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Nominees for NFL and USAA's 2012 Salute to Service Award

  • By National Football League
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The NFL and the USAA, the league's official Military Appreciation Sponsor, are continuing the annual Salute to Service Award, which recognizes NFL players, alumni, coaches, owners, executives and front-office staff who demonstrate an exemplary commitment to honoring and supporting the military community.

Last year, Tennessee Titans owner K.S. "Bud" Adams Jr. was named the inaugural winner of the award. Adams, a U.S. Naval Reserve veteram who served during World War II, has been a longstanding advocate of all servicemen and women.

The NFL and USAA are proud to present the 2012 Salute to Service Award nominees:

Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons head coach

Since 2008, Fishing with the Falcons, hosted by Coach Smith, has paid tribute to wounded military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each year, veterans are invited from across the state of Georgia to participate in a two-day event that includes a special welcome dinner hosted by Coach Smith, a VIP meet-and-greet session and an afternoon on Lake Lanier with an expert fishing guide accompanied by Falcons coaches, players, cheerleaders and alumni. Additionally, during the 2012 training camp, Coach Smith hosted a special Military Day for over 100 active-duty personnel from all five branches.

John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens head coach

Since Coach Harbaugh's arrival to Baltimore in 2008, his advocacy for the U.S. military has been relentless. Coach Harbaugh guides his team by example when emphasizing the need to support the military and its efforts.

Coach Harbaugh is well known for regularly inviting service members and wounded warriors to attend practice. He has spent significant time and funds to send holiday care packages to soldiers overseas, and he has purchased school supplies for children whose parents serve in the military.

This past spring, Coach Harbaugh was presented the Army's Outstanding Civilian Service Award for his continuous support of soldiers, military families, veterans and all service communities.

Ralph C. Wilson, Buffalo Bills owner and president

In 1941, Mr. Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Navy. For the next five years, he dedicated his life to serving at sea in both the Pacific and European theaters as captain of his ship, and he participated in the invasions of Salerno, Anzio and southern France. His dedication to actively supporting our military community has endured ever since.

The significance of Mr. Wilson's commitment to the military often has been recognized since his discharge in 1946. Last year, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans honored Mr. Wilson with its American Spirit Award, the museum's highest honor, which pays tribute to an individual who epitomizes the core values that strengthen America's freedom and democracy, courage and teamwork, sacrifice and optimism.

Mr. Wilson also has been recognized at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where an exhibit containing the many medals he earned throughout his time in the military sits on full display.

Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers head coach

Coach Rivera says he can be defined by his military upbringing. The Army was his father's career, and Coach Rivera was born on Fort Ord, where he lived when not moving around the world for his father's latest assignment.

His father's way of life positively contributed to the importance, appreciation and respect Coach Rivera has for our service men and women. His passion for our military permeates throughout the organization and is put into action by his deeds. He has donated tickets to the military, made public-service announcements supporting the USO and military bases in the Carolinas, spent time with troops during training camp and invited hundreds of troops to the team's FanFest at Bank of America Stadium.

Over the past two years, Coach Rivera has participated in base visits, traveling to Fort Bragg and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The demonstrated passion and heartfelt appreciation that Coach Rivera has for our military goes one step further by the Rivera family, who have selected the USO of North Carolina as one of their charitable beneficiaries.

Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears defensive back

As a member of a military family himself, Tillman understands the importance of giving back to those who serve our country. To show his appreciation, he conducts youth football camps for children of military parents, visits hospitals on U.S. military bases and, during his bye week, flew to Fort Hood, Texas, to donate Charles' Locker to the hospital.

Charles' Locker provides children and families with the access to notebook computers, DVD players, digital cameras and MP3 players while undergoing recovery and treatment. He also signed autographs and visited with patients during his visit.

