The NFL is continuing this March its legacy of more than 40 years of sending players overseas to visit with U.S. military troops.
The NFL's Director of Community Affairs David Krichavsky is accompanying four NFL players -- Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, New York Giants linebacker Danny Clark, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, and St. Louis Rams linebacker Will Witherspoon -- on a week-long tour to U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf.
Following is Krichavsky's Day 1 blog:
"Welcome to Kuwait" flashed the neon lights as we exited Kuwait International Airport. And with that, the 43rd annual NFL-USO tour had finally begun.
Our group made it to Kuwait after a long day and a half of travel, but we were grateful to have all made it to the Middle East together and safely.
The four players who decided to give up time during their offseason to be part of this great NFL tradition of visiting our troops overseas are Jared Allen of the Minnesota Vikings, Danny Clark of the New York Giants, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals, and Will Witherspoon of the St. Louis Rams.
The plan was for our group to meet at Washington Dulles International Airport and then fly together on the 12-hour flight to Kuwait. Despite the recent snow all across the northern U.S., Danny Clark and Will Witherspoon had no problems making it to Dulles from their Midwestern points of departure of Chicago and St. Louis, respectively. However, Larry and Jared -- who were flying on the same flight from the desert city of Phoenix -- had their flight cancelled. Luckily, we were able to reroute them through Los Angeles such that they made the flight from D.C. to Kuwait on time -- although with little time to spare.
Putting together a USO tour is a bit like putting together a football team -- you need the right ingredients and you most definitely need team chemistry. And although it is probably not fair to judge this group after just one day -- just as a coach isn't going to declare his team Super Bowl-bound after a Week 1 performance -- this group has a tremendous amount of potential, especially due to the players' deep ties to the military and strong commitment to honoring our armed forces.
Will Witherspoon is a self-described "Air Force Brat." His dad served 20 years in the Air Force, stationed at various bases across the country and around the globe. Will spent eight years of his childhood living in Germany when his father was stationed there and speaks fluent German. Will's uncle also spent his entire career in the USAF. Will and his wife had their third child shortly before Will departed for the USO tour. As we were waiting in the airport lounge to make our connecting flight to Kuwait, Will said, "I have a lot going on right now. I packed at 4 a.m. after I was up with our newborn. I figured that as long as I threw some underwear in a bag, I would be OK. But I wasn't going to pass on the opportunity to make this trip."
Danny Clark of the Giants has two twin brothers. They will soon turn 24. Danny's brother Joshua, who is a Marine, will deploy in April for his third tour in Iraq. Danny's other brother, Jason, is in the Air Force. He recently reenlisted after having served a tour in Afghanistan and he is currently doing a one-year tour in Korea. Danny spent the day before departing for the USO tour with his brother Joshua, listening to all of his war stories and making sure to pay particular attention to Joshua's list of dos and don'ts while overseas.
Jared Allen's military roots run deep as well. His grandfather, Ray Allen, was a Marine for 23 years, rising from the rank of private to captain and serving in World War II. Jared's uncle just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq where he served as a medic. And perhaps closest to home for Jared, his younger brother Ronald Allen, Jr. recently enlisted in the Marine Corps. He is currently in boot camp at Camp Pendleton in California. Jared told me that "the only reason I'm not a Marine is because I could play football. Same with my dad -- he played football rather than becoming a Marine. But my brother decided to quit football in order to serve."
The fourth and final player on this year's tour is Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. Larry's grandfather was a Lieutenant in the Army who won a purple heart for his service in Korea. In addition, his aunt and uncle, Paul and Sam Jones, are both Lieutenant Colonels in the Army. Larry even received a military-style education when he attended Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy for one year after high school. Larry's commitment to the troops, as with the other players, runs deep. One of his goals for the trip is to make sure that our men and women overseas know that "we haven't forgotten about them back home."
Coming off his record-setting postseason, Larry's presence on our tour certainly adds to the star power of our group. Just walking through Dulles Airport in D.C., Larry was greeted every step of the way by well-wishers: "Congrats on a great season, Larry!" "We were rooting for you in the Super Bowl!" " Are the Cardinals gonna re-sign Warner?"
My favorite moment came when Larry was trying to eat a quick sandwich during his very brief layover in D.C. An airline employee approached Larry to ask for a photo and autograph. Despite the fact that Larry was in the middle of his sub, he graciously obliged. The airline employee, perhaps realizing that he might be intruding a bit, decided to give Larry a bit more space and offered to pay for the photo op and autograph. Larry quickly declined the offer, but the peanut gallery -- in this case Jared Allen, Danny Clark, and Will Witherspoon -- quickly chirped in "how about first-class status for life for all four of us?"
I guess our team chemistry is coming along just fine.
Reporting for duty
As the first day of the 2009 NFL-USO tour concludes, we have arrived safely in Kuwait. Our body clocks say that it is morning, but the electronic clocks (and the night sky) say that it is evening. We are staying in a nice hotel tonight, although we know that we have military barracks as accommodations in our near future. More than anything though -- even more than the fatigue after the 36 hours of traveling -- we all feel the excitement and expectation of what is to come.
The NFL partners with the USO because we want to honor the service and recognize the sacrifice of our nation's servicemen and women. The four players on this year's tour have joined us because there is nothing they'd rather do with a part of their offseason than see what it is like to be a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and shake the hands of the people who are on the front lines. Our mission, which begins tomorrow, will be to see as many troops as we can, bring as much good will to them as possible, and make sure that they know that we support them.