For 16 weeks a year, Green Bay Packers guard Marco Rivera puts his body on the line each Sunday, going to battle for his teammates and coaches.
But, having recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, Rivera says the week of June 19-24 that he spent with the real soldiers is one week in his life that he will never forget.
After catching the short flight from Green Bay to Chicago, Rivera flew nearly eight hours to London. From London, he was in the air again for another seven hours on his way to Kuwait.
"It was a pretty long trip getting there and back," Rivera said, summing up the nearly 33 hours of air time he logged on the trip.
But it wasn't long, however, before the distance traveled was overshadowed by the experience of the NFL sponsored USO trip in which Rivera teamed with former NFL player and current Fox analyst Brian Baldinger, visiting seven U.S. military bases in Kuwait and Qatar.
From the time the USO (United Service Organizations) representatives greeted them, Rivera constantly found himself seeing and experiencing things that he never would have imagined.
"The USO picked us up and as we were driving through the city," Rivera said, "that's when I realized Kuwait was not the war-torn country I thought it was. They had a great transportation system, great roads and beautiful buildings and landscaping."
Stationed at Camp Wolverine, Rivera said he was surprised by the amount of amenities available to the soldiers there. Among other elements, the camp featured a workout room, movie theatre and meals that rival the ones served at Packers training camps.
And so did the heat.
Their first day in the desert, Baldinger and Rivera saw temperatures upwards of 115 degrees. According to Rivera, it was so hot that his sweat evaporated before it even had a chance to form, and in order to battle dehydration, huge pallets of water were stationed throughout the camps.
Another experience Rivera said he could have done without were the many sandstorms they encountered along the way. And then there was the camel.
"That was a real uncomfortable ride," Rivera said. "I was riding around and I just couldn't imagine how those nomads rode through the desert for miles and miles."
As they continued their visits to all the different camps, Rivera was stunned by the amount of NFL paraphernalia he saw, Packers and otherwise. Throughout the trip he signed flags, T-shirts, footballs, jerseys and even cheeseheads.
"Football means so much to the troops," Rivera said. "You hear that it's the No. 1 sport in America, but you don't really realize it until you go to someplace like this and they have all their football stuff. You'll see a Jets flag, you'll see all types of Packers gear, but you don't see any baseball or basketball stuff."
At every turn, Rivera was welcomed by Green and Gold fans, including many Wisconsin natives who treated him like he was an old friend.
Beyond sports, it didn't take long for Rivera to come to the conclusion that U.S. servicemen and servicewomen serve an important function.
"These (Iraqi) people deserve the same kind of freedom that we get back home -- freedom, the ability to voice their opinions freely, and just the right to walk down the street without fearing for their lives," Rivera said. "(The soldiers) are there to do their job and they do it well."
Rivera admitted being somewhat frightened at one point during the trip.
Largely comprised of Americans and European guests, Rivera's hotel in Qatar-- where some Americans had been killed -- was just an hour-or-so drive from Saudi Arabia. It was there that Rivera realized just how real the threat of violence was.
"This experience has made a greater impact on my life than I thought it would," Rivera said. "I met troops that were at the warfront. I was in a different part of the world that I probably never would've gotten to see otherwise."
He also said that his journey helped humanize a situation which he had previously only seen from a distance, and that totally changed his perspective.
"I realized that the things I had been reading in the newspaper and seeing on TV were not entirely true, but not entirely false either," Rivera said. "(The media) have Americans believing one thing, but you have to go there and talk to the soldiers to see what's going on so that you can make up your own mind."
Rivera's conversations with the men and women in the military revealed that the majority are pleased that they are performing an important function.
"Talking to the troops, their morale is very high," Rivera said. "They're happy to be there doing their jobs and doing them to the best of their ability. I didn't hear one complaint while I was there. The attitude was, 'We're here to do a job. These people need our help and that's why we're here.'
"That made me proud. These are our guys coming from home, laying it on the line for someone else."
Following his trip, Rivera received a letter from a lieutenant colonel thanking him for visiting. He also asked Rivera to express to people how important it is for Americans to show their support for their military men and women overseas.
"The troops need to feel like people back home are with them 100 percent," Rivera said, "because that's what keeps them going."
While speaking at one of the camps, Rivera articulated his appreciation to the troops.
"I told them, 'I'm coming from the Green Bay Packers and we all support you guys. You guys are the true heroes, we are entertainers on the football field. You are our fans, but we are also your fans. We get beat up, but you guys sacrifice a lot more and we respect you for that.'"