April 21, 2013
I have been going to the Oregon Duck spring game for a few years now. It is a fast paced scrimmage game that gives you a jolt of the game in between seasons. But, I have enjoyed the post game just as much or better. They do a tribute to the military. The military lines up the field on one side while the team is on the other. The two meet in the middle of the field. The military gives the player his service coin while the player gives the military his jersey.
After last year, I got this idea that it would be awesome if they used veterans. I emailed the school and they emailed back saying that the suggestion should be given at a later date when the game is being planned. So, after the season ended, I sent yet another email. I was given the email address of the football program for Oregon so I began sending them emails. I highlighted the fact that we had many WW2 vets and that we were losing them as time moved on. I don't know how many emails that I had sent but I was trying to be consistent.
I was taking a nap in the afternoon early February when I was awoken by a phone call. I answered and a man told me his name, Jeff Hawkins and said he was from Oregon football. I was groggy and thought he was trying to sell me season tickets or something and was probably a bit short with him. "No", he said, "This is Jeff Hawkins from the Oregon Ducks.". I realized quickly that this was my answer to the emails.
The cobwebs were still a bit in my head but I listened as he told me that I had gotten his attention with my emails and it hit home with him as his father was WW2 and he was Vietnam era. He went on to tell me that he could not do what I had wanted but would be willing to do something else to honor the guys. "What if we open up one of our practices to them. And then do a sort of meet and greet afterwards. We will video the event and put it up on the big screen at the spring game thus honoring them there.". I knew that they would love this idea but asked him if he would allow me to bring it to them in our next meeting and he said sure.
I brought it up with overwhelming response. A dozen or so hands went up for WW2 guys and many more for others. So, I called Jeff back and said that we would love to come over. I told him that we have quite a few guys in our organization. Many are WW2 but most are later. Jeff said, "Hold on, Lyle, this is only open to the WW2 guys. Those are the ones that you presented to me. I can't open this up to all or I would have a huge can of worms with other veteran organizations wanting in.". What he said made lots of sense and I immediately apologized for the misunderstanding and assured him that they would just be that era. "But, these guys are in their 90's and we will have to have drivers. The drivers will ask so will they be allowed to come in also?". "I can't answer that.", came the reply.
So, I went to work apologizing to the guys in the group who had their hopes dashed and asking for drivers who knew that they would probably not be going in. I had 4 from the Bend group and Rob from Lapine. I promoted the idea in the Redmond and Prineville group but got no response. So, our group seemed to be the ones that were going. 15 in all signed up. 5 drivers, 3 to a car, perfect numbers. I asked the Ducks if we could send in a photographer and they said sure so we knew Judy would be going in at least.
I looked up online and realized that Jeff Hawkins was the Director of Football. Once we agreed upon the foundation of the visit, he passed me on to his assistant, Kyle Wiest. Kyle and I emailed back and forth various information. And as it came closer, I emailed him a list of people coming and who they were.
The day before the event, he sent me his cell phone number and we were set. The next day, the guys were going to meet the Oregon Ducks.
I struggle with PTSD. I am fine when I am in my normal element and usually good when I am within a days drive of home but it usually hits in the dark of night and often in the early morning hours. I awoke that morning in a panic. Not a large one but big enough to mess with my mind. I got up and attempted to distract my self by reading a book and going on line. The anxiety came in waves but thankfully the waves were not huge and I put on some music and calmed a bit as I listened and relaxed to the beat and words. A shower helped also and when I got out, Judy was there getting ready also. I hugged her and she could tell what was going on. She knows these things after living with it also. She asked me if I was going to be ok. I said that I thought I would be. I told her that I was putting a couple of guys in my car who could drive if need be and that I could always give the keys to Trinity who was going along also.
I went down and ate breakfast with Trin and Judy. Trinity could tell that I was struggling. I told her that I was fine but could only eat bites of my breakfast. I shoved it away and jumped in my car to pick up Bob Maxwell. I gave Trin my list of guys and told her to call the ones that were not there. Upon my return, I found all of the guys waiting for us.
I went to all of them and thanked them personally for being there. I wanted this day to be a good one for them. I wanted them to be honored. The anxiety was still trying to hold on to my mind, however, and I struggled mightily with the organization even though we had already set up who was going where. One glitch in that set up threw me for a loop. It was evident that I was not doing well with it.
We all got in our cars and I led them out of town. I had Frank, Jack, and Bob in my car with me. Frank sat up front and we talked as we left town. He asked me if I was ok and I shared with him just a bit of my struggle. He said, "My word, Lyle, don't try to do everything. We can help. Would you like me to drive for a bit?". I told him no and that I knew I would be ok shortly.
Our conversation as we drove down the road did the trick and before I knew it, my mind had relaxed and I knew that I was going to be ok with the day...no matter what happened. This is how it usually goes.
We stopped at Belknap springs for a head call. I went in to the lodge and asked them for permission, telling them that I had 14 WW2 guys aboard. They were happy to oblige and seemed honored to have us in their presence. One of them even took pictures with a couple of the guys.
I called Kyle when I was close and he told me that he would meet us out front. He would get us as close as he could for the guys who had trouble with walking. When we got there, he motioned me inside the compound. He looked at our convoy and said, "Why don't you guys just park your cars right here.".
So, we all piled out. Kyle had lanyards with passes on them. Each pass had a name. I helped him pass them out. Then, he called out the name of one of the drivers. "I get to go in?", she squealed, "Yippee!". He had passes with all of our names. He ushered us over to the door that led to the indoor arena.
