Former NFLers face 'gut-check time' with wounded war vets

Former NFL tight end Chad Lewis will be watching his feet. When you're climbing a 19,000-foot mountain, one false step could prove extremely dangerous.

Lewis also will be watching his mouth. When you're climbing that mountain with wounded U.S. service men with artificial legs, you'd better keep your complaints about the physical toll of the endeavor to a minimum.

"We don't have one centimeter to complain about," Lewis said of being part of an NFL contingent, along with former linebacker Tedy Bruschi and former coach Jeff Fisher, that will climb Mount Kilimanjaro Friday to help raise awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project. "I mean, if we complain about blisters on our feet, these guys are going to say, 'What? You've got feet, man. What are you talking about?'"

The challenge of the climb goes beyond physical endurance. It also includes dealing with a mixture of extremes in client and terrain. The starting point is the Serengeti Desert, where the temperature can reach a blistering 140 degrees. The pathway up winds through a rain forest, rocks and pine trees, and then nothing but rock all the way to the top, where the temperature can dip to 30 degrees below zero.

In recent phone calls, Lewis and Bruschi commiserated about how they would be calling upon their football experience to help them get through it.

"This is going to be gut-check time," Bruschi told Lewis. "This is like training camp, where there will be times on this hike when things aren't going right, when our legs and bodies are jacked up."

But that won't be a problem, Lewis said, as long as the focus of the NFL trio is where it should be: On the four injured service members who will be part of the climb. That group consists of Bryan Wagner, of Exeter, Calif., and Ben Lunak, of Grand Forks, N.D., each of whom has a titanium leg; Mike Wilson, of Annapolis, Md., who suffered a traumatic brain injury and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Nancy Schiliro, of Hartsdale, N.Y., who lost an eye while serving her country.

"Our whole focus is on these four warriors -- getting them to the top of the mountain," Lewis said. "These guys are the heroes. They're the reason we can play football. They're the reason we're free. They're out there on the front lines.

"The interesting thing is, these guys are so dang tough, I'm sure when we're hiking, they're going to be turning around and saying, 'Come on, guys. Step it up! We're waiting for you. Let's go!'"

You can find updates on the climb at www.believeinheroes.org, as well as http://on.fb.me/believeinheroes. Those sites also provide opportunities to donate to WWP.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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