Four Pro Bowl players are in Afghanistan to meet and greet the troops in the annual renewal of the NFL-USO program.
San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas, Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten are continuing an NFL-USO tradition initiated more than 40 years ago.
After arriving in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday along with a USO tour manager, USO photographer and NFL representative. The group was transferred to Al Udeid Air Force Base, approximately 40 minutes outside Doha. Al Udeid is home to nearly 11,000 coalition troops -- mainly U.S. Air Force troops who fly combat as well as supply and refueling missions over both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Commanding Officer, General Wilson, hosted a reception for the players and the senior officers on base, giving the players an opportunity to talk football and boost morale.
On Wednesday, Day 2 of the NFL USO tour, breakfast at the base was structured as a "football roundtable Q&A" in which the players sat at a table at the front of the room and the troops in the DFAC (dining facility) had the opportunity to ask the players questions. As a representative of "America's Team," Witten had the most questions directed his way, although there was interest in a wide range of football (and non-football) topics.
After breakfast, the players toured the flight line, seeing all the different planes and jets that operate out of Al Udeid AB and visiting with the men and women who fly and work on the planes. The players not only provided autographs to all the B1 pilots at this stop, but they also were able to sign a few of the bombs heading on the B1s into the war zone. "From Cleveland, with love," wrote Thomas affectionately.
Another highlight was touring the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). This command-and-control center coordinates all air assets over both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the CAOC building, there are giant screens showing all planes currently in flight above both war theaters. The screens also show everywhere in Iraq and Afghanistan where we have Troops In Combat (TIC).
The players spent 30-45 minutes in CAOC, soaking everything in and signing autographs for all the airmen and women working there.
Another highlight of the tour of Al Udeid was a visit to the K-9 unit. Al Udeid has a dog unit specially trained to sniff out explosives. The players had the opportunity to watch the dogs go through a number of exercises designed to test and refine their training.
After a brief rest and dinner, the group had a large meet-and-greet in the evening. This appearance attracted well over 300 troops from across the base.
In the past four decades, NFL stars such as Terry Bradshaw, Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, Howie Long, Don Meredith, Lynn Swann and Johnny Unitas have visited troops on NFL-USO tours in such locations as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Kuwait and Somalia.
In 1966, the NFL teamed with the USO and became the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam and other parts of Asia, demonstrating the league's support for America's troops. Last year, NFL players Jared Allen, Danny Clark, Larry Fitzgerald and Will Witherspoon traveled overseas to Iraq and Kuwait, and coaches Tom Coughlin, Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden and John Harbaugh met service members for several days in Iraq.