Four NFL players who excel on the field and in their community are continuing a USO-NFL tradition initiated nearly 50 years ago. These NFL ambassadors are taking part in a week-long USO tour throughout the Middle East to visit U.S. troops at military bases.
New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, Cleveland Browns center Alex Mack and free agent Will Svitek are the players participating in a USO tour this year and will be accompanied by former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brian Banks, now an employee in the NFL league office officiating department. This trip marks the first USO-NFL tour abroad for Hicks, Svitek and Banks, while Mack took part in a 2012 USO tour.
The NFL and USO have worked together on overseas morale-building visits for nearly 50 years. In 1966, the NFL teamed with the USO and became the first sports organization to send players to Vietnam and other parts of Asia.
Since then, NFL greats including Terry Bradshaw, Larry Csonka, Larry Fitzgerald, Franco Harris, Howie Long, Peyton Manning, Don Meredith, Lynn Swann and Johnny Unitas, JJ Watt have visited troops on USO tours in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Kuwait and Somalia. In 2008 Commissioner Roger Goodell became the first sports commissioner to visit the troops overseas as part of a USO trip when he toured Iraq and Afghanistan.
NFL players Brandon Fields, Pierre Garcon and Jimmy Graham took part in last year's USO tour overseas. During the tour, the group visited military bases in throughout the Middle East. They dined with service members, greeted military personnel and signed autographs. And earlier this month, NFL players Andrew Luck, Dwayne Allen, David Decastro and Colts coach Chuck Pagano joined Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral James Winnefeld, JR. in the USO's Spring Troop Visit.
Players participating in this year's USO-NFL Tour:
- AKIEM HICKS, New Orleans Saints: Hicks was the Saints third-round draft choice in 2012. In three seasons, he has developed into a mainstay along the New Orleans defensive line, appearing in 45 games with 30 starts and posting 162 tackles (91 solo), 6.5 sacks, three passes defensed and one forced fumble. In 2014, Hicks played in 15 games with 14 starts at defensive end and posted 58 tackles (36 solo), two sacks and two passes defensed.
Since he was drafted, Hicks has been one of the club's most active participants in its community outreach efforts. In his rookie season, when New Orleans hosted Super Bowl XLVII, Hicks participated in multiple community service projects representing the club through the week. He is a regular visitor to patients at Ochsner Medical Center and spends time reading to students and discussing the importance of education at numerous local schools through the club's Rotolo's Pizzeria literacy program. An active supporter of the club's PLAY 60 initiatives, Hicks makes numerous appearances to emphasize the importance of physical fitness to local youth.
"This is an awesome and life-changing opportunity for me to be able to go overseas and visit and spend time with our troops," said Hicks. "As the son of a 22-year military veteran myself, I'm excited to have the opportunity to spend time with these men and women who make these sacrifices for all of us back here in the United States.
- ALEX MACK, Cleveland Browns: After being selected No. 21 overall by Cleveland in 2009, Mack started his first 85 games at center and played every offensive snap (5,279 plays) to begin his Browns career, with the streak ending after he fractured his fibula in the second quarter against Pittsburgh last season. He has been selected for two Pro Bowls (2010, 2013), becoming only the third Browns center to earn the distinction multiple times, and was selected to the All-Pro second team by the Associated Press in 2013. After winning the Draddy Trophy, given to college football's top scholar-athlete, during his senior year at California, Mack was one of only four rookie offensive linemen in 2009 to start all 16 games for their club.
Mack, who was Cleveland's 2014 Salute to Service Award honoree, frequently participates in the team's First and Ten volunteering initiative by emphasizing the importance of reading to Northeast Ohio youth and assisting the Browns' and Greater Cleveland Food Banks' efforts to raise funds and awareness for hungry and malnourished families.
"I am truly excited to be going on my second USO tour to visit American troops stationed overseas. It's an honor to be invited into the lives of our servicemen and women and to be given an opportunity to show my appreciation." said Mack.
"They do a dangerous job so we can enjoy our freedom and way of life. I'm lucky a lot of our soldiers enjoy watching football and I can bring a little slice of home out to them while they are serving. Last time I was on a USO tour, the troops showed me an extraordinary time. They were kind, friendly, engaging, and took me into their lives with open arms. I did amazing things with even more amazing people. Hearing their stories and learning about their life abroad gives me a new appreciation for what they do and go through. I look forward to another unforgettable trip."
- WILL SVITEK, Free Agent:Will Svitek, who played defensive lineman in college, has enjoyed a successful 10 year pro career as an offensive tackle despite having never played the position prior to joining the NFL. He has played for the Chiefs, Falcons, Patriots and Titans and is now the longest tenured Stanford player in the NFL. Throughout his career he has remained committed to outreach with the military, helping raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, donating pro game tickets to military personnel and visiting with troops at numerous military bases internationally and domestically. This past month he visited Turkey with several other NFL players to coach local youth football clinics.
"I feel very honored to be part of the NFL-USO trip," said Svitek. "To be able to combine my love for football and appreciation for the military is an opportunity I could not pass up. I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL, and this is only possible because of freedom that I have been given from the military."
"It's a tremendous privilege to meet the men and women who defend our country. I was born in the communist country of Czechoslovakia, and my family emigrated here in 1984 when I was two years old to achieve the American Dream. My parents taught me the value of freedom and the opportunity we have in America, and this is all possible for the sacrifice of the military. My family has thus become very patriotic and grateful for the military's service. I'm proud to be an American and I make sure to say 'thank you"' to military personal whenever I get the opportunity. I am excited to be part of the USO tour."
"It is a true honor and privilege to be part of this year's USO Tour," said Banks. "It is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I can't wait to thank our soldiers."
-- NFL Communications