GREEN BAY – The black leather jacket is what Danny Vitale remembers most.
As a kid growing up in Wheaton, Ill., the Packers’ fourth-year fullback would occasionally get picked up by his grandfather, Dan Michael Vitale Sr., a veteran of the United States Marines Corps who represented his branch everywhere he went.
Grandpa Vitale didn’t talk much about his experiences, but his pride was reflected in his trusted jacket and bright red Marines hat. Wherever he went, Vitale’s grandfather made his affiliation known. That passion left a massive impression on his grandson.
“He was an incredibly proud guy,” said Vitale, who is the third of his name. “As all Marines are.”
A cook in the Marines, Dan Michael Vitale Sr. passed away in May at 80 years old after a long battle with cancer. His life and lasting memory continue on with Danny, who was recently honored as the Packers’ “Salute to Service” nominee for 2019.
Grandpa Vitale isn’t the only reason Danny holds the Armed Forces close to his heart, though. Paul Remy, Vitale’s maternal grandfather with whom he shares a birthday, served in the military as a combat medic in the Army during the Korean War.
Tom Hruby, Vitale’s best friend at Northwestern, is a former Navy SEAL who went on to play football while working toward his degree in learning and organizational change at the time.
Vitale’s younger brother, Tommy, enlisted in the Navy shortly after Danny’s wedding earlier this year and is scheduled to ship out for training in less than a month. Meanwhile, Vitale’s cousin, Jimmy Jessup, recently got out of the Army after serving in the 82nd airborne infantry.
Those family ties helped foster Vitale’s deep respect for the military and fuels his continual desire to give back to the servicemen and women who sacrifice so much for so many.
Had it not been for his NFL career and meeting his wife, Caley Chelios, Vitale speculates he, too, might have followed down his family’s military path.
“I just appreciate everything they do,” Vitale said. “Less than one percent of the U.S. population signs up to fight on the battlefield. That’s an incredible thing to me that people are willing to do that for the people of this country. I believe there’s nothing quite like it. They’re special people.”
Vitale’s involvement started with Hruby, who motivated Vitale after he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015 to find ways to give back. It was through Hruby that Vitale was introduced a few years ago to Taya Kyle, the widow of the highly decorated former Navy SEAL, Chris Kyle, whose story was dramatized in the movie “American Sniper.”
Following her husband's death in 2013, Taya Kyle started the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation which helps veterans to reconnect with their family and readjust to civilian life when they return home from military duty. Vitale honored the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation with his "My Cause, My Cleats" campaign in 2017.
“When they come home, we have to give them a safe place to come home to,” Vitale said. “The ties are there, the connections are deep for me. I know they’re going to have struggles, if they haven’t already, so any way I can give back to them and give them that safe place to come home to is important to me.”
One of the first things Vitale did once he returned for his second season with the Packers was seek out player/alumni specialist Tony Fisher with a request: “If there’s anything we’re doing that’s military-related, I want to do it. Get me signed up.”
After spending the day with cadets at the Wisconsin Challenge Academy in Fort McCoy last year, Danny joined Aaron Rodgers and five others teammates this year serving as honorary captains for the Packers’ first "Huddle for Heroes." This military event hosted 56 Wisconsin veterans for an afternoon of interactive sports games and personal interaction with the players.
Vitale also recently made a visit to Oshkosh Defense with linebacker Blake Martinez, and he delivered coffee and donuts to the Green Bay Disabled American Veterans chapter.
“Everybody likes to compare football players to warriors. When you really narrow it down, we’re nowhere close to those type of warriors,” Vitale said. “Those are the real warriors out there. I try to surround myself with guys like that to at least pull any little piece I can from them and their experiences, and put it into everything I do. Nothing but the utmost respect for those people. Those are my heroes. Those are the guys I look up to that I really wish I could be.”
The Salute to Service Award annually recognizes NFL players, coaches, personnel and legends who demonstrate an exemplary commitment to honoring and supporting the military community, as nominated by NFL clubs.
Finalists for the Salute to Service Award, presented by USAA, will be announced in January, and the recipient will be recognized at NFL Honors, on Feb. 1, 2020, the night before Super Bowl LIV.
“I do it because it’s something that I love doing giving back to our servicemen and women, whether it’s military or even first responders,” Vitale said. “Just to have it be recognized was a pretty cool honor.”
Dean Lowry, Lucas Patrick, Tyler Lancaster and Danny Vitale visited students at the Wisconsin Challenge Academy on Tuesday.