In the spring of 2012, after reaching out to General Raymond Odierno, Tillman attended an eight-day USO tour to Iraq and Kuwait to visit troops at Camp Victory and Camp Buehring. During their eight-day tour, Tillman flew into Joint Base Balad, Iraq, for a meet-and-greet with service members, signed photos and sports memorabilia and shared dinner with the troops. Tillman's youth mentor, Master Sgt. Curtis Pitts; his wife, Sgt. 1st Class Tamla Pitts; and Tillman's uncle, Sgt. 1st Class Shaun Silas, all were in attendance.

Paul Brondhaver, Cincinnati Bengals game-day volunteer

Brondhaver is an Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran. In 2004, while serving in Iraq, Brondhaver and 12 other soldiers were ambushed just north of Baghdad. The ambush was a direct hit, causing death and severe injury to his unit. Brondhaver sustained major injuries and also suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. For most, that would be the end, but Brondhaver overcame most of his injuries and still is being treated with ongoing therapy and surgeries.

After 20 years of service from the U.S. Army, Brondhaver has devoted his life to serving others. In his role at the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, he works to ensure the youth of our community have an opportunity to grow and learn the game of football through NFL Flag. Brondhaver also hosts NFL Punt, Pass and Kick local and sectional competitions and has assisted in raising over $5 million dollars through charitable organizations for wounded military personnel and their military families.

In addition to his charitable work and being a mentor at CRC, Brondhaver has played a vital role on game day for the Bengals since 1999. He goes out of his way to ensure that game day runs smoothly. His biggest role is during the Salute to Service Game, in which he coordinates with military partners to ensure the presentations and events run smoothly.

Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns offensive lineman

Since his arrival in Cleveland as a first-round draft pick, Thomas has supported the community, specifically those who serve our country. Over the years, Thomas has demonstrated a commitment to supporting different military-based initiatives on several levels and truly has made an impact across the globe.

In 2010, he created and funded Thomas' Troops, a game-day ticket offer for those men and women who will be deployed or have just returned home, and he has continued the program since. Working with the USO of Northern Ohio, the Thomas' Troops game-day program provides tickets to every home game, along with food vouchers, parking passes and custom apparel for each of his guests.

In 2010, Thomas traveled over 14,000 miles round-trip to visit troops in Afghanistan through the NFL/USO Tour. Thomas had the opportunity to show his appreciation for those serving our country and made some lasting relationships. Upon return, Thomas was so extremely moved by his experience that he supported a national USO campaign to raise additional funds in support of our troops, lending his name to the nationwide effort.

To this day, he contin

ues to keep in touch with the troops he met overseas and proudly talks of the dedicated individuals he met. Most recently, he was excited to share that his cousin will be serving in United States Army. To further connect with those overseas, he has welcomed military guests to Browns training camp and has attended the Pros vs. GI Joes events over the years, in which he has the opportunity to meet troops and their families both in-person and via live remote to locations overseas.

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

For more than 30 years, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders have proudly served as representatives of the Dallas Cowboys, entertaining U.S. military personnel around the world and making more international tours with the USO than any other entertainment group in history.

Bringing their own brand of goodwill and gratitude to the men and women of the military, the group completed their 74rd USO tour in April 2012. Accompanied by the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, members of the DCC toured Southwest Asia and other military installations, performing their signature show that features 16 elaborately costumed and choreographed routines.

Since 1979, the group has joined the USO and Department of Defense in visiting military locations as diverse as Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Cuba, South Korea, Belgium, Germany, Iceland, the United Kingdom and the Persian Gulf, along with countless bases and installations stateside.

In recognition of DCC's dedication, the USO presented the squad with both the first-ever "Spirit of Hope Award" -- named after the legendary Bob Hope -- and the "USO's 50th Anniversary Award" in honor of its distinguished service to American troops. The DCC also was inducted into the Veteran of Foreign Wars Hall of Fame in 2002.

Denver Broncos Cheerleaders

Over the past 10 years, the Denver Broncos Cheerleaders have traveled the world, visiting our troops, performing, participating in medal ceremonies, visiting hospitals and saluting the men and women who serve our great nation.

