Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis (l) and Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox (2nd r) pose for a photo with crewmembers onboard a US Air Force C-17 cargo jet at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)
"Have we've boosted the morale of the troops here, or what," John Fox asked the other coaches as we gathered first thing in the morning on Day 2 of the 2010 NFL-USO Coaches tour. Coach Fox was referring in particular to the previous evening's festivities. After a stray bird had entered the engine of our C17 airplane during takeoff the previous night and waylaid our group in Germany unexpectedly, the coaches retreated to a local tavern on base. While it was a sleepy affair to start as not many troops were around, word must have spread that the NFL coaches were hanging out at the tavern as the group steadily grew in size as the evening progressed. The coaches and troops shared conversation, food and drink until 2:30 a.m., when the establishment finally locked its gates.
"They enjoy hearing our stories," Brad Childress said the next morning, referring to the troops. "But I think we enjoy hearing about their experiences even more."
Perhaps one of the reasons that the interactions between the service members and the coaches on this tour are so effortless is because all four coaches on the 2010 NFL-USO Coaches tour come from military backgrounds. It is not uncommon for one participant on a USO tour to have military roots, or maybe two. But for four of four to come from military families is remarkable.
John Fox's father was a member of one of the original Navy SEAL teams created by President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. Brad Childress's father was in the Army, stationed in Germany not far from where we are currently located; and Coach Childress attended a military high school in Illinois. In addition, Coach Childress's son Andrew is a Marine currently deployed in Afghanistan. Andy Reid's father served in the Navy in World War II. Finally, Marvin Lewis's father was in the Army, and like Childress's father, was stationed in Germany during his military career.
The coaches' military upbringing and resulting appreciation for members of the Armed Forces, regardless of rank or function, was evident in the way the four coaches treated the troops we met everywhere we went. As an example, after finishing lunch at a dining facility (DFACs) at Ramstein on Day 2 of our tour, the coaches divided up and went to every table in the DFAC, thanking each and every service member in the mess hall. Just when I thought we were finally done and ready to leave, the coaches were heading back into the kitchen, to thank the soldiers doing the cooking for all the troops. Only after the cooks had been thanked – and Coach Childress had successfully strong-armed a chef into trading her chef's hat for his USO cap – were we finally ready to leave the DFAC.
(Don't ask me why Brad wanted the chef's hat. Perhaps he is going to try to sell Brett Favre on returning to Minnesota based on his newly-acquired cooking skills?)
No recounting of Day 2 of our USO tour would be complete without revisiting Day 1, when our attempted flight to Afghanistan was aborted due to a bird flying into our plane's engine during takeoff. As noted in the Day 1 blog, Eagles coach Andy Reid quickly became the scapegoat for this quirky accident, largely because he was in the cockpit during takeoff and because of his team's nickname, "The Birds."
Coach Reid continued to take significant abuse from the other coaches on Day 2 of the tour, such that anything that went wrong was immediately ascribed to Andy. The story about the bird got even funnier though on Day 2 when a couple of additional details about the incident emerged: 1) Where was the pilot flying our plane from? Philadelphia, of course. 2) What did the co-pilot yell over his headset to the pilot and crew just after we took off and the danger became evident? "Bird Alert! Bird Alert!" Maybe Coach Reid and the Eagles did bring some bad karma to that flight after all.
On Day 2 of our tour, we had an improvised itinerary, but our goal remained true to the NFL-USO tour mission – meet as many troops and shake as many hands as possible. We accomplished this goal by touring nearly every corner of Ramstein and meeting with troops at their posts, as well as visiting some of the other US military installations in the area. The US military community in and around Ramstein has the largest concentration of Americans citizens anywhere outside the US – which certainly enabled us to meet our goal.
Some of our top stops on Day 2 included the Control Tower, which commands and controls all planes taking off and landing at Ramstein; the C130 hangar where we met with the maintenance crew that works on the cargo planes; the Contingency Response Group (CRG) whose motto "Light, Lean, Lethal" makes sense given this group's vital role as the initial team on the ground to secure airfields and open new bases for our troops.
We also visited Vogelweh Military Complex, where the coaches got to test their skills on the same simulator our troops use to take target practice. We met with the troops at the Warrior Preparation Center, led by Col. Scott Manning, which uses simulations to train troops and prepare them for battle in the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan.
After a day of crisscrossing Ramstein Air Base and the surrounding region to visit with several hundred troops, our day ended with our military guide escorting us to a traditional German biergarten and restaurant. Just as the food that we had ordered arrived, Coach Reid's phone rang. Sitting before us on the table were plates of bratwurst, schnitzel, spätzle and other local specialties.
"Coach, I'm in Germany right now, and guess who I'm here with?" Andy Reid said into his cell phone. "Brad Childress, John Fox and Marvin Lewis. We're on a USO tour – hanging out with the troops. Trust me, you'd love to be here with us right now."
Who was it on the other end of the line? John Madden. I don't think the Madden Cruiser goes to Germany, let alone to Afghanistan. But given the all-American day that we had, and the German feast that sat before us, it did feel like a fitting scene for Coach Madden.