO Centers aboard Navy ships. These new, ship-based USO Centers – which will be open while ashore and at sea – include many of the same amenities as a land-based Center, such as comfortable seating, TVs, video and board games, USO program kits and snacks, as well as computers and phones to give sailors another way to communicate with their loved ones back home.
Recently, the NFL once again partnered with the USO to fund the construction of a USO Center aboard the U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. These ship-based USO Centers are designed to bolster morale among sailors aboard the ship and keep them connected to home while on the open seas. Thanks to the help of partners such as the NFL, we can do just that.
6. Some NFL players who participate in USO tours have military connections themselves
Like many Americans, there are several NFL players and coaches who travel on USO tours and have a prior military connection themselves, making the experience all the more poignant.
For example, in 2022, Andrew Beck (then a a fullback/tight end for the Denver Broncos) and Demetric Felton Jr. (then a a running back for the Cleveland Browns) are both military brats who, in 2022, participated in the USO’s first USO-NFL in-person tour since the COVID-19 pandemic. They traveled to several bases throughout Alaska, a notoriously challenging location for service members and military families.
“It meant a lot to me to be part of this tour,” said Demetric Felton Jr., whose father is a retired Marine and whose sister is currently serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. “I know it can be very hard to move a lot and be far from family. They are sacrificing a lot protecting our country. Being able to visit these families was really on my heart.”
7. The NFL helps the USO deliver care packages to troops
The USO Care Package Program is a time-honored tradition of sending service members overseas a little piece of home, just when they need it most. These care packages contain healthy snacks and treats, as well as travel-sized hygiene products, and are packed in a package made of durable nylon material with a Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE) system on the back of the pouch for easy attachment on most military-issued gear. Each year, the USO delivers hundreds of thousands of these USO Care Packages to people who serve all around the globe – but we can’t do it without the help of our supporters and partners, like the NFL.
One of the ways USO Care Packages are typically assembled is through care package stuffing events, where USO staff members come together with our corporate partners to stuff hundreds to thousands of USO Care Packages. The NFL regularly hosts care package stuffing events with its own employees and the general public, which is an excellent way for military supporters to donate their time and express their gratitude to our nation’s service members.
These USO Care Packages are then shipped overseas, reaching service members deployed all around the globe – and even on the front lines – from Spain to South Korea to Syria.
8. The USO and the NFL make gaming dreams come true through the NFL Salute to Service
The USO and the NFL have partnered to bring the joy of gaming to service members and military families worldwide.
The NFL Salute to Service is the league’s year-round effort to honor, empower and connect with our nation’s service members, veterans and their families through special events and outreach. Through the USO-NFL Salute to Service Showdown – an EA Sports™ Madden video gaming competition for service members – the USO and the NFL make service members’ gaming and football dreams come true, as the two finalists receive two tickets each and paid travel to the Super Bowl, providing a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those who sacrifice so much on our behalf.
9. The NFL supports service members at USO Centers and Mobile USO vehicles
But the USO-NFL Salute to Service Showdown is just one highlight of the NFL’s partnership with the USO. The NFL also provides support to service members through the USO Gaming Program as well as through USO Centers and Mobile USO vehicles.
At USO Centers around the globe, the USO Gaming Program provides gaming opportunities for the military community year-round, both at home and overseas. At USO Gaming Centers, service members can utilize top-of-the-line screens, computers and consoles, plus secure and reliable Wi-Fi access. These kinds of resources can be crucial in remote and austere locations such as Pituffik Space Base, in Greenland, where the NFL fully funded a USO Center with gaming equipment for service members deployed there.
The USO and the NFL also deliver gaming and support to troops via the USO-NFL Gaming Trailer. This trailer is part of the Mobile USO program’s fleet of vans and vehicles that support the military on the road. These USO-centers-on-wheels have many of the amenities of a brick-and-mortar USO Center (free Wi-Fi, air conditioning, snacks, comfortable seating, etc.) but are able to meet our troops where they need us most.
Whether service members are conducting grueling training in the field or deployed to natural disaster zones to help with relief efforts, the Mobile USO team is always ready to hit the road to provide service members with a home away from home in the most remote locations and during the most stressful assignments. As the USO-NFL Gaming Trailer travels to locations around the U.S., it brings service members a chance to relax, recharge and connect with their fellow service members.
Here at the USO, we understand that gaming goes far beyond the console – studies have shown that video games can help alleviate stress and combat-related trauma, as well as promote teamwork and connection to others, among many other benefits. Together with the NFL, the USO is providing the people who serve with opportunities to improve their well-being while in uniform.
These tournaments, entertainment tours, centers and gaming opportunities provide service members with a moment of normalcy and a brief respite from the pressure of their service to this nation – and through the USO and the NFL, they can do just that.
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