Since 2003, the Broncos Cheerleaders have visited military installations in Egypt, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Turkey, Greece and Jordan.

"We were told by a soldier after our show that this is the longest he has smiled on his deployment -- it was the most heartwarming comment," one cheerleader said. "Every show, we make a point to tell our troops how important the military is to Broncos Country and the Denver Broncos Cheerleaders. We cheer on the Broncos at every home game, and every single day, we cheer for our troops."

Gary Kubiak, Houston Texans head coach

Coach Kubiak, his family and the Texans share a strong commitment to America's armed services. Supporting the military is a cause very close to Kubiak's heart.

Coach Kubiak and his wife, Rhonda, lead the way in military support by the Texans. In the summer of 2011, Coach Kubiak represented the Texans on the third annual NFL-USO Coaches Tour, visiting bases in Iraq. Along the way, he was able to meet countless men and women serving in the Armed Forces, many of whom he says he'll never forget. In 2010, Coach Kubiak accepted a statue depicting the Soldier's Cross from the USO on behalf of the Texans' organization. Coach Kubiak frequently invites active-duty, retired and wounded military members to Texans practices and speaks at a number of military fundraisers throughout the year.

Following Coach Kubiak's lead, the Texans' players and cheerleaders support the military in various ways. Several Texans players sponsor season-ticket packages through the team's TACT (Texans All-Community Team) program that supports USO groups of military families and veterans. Players also make several trips to Houston VA Hospital to visit and rehab with veterans throughout the year.

Pat McAfee, Indianapolis Colts punter

In 2011, McAfee decided to increase his focus on one specific cause: the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces. Over the past year, McAfee has established the Pat McAfee Foundation to provide scholarship assistance to the sons and daughters of U.S. military personnel. Beginning in 2013, he will award $5,000 scholarships to well-deserving students whose parents have served.

McAfee has visited Camp Atterbury, a military training and mobilization center in southern Indiana, on multiple occasions to thank soldiers for their service and spend time with them. During the 2012 offseason, he also volunteered to be a "Soldier for a Day" at Camp Atterbury to learn more about the specific training that soldiers must go through.

During the season, McAfee participates in the Colts' Community Ticket Block program by purchasing a block of 10 tickets to each home game and donating them to Wish for Our Heroes, a non-profit that grants the wishes of active-duty military members. At each game, McAfee also provides the soldiers and their families with a field visit, meal vouchers and cinch bags.

Mike Mularkey, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach

As part of the Jacksonville Jaguars' Jaguars-Rangers Ops program, Coach Mularkey has partnered Jaguars players with members of the 75th Ranger Regiment, a Special Operations light infantry unit of the United States Army headquartered in Fort Benning, Ga.

Each member of the Jaguars' active roster has been paired with an Army Ranger so they can communicate, encourage and motivate one another. Jaguars players also wear a Ranger battalion patch underneath their jersey, on their shoulder pads, which depict the Ranger battalion, as well as that player's Ranger partner's name and job title. At the bottom of the patch are the words, "Got your back." In return, each Army Ranger received a Jaguars patch for his uniform, bearing his Jaguars player's name, number and position, with the words, "Got your back."

The Jaguars-Rangers Ops program was created to show the Jaguars' appreciation for and support of these Army Rangers, and to forge a bond between these men and their teams.

Robert Alberino, Kansas City Chiefs VP of Media and Marketing

The Chiefs and its vice president of media and marketing share a passion for working with the military. Alberino's father was a sergeant in the Army, and his uncle served as a Marine in the Vietnam War. Additionally, various other cousins and uncles also have enlisted. However, while Alberino always felt an extreme pull to join the "family business," fate brought him to an 18-year career as an NFL executive.

