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Rooting Hard For The Home Team


My first game as a free agent rookie with the Dallas Cowboys in 1982 was against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football in Texas Stadium. They introduced the Cowboys that night to the country hit, "Mama's don't let your babies grow up to be Cowboys." It was the most vigilant moment in my life to that point. I was electric, alert and completely alive. It was one of the most memorable nights of my life.

That changed last week when Marco Rivera from the Packers and I were recently invited by the Commander in Chief of Camp Navistar and his sargeant major to visit the Kuwait-Iraq border. We paid an unexpected visit to the troops in charge of guarding that border and it set a new barometer for how alert the human condition can get.

Camp Navistar is less than two clicks from Iraq. It is the final supply line before our troops scatter into various war pockets in Iraq. At night, convoys of up to 100 trucks are loaded up with every supply needed for the next day or days of fighting. It is also heavily armed.

There is an electric fence that stretches for miles. Barbed wire is the next level of security. Our troops dug a moat that resembles the size of a crevice found in the Grand Canyon. Then there are the impenetrable concrete blocks two feet thick that look like they fell from the moon's crust. Guard shacks patrol the border 15 feet high in the air. There are two guards to a shack for 12-hour shifts equipped with night vision goggles that allow them to see anything that moves in a livid green shade. A dozen other soldiers patrol the gate on foot carrying 45 pounds of armor and strapped with M-16s around their shoulders.

The 125-degree temperatures don't faze our troops anymore. The sand storms that can pop up at anytime are a nuisance as they spit sand from their mouth all day long. Soldiers that wear glasses must change the lenses regularly because the sand blows so hard that it penetrates the glass. No one jumps anymore at the two-foot long camp spiders or the variety of scorpions that can get onto the bunks at night, or the yellow lizards that pop up on the rocks as the sun drops for a brief respite.

I mention some of the everyday hardships because as a football fan, player, and NFL analyst for FOX, I have always understood there is a natural relationship between football and war. The analogies go back to the Red Grange era.

General George S. Patton made speeches that found their way into locker room pregame speeches. Sun Tzu and his Art of War can be found on the desk tops of football coaches at every level. Vincent T. Lombardi talked of going to battle the way Theodore Roosevelt ordered troops up San Juan Hill. One year the Redskins came to Dallas and John Riggins and the Hogs exited the plane in battle fatigues and army boots.

I have fallen prey to the temptation of using war-like metaphors in describing football action on Sunday afternoons. On our USO tour last week of our military camps in Kuwait and Qatar, I couldn't help but think how similar the conditions were to that of an NFL training camp.

Each camp -- Wolverine, Victory, Navistar, Doha, Virginia, SPod, APod and Assayliyah -- was equipped with a tremendous weight room. It is a stress reliever for everyone. Three square meals were served in the defac tent -- that is their chow line. And the food was fresh and tasty. The bunks we quartered in weren't that different than the dormitory settings of most summer camps. When you poked your head out the tent at "06:00" the sun was high in the sky and hot. Just the way NFL coaches like it as they build the conditioning of their teams. When off duty, the troops go about their business in shorts and T-shirts of their favorite NFL team or college of their choice. There is even a wet bulb flag that flies when the combined humidity and temperature reach a point of unsafe conditions.

It all seemed so familiar, like training camp. Only for a moment. Then we sat and listened to the stories. There aren't any practices, scrimmages or games being played. Most of our military haven't been home since our initial bombing of Baghdad 16 months ago. Oh there were some who were scheduled for leave, but those orders were cancelled when they realized how short we are of men. The most scared any of our troops get is when they are scheduled for leave and in those final hours before deployment, when they can taste the feeling of being home -- thats when many have gotten the call to return to the action. Retired colonels who are veterans of many missions in Vietnam have been called and their two-week commitment to the reserves has turned into a 16-month nightmare.

Yet no one complains. The morale couldn't be higher. If any NFL team could maintain the comraderie, the teamwork and commitment that our soldiers go about their business, those teams would walk away with the Lombardi Trophy.

On July 4, our Nation's birthday, it is appropriate that during our travels we take a moment and thank all members of our Armed Services. They aren't thanked enough and my experience last week was that they very much appreciate the effort.

Our troops don't get involved much in the politics of war. They signed up for a job and a duty and they carry those duties out without examining the reasons. It's what they are trained to do. I can say from experience that they have incredible morale.

They have smiles on their faces. They believe they are doing great work. They also don't believe our mission is done yet. As a collective unit they are fanatical about our Nation's passion of football. Rivera was met at every stop by legions of devoted Packer Backers. It serves as a great diversion to the seriousness of their efforts.

As the calendar turns to July and the temperatures soar while the lull of summer sports sets in, football fans everywhere are eager for the start of the new season. As the anticipation rises, I offer this caution and reminder to everyone: It is only a game. What's real is the war our military is engaged in throughout the world. They are our heroes. Don't shy away from tapping any of them on the shoulder and saying, "thanks." Its a heck of a team we have fighting for our freedom.

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