WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 18, 2013) -- It wasn't smash-mouth football, but there were moments when the game spilled into a rumble and tumble filled with laughs and friendly bantering between the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team and a squad of seasoned NFL veterans and Washington Redskins Alumni.
The game was in conjunction with Warrior Care Month, an observance established by the Defense Department in 2008, as a way of making the public aware of the sacrifices of wounded, ill or injured service members. The month was also designed as a way to showcase these men and women, who rebuilt through resiliency what they once felt were shattered lives.
Before the Nov. 16 kickoff, at McMurtrie Field on the grounds of Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., colors were conducted, followed by a prayer and presentation of an engraved bench dedicated to a former school coach. Retired NFL Cleveland Browns' player Eric Metcalf was also inducted into the school's hall of fame for breaking a slew of records at O'Connell, from which he graduated in 1983.
Then the amputees were introduced to the cheering crowd in the bleachers who had come to support the fund-raising effort put on by the non-profit Military Benefit Association, which raised $50,000 for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team and raffled off a grand prize trip for two to see the Redskins take on the New York Giants, Dec. 29. Players from both teams signed footballs and jerseys and about anything else a fan wanted signed.
Then the Redskins alumni and alumni from other NFL teams introduced themselves -- the Redskins' Brian Mitchell, Larry Brown, Mike Bass, Mack Alston, Cleveland Browns' Eric Metcalf, Houston Texans' CC Brown (currently a free agent), Detroit Lions' Eric Hipple, Denver Broncos' Tony Lilly, Baltimore Colts' Bruce Laird, Dallas Cowboys' Stan Gelbaugh and Miami Dolphins' kicker Garo Yepremian and others Derrick Dockery, TJ Fitzpatrick and Ted Vactor. Head cheerleader was Hall of Famer Sam Huff. Former Virginia governor George Allen served as coach for the NFL Alumni, as his father coached the Redskins from 1971 to 1977.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Greg Reynolds -- who lost his left arm and entire shoulder blade when a car hit his motorcycle shortly after returning from Iraq -- dealt with depression and anger at the extent of his injuries initially, but he's since become a changed man, bounced back and can now pump out 100 one-armed pushups, hardly breaking a sweat.
Today, Reynolds not only serves as co-captain of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team, but he's also on the Wounded Warriors Amputee Baseball Team, playing left field.
"I would just like to say, there are a lot of things in life that happen," Reynolds said. "The one thing that we all can control is our attitude; so instead of being negative about it, try to find the positive. Nobody wants to be around a negative person; find the positive and things will come your way," he said. "Don't sit on the couch feeling sorry for yourself."
Former Miami Dolphin place kicker Garo Yepremian, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Cyprus, brought his soccer skills to the NFL in 1966. The first game he played in was also the first game he happened to have ever seen. He would later be part of the Dolphins team that went undefeated, winning Super Bowl VII against the Washington Redskins.
Yepremian almost blew that game when he attempted a field goal which was blocked, then he batted it into the air. It was picked off by a Redskin who returned it for a touchdown. The Dolphins managed to pull off the win, 14-7.
He came to the game, not to play but to say thanks to the amputees and see old NFL friends, including former Redskin Mike Bass, who was the player that ran his bumbled play the opposite way for six points.
In those days, professional football players didn't earn big salaries, so they held other jobs the rest of the year. Yepremian said he felt a "real love of country," so he joined the Army National Guard and served for six years, beginning at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
"My friends told me that I'd better get in shape and I said, 'no problem, I've been to football camp.' I went to basic and I found out it was 100 times tougher than an NFL football camp and it made me a stronger man, gave me more discipline and it's made me a better person," he said.
Yepremian, who later became a U.S. citizen, had dinner with the amputees the previous night and said he saw the resiliency in them.
"I saw a lot of the young Soldier amputees yesterday, and I told my wife, 'I will never complain about my pain anymore, because I'm 69 years old, and I've had many problems as far as back and shoulder problems,'" he said. "I looked at them and I say, I can't believe this, these guys have given 100 percent of their lives to our country, and now they come back without an arm or leg, but they're not letting that keep them down."
Former Army Staff Sgt. Michael Caine lost his right leg in Iraq when his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine and rolled over, in 2003. His surgeons had been trying to salvage his left leg for the last 10 years, but they determined in October they couldn't continue, so it was amputated below the knee.
"I was upset at first, but then I took a couple of deep breaths and decided I wanted to do whatever I had to do to get back up on my feet and get back to my regular everyday life," he said. "So now I play hockey for the U.S.A. Warriors Ice Hockey Team and I'm just waiting for my rehabilitation to be over and I'll hopefully be able to get a job working with the Washington Capitals in the front office."
Former Marine staff sergeant and co-captain of the football team, B.J. Ganam, was hit by an improvised explosive device on Thanksgiving night 2004, in Iraq. The blast killed his gunner and left Ganam with an amputated leg below the knee.
"When I first realized I was being MedEvac'ed, that was it for me, that was my career, it was pretty depressing and took a lot of time to get over, a lot of work with a bunch of different organizations, a lot of supporters to help me get to the point where I am now where I think I'm thriving and doing a lot of good stuff," he said.
Ganam said his life has come full circle through the help of veterans organizations and he's moving ahead, not looking back at what has been. He's now working as a veteran-to-veteran mentor for the Semper Fi Fund and America's Fund to help veterans transition. They have to learn, adapt and overcome, he said.
For the game Saturday, the field was shortened and played between the 25-yard lines with no kicking. Even so, runs and passes were along sidelines, "hail-Mary" passes wobbled through the air and some of the players enjoyed soft take-downs, even though it was flag football.
The score went back and forth, trading touchdows (no field goals), but with one minute to go, the amputees pulled off their fifth straight victory 28-21, leaving the team undefeated.
The Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team's sixth game promises to be a tough match against 9/11 first-responders from the New York City Fire Department, slated for Jan. 25, 2014.