When he first became a professional, Alberino often quenched his military thirst by sending out care packages or through other acts via his work with the league. Building on that desire to remain connected, Alberino reached out to some of the top instillations, including Fort Riley, Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leavenworth, upon his 2010 arrival in Kansas City. There, he serves as a goodwill ambassador to publicize the work soldiers do and the passion they display, not just for serving our country, but for the Chiefs as well.

In addition, Alberino's relationship with the military also served as the conduit behind a successful Chiefs staff supply drive for approximately 100 members of the 442nd Fighter Wing, based at Whiteman AFB, whom had been deployed to Afghanistan. Beginning in the spring of 2013, Alberino also will take on an Information Operations Officer for a year-long, full-time training position with the Chiefs, the first collaboration of its kind between the Army and an NFL franchise.

Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings defensive end

Allen certainly appreciates the men and women of our Armed Forces. In 2009, he formed Jared Allen's Homes 4 Wounded Warriors, a non-profit organization created for the sole purpose of raising money to build or modify homes so they are handicap accessible and comfortable for wounded vets.

In 2011, JAH4WW's beneficiary was PFC Joshua Bullis of Phoenix. In April 2010, Bullis deployed to the Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan with the 595th Sapper Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion. While on a routine foot patrol through an Afghan village, PFC Bullis stepped on a buried improvised explosive device. As a result of the blast, both of his legs were amputated above his knee, as was his left arm above the elbow.

Allen is committed to helping our wounded veterans live comfortably. Through his Night Ops Golf Tournament, Helping Heroes Gala, along with raising funds from fans as well as providing substantial personal donations himself, Allen is making a significant contribution year in and year out. The Vikings promote this charity at every home game, gaining $10 donations from fans by texting the word "warrior" to 80088.

Tom Coughlin, New York Giants Head Coach

When Tom Coughlin joined the New York Giants in 2004 as head coach, there was no mistaking his long time appreciation for the United States Military. Coughlin’s day to day appreciation of our nation’s service men and women, past and present, exemplifies his belief that the protection of our nation’s people and freedom are our greatest assets.

In 2007, LT. Col. Greg Gadson, a West Point graduate and former Army football player, was injured in a roadside bomb in Baghdad. While he was recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center, Gadson was invited to a Giants game and was asked by Tom Coughlin if he would be willing to address the team. It had been less than five months since Lt. Col. Gadson had lost both of his legs to an IED, but Gadson accepted. From that moment on Lt. Col Gadson became one of the team’s 2007 Co-Captain’s and was on the sidelines when the Giants won Super Bowl XLII.

In addition to Tom’s friendship with Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, Coach Coughlin and General Raymond Odierno, current Chief of Staff of the Army are fans of each other. In May, Coach Coughlin was invited to the Twilight Tattoo event at Joint Base Myer – Henderson Hall hosted by General Odierno, in which Coughlin was presented with the Outstanding Civilian Service Award. Coughlin also accompanied four fellow NFL coaches during the NFL’s inaugural NFL-USO Coaches Tour in 2009.

Ben Kotwica, New York Jets assistant special teams coach

Kotwica's "Salute to Service" began when he graduated from West Point in 1997 and decided to join the military. He is a decorated officer who spent seven years of meritorious service in the Army; his awards include the Army Achievement Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and Bronze Star.

Kotwica was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the aviation branch of the Army and was selected to fly the AH-64 Apache Longbow, the world's best attack helicopter. As an attack helicopter platoon leader in support of the 82nd Airborne Division from 1998 to 2001, he was responsible for the health and welfare of 20 soldiers.

In 2003, he was selected to serve as the Battalion Executive Officer for a unit comprised of more than 300 soldiers, 24 attack helicopters and more than $400 million worth of equipment. In January 2004, Kotwica briefly returned to Fort Hood, Texas, to serve as the training officer for the 1st Calvary Division. Two months later, he was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

Kotwica has performed three tours of duty and, as a commander, flew over 1,000 combat hours in support of five maneuver brigades within the 1st Calvary Division. In 2012, Kotwica joined the NFL and USO on its annual Coaches Tour, visiting military installations throughout the Persian Gulf.

