America's best got the chance to meet America's best when more than 100 University of Notre Dame and University of Miami football players, as well as the Fighting Irish cheerleaders, visited Fort Bliss Dec. 27-29.

The schools visited Bliss to get a taste of the training and lifestyle of today's Army before they faced off in the 2010 Hyundai Sun Bowl, Dec. 31.

The visits started Dec. 27 when dozens of orange-clad Hurricanes converged on Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss' Grand Hall for a meet-and-greet with fans and an autograph session.

Cpl. John Mathews, a Soldier with the 591st Military Police Company, 93rd MP Battalion "War Eagles," spent part of the last day of his Christmas leave period waiting for his favorite college football team to arrive. Though he said he was mainly there for autographs as he remains a "huge fan" of his childhood team, the former high school football player said his visit to Freedom Crossing was also about checking out old rivalries.

"A lot of the high schools these guys played at, I've played against, so I want to see if there are any guys I've played against," he said.

If the visit wasn't enough to turn any Hurricane non-believers at Fort Bliss into teal green and orange fans, Tyrone Cornileus, a freshman linebacker for Miami, may have been.

The son of a former Air Defense Artillery commander at Bliss, Cornileus was born at William Beaumont Army Medical Center here and though he didn't grow up as an Army kid, he said he remains an admirer of servicemembers for more reasons than one.

"My brother (Lamon) is in the Army, which is how I'm more familiar with it," he said. "He's stationed out of Fort Bragg and I've hung out with him there a lot." Lamon is currently deployed.

Since he left Bliss at such a young age, he said its sights and sounds were new to him, yet it felt good to be back.

"It means a lot for me to be here because this is where my life started," said Cornileus. "I never thought I'd make it back."

The following day, both teams made it back to Bliss and were met by more Soldiers and families when they arrived at Abernethy Obstacle Course on main post. One of them was Staff Sgt. Alan West, a Soldier from 125th Brigade Support Bn. "Mustangs," 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, and a Miami native. The military veteran said though he left home 15 years ago, seeing the Hurricanes here in his own back yard made time and distance melt away.

"This is real big," he said. "Being so far away from home, it's really beautiful of the guys to come here and to get the chance to go and see them play in person [at the Sun Bowl.]"

Hurricane and Irish players enjoyed a rappelling demonstration by Bliss Soldiers and received exposure to military hardware brought to the course by Soldiers from 1st Bn., 6th Infantry Regiment, and 1st Bn., 35th Armored Regt., both of the 2nd BCT, 1st AD; as well Echo Battery, 2nd Squadron, 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regt. and Alpha Btry., 1st Sqdrn., 43rd ADA Regt., both of the 11th ADA Bde.

Players also got the chance to experience the 21st century technology Soldiers utilize daily at the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000 building on main post. There, in a virtual environment, players got the opportunity to learn about some of the automatic weapons used by Bliss troops and put them into action.

Split into four squads, players took part in different team-based scenarios where they had to combat simulated enemy squads. Where the average shooter scored about ten successful hits against the enemy, Notre Dame quarterback Brian Castello scored 21 hits in less than two minutes.

"That was really cool," said the Pittsburgh native, "because I've only fired a gun one other time in my life. It was cool to see what the troops go through in order to train. We're excited to be here."

Big kids weren't the only fans who enjoyed the visit. Young Thomas Rasmussen, the son of Spc. Jason Kuzdzal, a Soldier from 11th ADA Bde., said he liked seeing the Sun Bowl players up close.

"These players are big," he gasped, "I like being here."

While Rasmussen liked being at the course, Sgt. Maj. Doug Scott was one fan who didn't like not being there. The deployed Soldier from Indiana is currently supporting a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan and is a diehard Irish fan.

"It's weird not to have him here," said Carol Scott, his wife, of Notre Dame's visit, "but I brought his son and we're getting pictures of him with the players and sending them."

Carol toted a Notre Dame flag at Abernethy which she had Irish players autograph in her husband's absence.

That evening the teams convened at the Centennial Banquet and Conference Center at East Fort Bliss for a sit-down dinner with the military, and the following day the Irish cheerleaders and mascot generously made their way to Freedom Crossing to meet with Army families as well.

Strangers when the team busses rolled in to the Abernethy Obstacle Course on Dec. 28, by the time the sun went down over Fort Bliss, the football players and Soldiers seemed to become fast friends. Sergeant 1st Class Albert Fletcher, a Soldier from A Btry, 2nd Sqdrn., 43 ADA Regt., 11th ADA Bde., who helped with the rappelling demonstration, said a lot of that was due to the comparable lives football players and Soldiers live.

"We were talking about how an Army unit and a football team are similar because a state of cohesiveness has to be there for success," said Fletcher. "You have to be able to work together."

He said he especially enjoyed the players from South Bend, but appreciated the visit by both teams.

"The Notre Dame guys seemed free flowing and relaxed. I liked this group," he said. "It was definitely great to have these teams come through here."

Castello said any appreciation Soldiers like Fletcher felt for his team's visit and what they do on the football field was exceeded by the Irish's appreciation for the invitation and for what Soldiers do on the battle field.

"Every one of us is very blessed for the opportunities we've had in our lives and we wouldn't have them without [the military]," he said, "so to be able to come in here and see how they train is an honor. We're blessed because they protect us and our country."

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