Everything seemed so surreal as we stepped into their practice. Some of the guys went immediately to the line of chairs along the side for them. Others started down the sidelines. We could go where we wanted as long as it was not out on the field. Kyle asked me if I would address the team and introduce the guys. At first, I said that they could introduce themselves. But, then I began to think and realize that they would probably not say much at all. I went back out to my car and got my list so that I would not forget anyone.
It as incredible watching these young athletes practice. One of the coaches was from Madras and he took a few of us under his wing and walked us down the sidelines. We met Anthony Newman who is a former NFL player and does TV for the team.
Then, I was introduced to Bronco Mendenhall, the coach of the BYU team who just happened to be in town and was allowed in. We went further down to the end of the field and watched the offensive line in their practice. Those were the biggest guys on the field. The line coach saw us and invited the guys to say hi. They all came over and shook our hands. They were all so huge. I have big hands but every one of their hands seemed to envelope mine as if I were just a little kid. It was like being in the land of the giants.
I walked around talking to the guys asking them if they were enjoying it. Most of them were almost giddy with excitement. I could tell that a couple were kind of hurting from the ride over. They stayed on the chairs and just watched while the others moved around and took pictures.
As I waited for the end of practice, I wished that I had prepared more for the event. I should have realized that they would introduce them individually but I never gave it much thought. I wanted that introduction to be an honor. I had a list of the guys, and some scribbles that I had written next to each of their names to remind me of their service. I would have to work with what I had.
After the practice, the coach brought the team around and placed them on a knee. He began to talk of the visitors of the day. He told them of how this generation was called the greatest and why. How they had lived through the great depression and then fought a war that gave us the freedoms that we have today.
As he began to talk about Bob Maxwell, Bob handed me his Medal of Honor and I placed it around his neck. My hands were clammy as I snapped the snaps in place. It was the second time that I had touched it and I felt it's weight that Bob often talks about. As I snapped, visions of valor seemed to envelope my mind. Being allowed to place it on his neck was an incredible honor of it's own.
Bob was cool as he was talked about. He has been through this before. I know Bob well and I know that it would be important to him that all of the guys around him were honored just as equal.
It was then my time. I stepped up in front of the huge crowd. I don't say huge by numbers but...by size. The intimidation factor was huge and I think I struggled at first with thanking them for allowing us to be there. I knew that I just needed to move on so I took a deep breath and just started introducing the men, one at a time. Some came forward as I spoke, others just raised their hands as I named them off. I think if I ever am able to do this again, that I will have them join me on the stage of sorts but those are the sorts of things that you learn along the way. The team whooped, hollered, and clapped at each introduction. After I had introduced them all individually, I introduced them collectively as the Bend Band of Brothers. The team once again broke out in applause and surrounded the group of men that had just been introduced. I stepped back to let them have their honor.
The coach brought them in a huddle, the WW2 guys still in the middle. I could barely see some of their heads over the large bodies of the footballers. They all raised their hands into the air and yelled out 1 2 3 Go Ducks!.
I turned around and standing behind me was De'Anthony Thomas. "Where ya been, man?", I asked him, "We have been looking for you.". He told me that he had not been feeling well so he did not practice. I asked for a quick picture and he said, sure. Most of the team then left but the coaches and some of the players stuck around and talked and took pictures.
I took a picture with Marcus Mariota, the quarterback and shook hands with many of the players. I didn't know many of their names and kicked myself for not being more prepared. One of the coaches walked over and stuck out his hand. "Hi", he said, "I am Coach Frost". I could tell by his how he carried himself that he was a special person. You know, some guys just have that way about them. Like a friendly confidence that makes you want to know them better.
I walked over and stood with Kyle as we watched the vets talk with the coaches and players. "Do you know who Coach Frost is?", he said. "No", I answered. "Well, he played quarterback for Nebraska back in the 90's. He beat Payton Manning's Tennessee team for the national title. He went on to play many years in the NFL. We are lucky to have him.". I watched Coach Frost as he moved away with a few of the players. He did some one on one with a couple of them at the end of the field actually running wind sprints with them. I wished then that I had spent more time with him.
I brought the guys into the middle of the field and we took some pictures with the new coach, Coach Helfrich. Then the guys collected around him and talked as I watched again with Kyle. Kyle asked if some of the guys would want to see the field. I said sure and collected them up again.
We walked out of the building towards Autzen, walking by our cars. A man was leaning against my car waiting for the guys. As we got closer, he popped off and walked towards us.
It was Marcus Mariota, the quarterback. He shook every man's hand individually and thanked us all for coming. We were all so impressed with him. What a great young man.
Kyle opened the gates to the field and the guys filtered through, some faster than others. The ones up front equally excited to be able to step out on the field that a couple had only seen on TV.
Jeff Hawkins or "Hawk" as they call him joined us there. He had been in a construction meeting. We shook hands and I walked in with him behind the rest of the guys. Hawk then took control of the group, thanking the guys again and he and Kyle answered all the questions that were raised.
Judy wanted to take a picture on the field so Hawk began setting the guys up in a football formation. Once together, he placed him and I in the position of quarterback and we took the last shot of the day.
As we walked out of the stadium, I thanked him again for allowing this great honor for these guys. "You are welcome back", he said, "Lets talk again as we get closer to August. Maybe we can get them over for daily doubles.".
All in all, it was an incredible day. One that none of us will forget soon. Judy was also quite taken by the event and by the way that the players honored and respected the guys. She has decided that the Ducks are ok....and that she will join us for the spring game next week.