Joe Vitt, New Orleans Saints Head Coach/Linebackers

New Orleans Saints Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers Joe Vitt’s support of the military community was recently demonstrated when he, on behalf of Semper Fi Foundation and the Wounded Warrior Project, hosted three United States Marines during a Saints practice and Monday Night Football Game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Maj. Thom Schmidt, Cpl. Bobby Davis and Cpl. Stephen Farrell, are from the Gulf South Region and are ardent Saints supporters. "It's an incredible honor for all of us at the New Orleans Saints to be around these Marines," Vitt said. "They are incredible young men who we're proud to call our teammates. It's been an uplifting experience having them come meet our players and coaches and share their inspiring experiences. They are true inspirations to us all."

The three soldiers attended practice and were recognized by Saints players following practice, were given a tour of the team's practice facility where they met individually with players, and were included in the team's preparations for their game against the Eagles. The soldiers were then escorted to the sidelines for the team warm-ups before the nationally televised game on Monday Night Football and stood with Vitt, players and coaches during the Star-Spangled Banner prior to kickoff.

DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver

When Jackson was drafted by the Eagles in 2008, he began to develop a relationship with his second cousin, "Uncle Jimmy," a Philadelphia resident, Vietnam veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient.

Uncle Jimmy shared many positive stories about fellow heroes and camaraderie. However, he also shared the life-long effects that his military injuries have had on his health. After hearing about both the physical and mental effects a stint in the military can have on someone, Jackson wanted to give back to those who needed support in a variety of ways.

Jackson recently decided he wanted to donate 10 percent of his 2012 paycheck to the Wounded Warrior Project. On Sept. 11, 2012, a day held so near and dear to both U.S. service members and civilians alike, Jackson visited Philadelphia's local joint base, McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst, to present a $50,000 check to the Wounded Warrior Project in the company of about two dozen local veterans. Jackson spent the day playing cards, signing autographs, shooting pool and posing for photos with the veterans and other military members.

Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers safety

Polamalu's passion for veterans is demonstrated by the foundation he established with his wife, named for her grandfather, Harry Panos, who fought in World War II. The fund supports those who bravely serve our country, and some of the projects include working with the Pittsburgh VA hospitals to enhance their facilities for veterans and partnering with Operation Once in a Lifetime (OOIAL), which works to make dreams of U.S. soldiers and their families come true.

For four years, Polamalu has hosted various OOIAL groups of soldiers at a Steelers home game. In the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, he invited 15 soldiers from the base, many of whom were severely wounded in combat. In 2010, he brought in 15 soldiers from six military installations around the United States and last year hosted 18 members from 10th Group Special Forces and Seal Team IV. Polamalu also has granted the wishes of several individual soldiers, including an OOIAL terminally ill soldier whose wish was to go to Disney World with his family.

The Steelers annually partner with the VA for Heroes at Heinz Field to engage recently returning local soldiers from Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. The soldiers and players gather on the Heinz Field turf, where they participate in a fun time of football drills. Even though the soldiers think they are meeting their "heroes," Polamalu and his teammates recognize that they are the ones meeting true American heroes.

Mike Flood, Seattle Seahawks VP of Community Relations

Prior to joining the Seahawks, Flood served as a pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard. His distinguished 22-year military career included piloting C130s, Dassault Falcon jets and H60 Jayhawk helicopters. From 1994 to 1996, he served as an officer for the Air/Sea Rescue Operations for coastal Oregon and Washington and retired as a commander in 1996. His service instilled a deep appreciation for those with whom he served.

Flood's contribution to the local military community is significant. He is a founding member of the Lake Washington Chapter of the Navy League and active in the VFW, American Legion and Coast Guard Foundation. He serves on the board of the USO Northwest and the Association of Washington Generals (AWG), a service organization through the Lieutenant Governor's office that funds military memorials.

