My Cause, My Cleats: Eric Decker providing service dogs to vets

Four years ago, Eric Decker was brought to tears, not from an injury or any other happening on a football field -- but because of Lon Hodge's unique story.

Decker and his wife, Jessie, had been searching for a cause for their foundation to support. Hodge, who served in the military from 1973 to 1981, spoke at an event in Denver about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and how a service dog turned his world around for the better as a civilian.

"It brought tears to my eyes," Decker, who was playing for the Broncos at the time, recalled in a recent phone interview. "And [Jessie and I] were like, 'This is it. This is what we gotta do.' "

It was a perfect fit, bringing passions for animals and the military (Jessie grew up in a military family) together. Deckers Dogs, the primary initiative of the Eric and Jessie Decker Foundation that directly supports Freedom Service Dogs of America, slowly formed and continues to fund the rescue, care and training of service dogs for military veterans returning home with disabilities. All Freedom Service dogs are rescues, which have the same success rate as dogs bred for service; funding the journey for a typical service dog from shelter to service costs roughly $25,000.

Decker will participate in the NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" campaign for the second straight year to help raise funds and awareness, and to tell the story of how beneficial service dogs are to veterans and others with physical and emotional challenges. The Tennessee Titans wide receiver and other NFL players will wear custom cleats on-field for all Week 13 games. The eighth-year pro knows the importance of helping veterans and hopes his cleats will spread the word of how to assist veterans who need help.

"This is a serious issue for those that go overseas, and none of us really know what they experience and deal with," said Decker, who revealed his cleats will feature a paw, with more focus on the logo than last year's pair. "To get thrown into life back in the [United] States is a really hard transition. ... Raising more money and affecting more people is what our long-term goal is."

To see just how much their actions impact veterans, all the Deckers need to do is look at the first match they funded: Ret. Sgt. US Army Shon Wilson and Rommy, the first Deckers Dog.

After suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury for five years, Wilson reached out for help with an extra push and support from his family. His counselor advised him to apply for a service dog after Wilson's progress stalled out in his counseling sessions. Wilson and Rommy, a labradoodle, were matched in 2013 after a two-year interview process through Freedom Service Dogs of America.

"They told me it would take a little while before we'd connect, and I think it was before she'd even finished the sentence that Rommy had already put his legs over my legs," Wilson recalled. "Then [Rommy] played me for a fool right off the bat. I'm sitting there, and he keeps standing up. I tell him to sit and give him a treat. He stands back up, and I tell him to sit again. And about after 10 of these, the trainer goes, 'Oh, he's got you already.' "

A match made in heaven from the beginning, Wilson and Rommy met the Deckers during one of the Denver Broncos' charity events at a local Target around Christmas of 2013. Decker said Wilson, whom he described as "timid" when they met, is "just a different person" four years later, all thanks to the friendship and assistance of a dog.

"Rommy saved my life. That's really the simplest way," Wilson said. "That is because, years ago, I would've either become addicted to alcohol or drugs or gone down a line that probably most vets -- or a lot of vets -- go through when they have PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. ... Suicide was such a big thing. In my life, it was a real threat."

So far, the Eric and Jessie Decker Foundation has funded eight dogs and found homes for each one of them, and their ninth dog is currently going through training. Eric said they've received thank-you notes and heard many stories of how beneficial their generosity has been.

"We hear about how it's saved their lives and changed their personal lives, and that's what it's all about," Decker said. "The most meaningful thing is how we can make a difference by simply rescuing a dog, training them and putting them in the lives of people who need it. My wife and I are so humbled and grateful to make that change."

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers counseling and other means to veterans in need, but service dogs aren't something they invest in. On top of helping give Wilson his life back, the Deckers have opened an avenue for him to voice to other veterans that there are organizations willing to help.

"It goes to Eric and Jessie and those who are willing to put the time, effort and their good name to this to support the veterans," Wilson said. "The government isn't even doing that for us, and they took that on.

"If you think of nine veterans, you're talking about probably 1,000 people that those dogs are going to touch, between family, friends and events. That's a big way of getting the word out there that these veterans deserve this support. It's fantastic that they're willing to do it."

Not in a million years did Decker think the platforms that he and Jessie, a country pop singer-songwriter, have would reach so many. And to think, all it took was for one veteran to tell his story to the right person. Now, on Dec. 3, thousands and maybe millions of football fans across the country will see "Deckers Dogs" illustrated across Decker's cleats.

It's all about "getting the message out there," and that's exactly what is happening.

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