By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff WriterNovember 26, 2013
ARLINGTON, VA. - Their journeys and missions have included Iraq and Afghanistan, and at one time or another, Washington D.C., for rehabilitation. But during the afternoon of Nov. 16, Wounded Warrior amputees mustered for a flag football game and received ovations from a standing-room-only crowd at Arlington's Bishop O'Connell High School.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage were Washington Redskins and National Football League alumni, yet more smiles than scowls were exchanged during the two halves of football as the WWAFT prevailed 28-21.
The team, which remained undefeated for the season, is a mixture of veterans who now showcase their abilities despite the loss of a limb or limbs. Though an arm or a leg may have been amputated, former Army cadets, sailors and infantrymen proved they can still run a pass route, intercept a pass attempt or run down a tailback.
WWAFT captain, leg amputee and Marine veteran B.J. Nieman addressed the crowd before the opening snap. He told fans of the love he and his teammates have for the National Capital Region.
"D.C. and the greater D.C. area holds a special place, not only in my heart, but in the hearts of all these Wounded Warriors," said Nieman, who was injured by an improvised explosive device in November, 2004.
"Most of us came through here in our recovery processes. I am so grateful for the help I received at the local military hospitals. We were welcomed by all of you, and it is so great to see you out here to give us support again. This is a dream come true. We really love the opportunity to play on the same field with these guys - the NFL stars."
Pro football notables on hand included Redskins favorites Brian Mitchell, Hall of Famer Sam Huff, Super Bowl championship kicker Garo Yepremian, O'Connell graduate and Cleveland Browns return specialist Eric Metcalf and former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple.
"We were blessed with some skills to go on the field and enjoy a game in a free society because of these veterans who actually gave up a tremendous amount for us to have that freedom," Hipple said right before the 1 p.m. opening snap. "To show up on the same field and play against them is just fantastic. They all look like they're in shape, so they'll probably kick our tails. Their ability to adapt and bounce back is encouraging to see."
The amputees' arrivals on the WWAFT roster hold unique stories but are all filled with adaptation and resiliancy. Some held stellar careers at West Point athletic fields, while others held Division One athletic scholarships. Bobby Donnelly once owned a swimming career at Towson State University before joining the Navy. Now the 31-year-old father of three still owns an active lifestyle and three prostetic right legs to help him stay in shape.
"I got injured during a high altitude training jump at night with all my gear on," said Donnelly, who was injured in 2008 and lost his right leg below the knee in 2010. "I shattered my ankle, and I went through two and a half years of trying to save my leg. Eventually, I had to deal with amputation. I've been plugging along ever since."
Plugged into a receiver slot during the contest, Donnelly showed an athletic pair of hands that can grab a football. Thanks to a leg designed for running, he can pick up yards after the catch.
"I'm custom-fitted, and I get a leg that is fitted for my needs," he said.
"This is basically a running leg with a heel. I'm really active. I do cross-fit training, triathlons, and I have three kids I have to chase around at home. This foot allows me to do everything I want to do on a day-to-day basis.
Former Army lineman Seth Nieman stood six foot, five inches tall and weighed in at 300 pounds while playing at West Point. The Black Knight of the Hudson alum, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, is a WWAFT rookie and is amazed at the physical caliber of his teammates.
"It's impressive that a lot of these guys are out here throwing the ball around and getting around and running pretty good," Nieman remarked during warm-ups.