ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Army News Service, Feb. 23, 2007) - Past and present members of the National Football League joined the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command's observance of African-American History Month here today.

In a panel discussion, former professional players Bill Willis, Brig Owens, Darrell Green, Rick "Doc" Walker and current Washington Redskins player Kedric Golston talked about how early African-American players paved the way for today's African-American athletes.

"It's about living the American dream," said Maj. Gen. James Myles, ATEC commanding general, as he opened the program. "In our (regular ethnic observances) we have to remember it wasn't always the way it is now. If we don't remember the past, there's a good chance to slide backwards."

The panel members represented each decade in which the NFL has allowed African-American players.

Willis was the first African-American player who signed on to play professional football, a full year before Jackie Robinson broke the racial barriers in professional baseball. When Willis began playing for the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s, he said, he was subject to discrimination both on and off the field.

Walker, who served as the event's moderator, pointed out that Willis didn't succumb to discrimination, and opened the door for other athletes.

"Because he didn't fight back, become belligerent or quit, the rest of us had an opportunity to follow him," Walker said.

Willis attributed his successes, on the football field and in life, to mentors he had along the way.

"When one gets ahead in anything, it means that someone has helped them," Willis said. He shared that the person who encouraged him was Ohio State football coach Paul Brown, who looked past his ethnicity to see that he was a talented player who deserved to play college ball.

"It took someone to give me the opportunity," he said. "There were times things were pretty rough. All players didn't accept that I should play on the same field, but I made the best out of the situation."

As a former Redskins player and assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, Owens shared that his successes in life have come from being prepared for the unanticipated.

"I know you have dreams and aspirations," he told a handful of local high school football players in the audience. "All those dreams can come true if you believe enough and base everything on a strong foundation of education."

The panelists emphasized that by making the best of a situation and following others' footsteps, one can succeed in life.

"We all come to a fork in the road where we have to make important decisions," said Golston, who represented the youngest generation of NFL players, "but we should seek out those who can help us and who we can learn from."

"I'm only 23," he said. "But I'm going to take advantage of my situation so I can make an impact on others."

These players are really trailblazers, said Brig. Gen. Belinda Pinckney after the event. She said they are making a difference for others by making the most of life's opportunities.

Pinckney, commanding general for the Army's Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command, is also making the most of her opportunities - she and her sister are the first two African-American women to become general officers in the Army.

"I think everyone is put in places for a reason," she said. "The military has offered a wonderful opportunity for me to also make a difference."

Concluding the observance, Myles thanked the participants. "You have paved the way for these men to go forward and live their dreams," he told the panelists. "You have broken the path for others."

"This is about opportunity, but the journey is not over. Ours is the same journey," Myles said. "This is another demonstration that we are the most powerful country in the world because we give people the opportunity."

(Carmen L. Gleason writes for the American Forces Press Service.)