For years, Peter King has spent the better portion of the late summer traversing the country in search of information.
As the lead football writer for Sports Illustrated, it’s King’s job to hit training camps all over the United States with the intent of digging up as much knowledge about every team in the NFL as possible.
This year, though, King’s football education has been given a new layer of perspective that has nothing to do with what’s taking place on the various football fields across the country.
That outlook comes from his new mode of transportation and the new friends awaiting him at each stop along the way. King has teamed up with the USO and Mobile Program Manager Leigh Edmonds to take a van and the USO Mobile camper on a tour of training camps covering two thirds of the United States and XX training camp sites along the way.
“Usually on my training camp trip I am an island,” King said. “I totally exist for myself; all I care about is getting to the next place, seeing this team and trying to draw some conclusions, seeing people and all that stuff…I think it’s been a way for teams to say to the military ‘We appreciate you.’ It’s been a way for the USO to bridge the gap between the military and teams and it’s just been a way for me to get a little perspective on my life of which I usually have no perspective whatsoever because all I care about is ‘How long can I talk to
King, Edmonds and a small traveling party which includes two drivers for the USO mobile camper and a Sports Illustrated photographer, have already covered about 5,500 miles on this tour and arrived in St. Louis in time for Tuesday morning’s walk through.
As has become custom, King and Co. were greeted at the Russell Training Center by 10 members of the Air Force’s 239th Combat Communications Squadron based out Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
Those troops were invited to the closed walk through session to watch the Rams practice and eat lunch with the players and coaches afterward. When the practice was finished, the entire team hustled to the sidelines to meet and greet the troops in attendance.
“It was great,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “They went in and had lunch with the team today. They are a good group of guys. It was good to have them here.”
After being informed that King and his crew were coming to St. Louis, Kathy O’Connor, the Executive Director of the USO of Missouri, reached out to all local units offering the opportunity to come to practice and spend a day with the Rams.
The 239th was able to get away from setting up the communications satellites, antennas, telephone and internet for the base for one day and arrived Tuesday morning. For Staff Sergeants Matt Hembree and Adam Martinez, it was a nice respite from work and an even cooler experience to be around the game they love so much.
Hembree is from Jefferson City and attended Mizzou at the same time as Rams receiver
But now that Bradford is a Ram, Hembree is a fan.
“I’m a huge football fan,” Hembree said. “I have always wanted to do this and it’s great to finally be out here.”
Martinez grew up in California but was a Detroit Lions fan because of his grandfather, who lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He says he always dreamed of playing running back in the NFL because he idolized Barry Sanders but his lack of height never allowed for it.
That made his experience on the Rams’ sideline even better because he says he got an up close look at what the players go through on a daily basis.
“I am a big football fan,” Martinez said. “I’ve been a big football fan forever. I love seeing the players, seeing the practice, them being themselves and not necessarily having to always be professional in front of the camera. It’s good to see them come out here and be professional in person and interact with each other.”
Staff Sergeants Hembree and Martinez have not been the only ones touched by the experience of visiting NFL camps.
King and Edmonds said the reactions across the country have been priceless.
Upon visiting Detroit, the entire Lions offensive line stopped practice in the middle of drills to greet a group of Marines visiting.
In New England, owner Robert Kraft stopped and spoke to a group of soldiers for 15 minutes and when the troops walked out on the field, the fans in attendance gave them a four minute standing ovation. The crowd reacted similarly in Kansas City yesterday.
And in Carolina, owner Jerry Richardson invited the troops on to the sideline where they were standing next to the team during the practice.
That’s just a small sampling of the effect the meet and greets are having on players, coaches, fans and soldiers alike. It’s all a part of the special bond that seems to exist between the military and the football world.
“The NFL has just been really good (with this),” King said. “Obviously there is this link between the NFL and military but I think in general it’s been a pretty good trade off on both sides. What I have found is that this has been one of the greatest things I have ever done in this business because you see every day, how excited people are: people on that side of the field, the players and coaches love having the military around and then the military guys love being around the teams.”
Nowhere is that connection more evident than here in St. Louis.
Last year, the Rams’ community relations department invited about 150 troops out to practice on Veterans Day to take in practice and meet the team.
Each season, the team has a military appreciation day (this year’s will be on Nov. 20) and at each regular season game a local soldier is honored in the military salute. In recent years, Rams cheerleaders have gone overseas to Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Kosovo to visit deployed troops.
Former Rams quarterback Marc Bulger even helped raise more than $300,000 to build a new USO lounge at Lambert Airport for troops coming and going through town.
Needless to say, the relationship between the Rams and the USO of Missouri is an important one and that was only re-iterated by the scene at Tuesday’s practice.
“The Rams have been unbelievably supportive of the USO of Missouri,” O’Connor said. “Every year we have great support when the Rams do their military appreciation day. We are always involved in dispersing the tickets and making events as pleasurable as possible for our military. We feel very blessed with all the support we get from the Rams and love that we get to continue that relationship.”