He has introduced the Seahawks to the Puget Sound Fisher House and has been an advocate for "Hire America's Heroes." Flood has taken an active role as board member in support of Camp Patriot and created a specific U.S. Military Sea Hawkers group, which includes active military personnel and Seahawks fans from all branches of the armed services. The group plays an active role in Seahawks game day as part of the color guard, hosting veterans or overseeing re-enlistment ceremonies. Flood also coordinates an annual football tournament at CenturyLink Field for the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, District 13.

Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams head coach

When looking for a leader to guide the team, the Rams chose Coach Fisher. He has achieved remarkable success on the football field and on the sideline, but Coach Fisher also puts forth great effort into the community around him. One of the many ways in which he contributes is by honoring the men and women who serve our country -- both locally and abroad.

In May 2011, Coach Fisher, along with former NFL players Tedy Bruschi and Chad Lewis, joined four members of the Wounded Warrior Project in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The team called themselves "Team Hard Target," and together, they climbed over 19,000 feet to the summit. Fisher joined the Wounded Warriors Project on the trek in an effort to draw attention to the organization's mission to honor and empower wounded warriors. On Sunday, Sept. 30, the group was reunited in St. Louis as Fisher's guests to watch the Rams take on the Seattle Seahawks. During the game, the members of Team Hard Target were honored on the field of the Edward Jones Dome.

In addition, Fisher also took part in the inaugural NFL-USO Coaches Tour in 2009. During the visit that coincided with Fourth of July Weekend, Fisher and four other NFL coaches traveled to various military bases in Iraq and visited with the troops serving overseas. The goal was to share some patriotic spirit with the troops during the Independence Day holiday.

Mark Dominik, Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager

Whether renovating a retired Air Force sergeant's home, providing veterans with job placement assistance or serving a warm meal to those who serve others, Dominik has continued to make a significant impact in the community since being named the Buccaneers' GM in 2009. Inspired by personal experience -- both his father and brother served in the Navy -- Dominik has championed the cause of giving back to our nation's armed forces by initiating community outreach programs that directly assist active and retired servicemen and women from all branches of the military.

For the past three years, Dominik has visited James A. Haley VA Hospital during the week of Veterans Day to greet servicemen young and old recovering from injury and illness. On Nov. 6, he will lead a group of Buccaneers players in a visit to Bay Pines VA Hospital near St. Petersburg to continue such a tradition. Along with team members and USAA volunteers, Dominik also will visit U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater that day to help serve lunch to more than 200 Coast Guard members in appreciation of their service.

New to Buccaneers home games this season is the "Salute to Service Suite," established by Dominik to honor local heroes. At every home game, more than a dozen local military members root on the team from a luxury suite and are given a standing ovation when honored over the stadium's public-address system. The suite will be particularly popular during the team's Salute to Service Game on Veterans Day, which will include a pregame collection drive for troops, a special honorary captain and, in what has become a tradition, the largest-ever group induction of men and women into military service at Raymond James Stadium.

Darrel Young, Washington Redskins fullback

Determination and dedication are two concepts not lost on Young. He worked on the field; his brother, uncle and sister-in-law pursued careers in the military. Seeing the effect that deployments can have on a family provided Young with an admiration for our armed services. He recently posted on his blog, "Playing football is something that is fun to me and I enjoy every aspect of it, but the real superstars and heroes are the people who go on daily missions to make sure that we are safe in this country."

Along with other NFL players, Young has made trips to Korea and Central America to meet the troops and see what life is like for them in remote destinations. On his most recent trip to Honduras and El Salvador in February 2012, Young joined three other NFL players in visiting the troops and U.S. Embassy. The players met members of the military and toured where they live, experienced a day in the life with them, and spoke with them about how much everyone stateside appreciates the sacrifices that members of the military make every day.

Continuing his support of the military while stateside, Young has participated in Redskins events honoring and working with the military, including Rehabbing with the Troops in 2010, and hosting military families and personnel at practices during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

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