In honor of our nation’s “Patriot Six” the New York Giants invited the USO out to training camp to spend time with players, several of whom had personal ties to the armed forces. In fact, head coach Tom Coughlin traveled to the Persian Gulf just last year as part of the inaugural NFL-USO Coaches Tour. Correspondent Brian Price spoke with players who expressed their appreciation for the troops, the meaning of patriotism and their excitement to begin a new NFL season.
Brian Price: When do you feel most patriotic?
Corey Webster, #23, CB: Before the game: the American flags are waving, the National Anthem is being sung and especially when a plane flies over the stadium. It’s a brilliant moment. We share the same colors as our country: red, white and blue, so I also feel patriotic whenever I put on my Giants uniform.
BP: Tell me about this team’s relationship with Lt. Col Gadson.
CW: Lt. Col Greg Gadson is tight with Coach [Mike] Sully. They played football at Army together.
Editor’s Note: Mike Sullivan is currently the Giants’ quarterbacks coach. Coach Sullivan is a graduate of the U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger and Air Assault schools. He was also a defensive back at Army. Lt. Col Gadson was an honorary Giants co-captain during their 2008 run to the Super Bowl.
Gadson’s platoon was attacked and he lost his legs. He’s a tremendous motivational speaker and he was key in inspiring us during our Super Bowl run. Lt. Col Gadson spoke to us about the importance of being team oriented. Have trust in the person next to you and you’ll succeed.
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BP: Your team’s play, particularly during the 2008 Super Bowl, inspires thousands of troops.
Eli Manning, #10, QB: That means a lot. We play football for a lot of reasons, but when I hear something like that, about troops staying up late to watch our games on satellite overseas, that is a huge motivational factor. The fact that these guys have so much courage and are cheering for us always makes us want to go out and give them a great show.
I’m proud to be in this country with a chance to play football because of soldiers who, over the course of history have, and continue to, make unimaginable sacrifices.
Thank you for everything. We’re rooting for you. You have the Giants support 100%. We’re grateful for everything you do for this country. Get home soon.
BP: What did you learn from your recent USO trip to Iraq?
Shaun O’ Hara, #60, C: First and foremost, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of our overseas operation. I also got a sense of the troops feelings: they knew they were doing the right thing by being over there. They believed in the job at hand and they were happy to do it. That was really inspiring to witness. It’s what they had trained for and they were all excited to take part.
BP: What was your schedule like?
SO’H: The main goal was to hit as many places and meet as many troops as possible. We got to spend time with General Odierno and attend one of his daily briefings, which was great. We also had dinner with him at one of Saddam’s palaces at Camp Victory in Baghdad. We were on the tour to show our appreciation, but there wasn’t a soldier that we met who wasn’t thanking us. We wanted to reassure them that they were our heroes.
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BP: Any surprises?
SO’H: I think it’s important for the American public to know how much we’re helping the Iraqi military. I hadn’t previously realized how hard our troops are working to help them so when our forces leave in 2011, they’ll be able to sustain peace on their own. There are a lot of Iraqi people who embrace our presence and are happy we’re there. We’ve freed them from Saddam Hussein and his reign. They’re a proud country, a proud people and they’re eager for a chance to flourish.
Editor’s Note: O’Hara was joined on the tour by Bears cornerback Charles Tillman.
BP: As a NFL veteran, what’s your advice for young people?
Kareem McKenzie, #67, T: In football, pay as much attention as possible to the older guys who have done it for years. Have a sense of what it takes to be successful. It’s not luck that somebody plays in the league for 10 or 11 years. We’ve worked hard to maintain consistency. Take notice of an older guy’s work ethic. Make a note of how many hours they put into perfecting their craft.
For troops, however, it’s on a totally different level. The mental focus one needs to have to operate in the conditions they do is unbelievable. Wearing body armor in 120-130 degree heat is something that really struck me. You can’t praise them enough.
I’m close with several veterans of various wars and my relationship with them provides a tremendous sense of personal pride. It’s a special thing to know somebody who has served.
On behalf of all NFL players, the support staff, and the entire New York Giants organization, we appreciate everything you do and your dedication to serving this country. We have you in our prayers for a safe return.
BP: Any message for the troops?
Michael Boley, #59, LB: I want to offer a big thank you to our troops. My brother spent seven months over in Afghanistan. Whenever I speak with him he always emphasizes that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. It’s important to appreciate the liberties we as citizens have in this country. What the troops do is more than we ever see on the news.
Chris Canty, #99, DT: Sometimes people can take their freedom for granted, but we always need to be thankful that we have the opportunity to live in America and be free. I’m able to play football because of the dedication of the men and women of the armed forces who protect this country. I understand the dedication and teamwork it takes for us to be successful, but if we fail it’s only wins and losses. If they fail it’s life and death. They’re risking their lives for me and they don’t even know me. You have to have tremendous respect for that kind of dedication.
Dave Tollefson, #71, DE: They inspire me. We’re playing a game every weekend and they’re putting their lives on the line everyday to keep America free and safe so we can sleep at night.
BP: Your brother served this country, right?
DT: My brother, Brett Baatrup, was in the First Tank Battalion at 29 Palms, U.S. Marine Core. He just finished his second tour.
BP: What do you learn from him about the nature of service and combat?
DT: I’ll think I had a rough day at practice and then he’ll tell me about his day: One time his tank treads fell off in the middle of a battle and he had to get out of the tank to put them back on. You want to talk about rough? You want to talk about pressure to perform? Try being responsible for fellow troops lives in a situation like that. That’s not just him. That’s the case for every soldier. I still ask him all the time: “How’d you do it?”
BP: What’s his answer?
DT: “I had to. It’s my job.” Look, I hate making correlations to what we do and what they do. A coach tells me to do something and I do it because I can’t let my team down. It was the same with my brother, obviously magnified a million times over, but it wasn’t about the orders. It was about, as a group, completing a mission and keeping everybody safe.
BP: Did you ever think you’d be doing a job that inspires the bravest people on earth?
David Diehl, #66, T: It’s awesome to be in this position with that in mind. If our play can, at least for a few moments, ease some stress for the troops and help boost morale than that’s what it’s all about for us. I love hearing about troops watching the games overseas and how they organize games against other platoons. As players we get a chance to meet and spend time with the troops and they tell us: “You’re our heroes.” To which we answer right back: “You soldiers are our heroes.”
Many thanks to E. Peter John Baptiste, Pat Hanlon and the entire Giants organization and front office for their assistance with this piece.
Editor’s Note: In addition to supporting the USO and American troops, the Giants are active in many charities and initiatives including finding a cure for Cystic Fibrosis. Find our more at Esiason.org and CFF.org.