ATLANTA - About 60 Fort Benning Soldiers were guests at the Georgia Dome for Sunday's game between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.

The group got a workout prior to kickoff while pulling duty on the Falcons Fitness Flag Crew. Just before halftime, 20 Soldiers were recognized on the field, where they marched into an end zone during a timeout and received a thunderous ovation from the crowd of 69,560, with many fans chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"

Even the Soldiers who stayed behind in their seats as the short tribute played out were showered with handshakes and pats on the back from people sitting nearby.

"I loved it," said PVT Darren Shimasaki, 25, of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment. "It made me proud. Just to see people still supporting the U.S. military is a great feeling."

Most of the Soldiers, including Shimasaki, are wrapping up basic training and didn't know about the trip until hours before boarding the bus at Fort Benning. Many said they'd never been to an NFL game.

"I did not see this coming at all," Shimasaki said. "We just found out last night, before lights out. They told us to get our berets ready and bring the cleanest uniform we have."

The Falcons invited the Soldiers to take part in the team's pre-game events. They joined some Atlanta cheerleaders for aerobics, went through an on-field rehearsal with the Falcons Fitness Flag Crew, saw players warming up and got a complimentary lunch.

As music blared and the players came out of the tunnel just ahead of kickoff, the Soldiers helped unfurl the giant 40-yard-long red flag emblazoned with the Falcons logo.

"I'm a football fan. I love football," said SGT James Gattison of the 30th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception). "It was like a dream come true. Ever since high school, I always wanted to walk on an NFL field as a player. I guess this is as close as I'm going to get right now."

PVT Domnic McGee, 34, of Yorkshire, England, said he's about halfway through basic training with B Company, 2nd Battalion, 54th Infantry Regiment. He's lived in the United States since 2001 but had never attended a pro game here. McGee has only seen "snapshots" of American football on TV, he said.

"Seven weeks into basic, we haven't seen anything of the outside world, and we get this. It's a cerebral shock at the moment," he said before the game started. "I'm looking forward to seeing it, if I can follow it. It's so much more complicated than European sports like soccer or rugby.

"It's an honor for me to be here ... It's really the chance of a lifetime."

McGee said he always wanted to be an American Soldier. In June, he signed up with the California National Guard but it took eight years to secure the right immigration status for enlistment.

"The culture is driven around Americans where I'm from. I always wanted to live in Southern California," he said. "I thought the best thing to do would be to go to America and serve - and I finally got a chance to do it."

In his return to Atlanta after serving prison time for dogfighting, Michael Vick accounted for two touchdowns - one running, the other passing - as the Eagles routed the Falcons, 34-7.

PFC Jocelyn Minor, 19, a cadre Soldier assigned to the 192nd Infantry Brigade, was among the fans who cheered his return to the city where he became a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the Falcons before his legal problems and league suspension.

"He's great. (My favorite part was) when Vick got in the game finally," Minor said. "I never imagined being on the same field with Michael Vick, but when it happened, it was a shocker. It's been a good day."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16