By Jason Keidel
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It’s the rare time we’re on one team.
After executives from Macy’s and Calvin Klein, flanked by Giants co-owner Jonathan Tisch, each pledged $10,000 to Wounded Warrior Project, a fit fellow in a black t-shirt took the podium. None of us could have known that under his khakis, Lieutenant John Fernandez is a double amputee.
“A 500-pound bomb exploded, taking both my legs below the knee. And it took my three friends next to me,” said Fernandez, who was part of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Recollections like that render any room silent. No doubt a few of us felt silly for fretting over whatever we thought was important today. “Once I realized I lost my friends,” he continued, “I said I’d never feel sorry for myself again.”
For every foolish football player who likens himself to a soldier, there are ten men who get the difference. Many of them were in the room Monday night – blue warriors helping true warriors.
David Tyree, who made the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, spent a moment at the podium and then retreated to a table to sign cards to be sent to soldiers overseas. Nearly a dozen former players were in attendance to promote the charity at Macy’s in Manhattan. Tyree, still obscenely fit, looks like he could make the same play today.
While he spoke to the room, Tyree mentioned Greg Gadson, who served as the de facto captain of the Giants during their title run in 2007. A Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, Gadson lost both of his legs when an IED detonated near him in Iraq.
I asked Tyree if the NFL, or any professional sport, does enough to help the troops. “No,” he said flatly, and pondered the pampered world of celebrity. “You almost never come out of your bubble,” he said. “It’s a false sense of reality. All your life you’re told how great you are. But stuff on the field is fleeting. Nights like tonight give me a chance to fill the soul of another human being.”
The lone warrior on active duty in the room was Marine Major Greg Wyche: a tall man in dress blues, gold oak leaves glinting from his shoulders. Wyche served as a pseudo-liaison for the charity.
“Like the coach,” I said, referring to Sam Wyche.
“Exactly,” said the Major. “You really are a sportswriter.”
A graduate of the University of Florida, he was far more eager to chat sports than battlefield tactics.
He lamented the lack of running game in Urban Meyer’s spread offense. “Without Tim Tebow,” Wyche observed, “they need power backs. Even Percy Harvin, as good as he is, was more of a speed guy. (Jeffrey) Demps is the same thing.” Wyche was not overly concerned about Meyer’s recent resignation as head coach of his beloved Gators.
The Marine Corps somehow pulls off the paradox of combat and kindness. Wyche is proud of all the charitable work his brethren do. Their most celebrated cause, of course, is the “Toys for Tots” program.
That so many Giants appeared without notice highlights the organization’s dedication to our military. Using their divine talent, these players ran to riches. For at least one night, they used their gifted arms and legs to help those with neither. I couldn’t walk ten feet without bumping into a former football player. Among the scantly athletic crowd it’s rather easy to spot a behemoth bulging from his suit.
Ottis Anderson, proud alum of the U, still brims with the confidence that boosted him to NFL stardom. “I said when I left Miami that if I ever played in a Super Bowl in the state of Florida that I’d be the MVP. You can check the record on that.”
“I grew up on O.J. Anderson with the Cardinals,” I said. “When did you go from O.J. to Ottis?”
“I was always O.J.,” he said. “Never changed.”
There was an ease to Anderson and all the former Giants, belying the familiar angst of the retired star who longs for Sundays past. “Some people let football make them what they are,” Anderson explained. “I made football what I wanted it to be.”
Rodney Hampton was a rookie when the Giants won their second Super Bowl in 1990 – fondly referred to as the “Whitney Houston Game” because of the singer’s stellar rendition of our national anthem during the Gulf War. It was partly that point of reference that drew Hampton and Anderson to help our injured veterans.
“That Super Bowl inspired us in a lot of ways,” said Hampton, who is often improperly ignored when discussing the great backs in the history of the New York Giants. He gained over 1,000 yards in five consecutive seasons during the 1990s. “I do whatever I can to help,” he said.
Hampton and all the old salt were last-second replacements when the current Giants were forced to cancel when their game with the Vikings was rescheduled because the Metrodome’s roof collapsed. “I was supposed to fly back to Texas when they called me,” Hampton said. “It’s an honor.”
Beyond his appearance at Macy’s, Hampton works with kids across America, imploring them to play football rather than melt into the dark corners of drugs and gangs. His organization is called “Hamp’s Camp.”
Amani Toomer, Keith Hamilton, George Martin, Joe Morris, Stephen Baker, Sean Landeta, and Bart Oates also attended, stretching a Big Blue swath over three championships dating back to 1986. And for all the Super Bowl bling, no ring rang louder than the need to help those who made their careers, my career, and your career possible.
It was a fairly incongruous yet humorous scene of athletes and affluence. As I worked the room, uber-thin waiters shoved black trays stacked with Hors D’oeuvres toward me; none of which I could pronounce, until one of them said “sliders.” Something with Angus beef in it, all stuffed into bread the circumference of popcorn.
Looking around, part of me felt ashamed that this is the first time I’ve covered such an event and, in a larger context, that we need such ornate settings to help some 21-year-old who’s writhing in a burn unit in Walter Reed or under a tent in the Iraqi desert. Here I was in a makeshift lounge on the 16th floor of Macy’s, feeling important because I was surrounded by “superstars,” as defined by our distorted sense of success.
To some extent, most of us are guilty of sudden charity in December, forgetting that the forgotten need help every month. “The greatest casualty,” said Lt. Fernandez, Army soldier, “is being forgotten.”
The message is apolitical. The need is universal. Give often. War is glorified on television, but on the real field, the one with no scoreboard, men and women return limbless and lonely to a nation that ignores them. We didn’t hear the bomb that shattered the good Lieutenant’s legs and killed his friends; therefore, to too many of us, it didn’t happen. We can sleep only because they don’t.
Fernandez, a West Point grad who was born and raised on Long Island, explained why so many servicemen (and women) enjoy sports. “There’s a similar mentality,” he said. “The idea of discipline, teamwork, fighting for one goal.”
He was being modest. There are no real similarities. And there are very few heroes. And the few who exist never appear on your local sports channel. Lieutenant John Fernandez is the last man to tell you that he’s special.
I’ll do it for him.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
(Many thanks to Becky Melvin, public relations manager for Wounded Warrior Project, who invited me to this event. For more information, or to donate, please visit www.woundedwarriorproject.org. Photos courtesy Billy Farrell Agency.)
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