FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Aug. 6, 2012) -- As the Baltimore Ravens prepare for the National Football League season, the team opened its training camp to 20,324 fans Saturday evening.
Among the energetic crowd that nearly filled the entire lower level of M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, more than 3,000 seats were reserved for service members, retirees and family members as part of the Ravens' fifth annual Military Appreciation Day.
The event was instituted by Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh during his first season with the team in 2008.
"It's great that Coach Harbaugh reached out to the military and is doing this [Military Appreciation Day for us," said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region/Military District of Washington. "We love the Ravens and the fact that he's paying tribute to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and deployed."
In addition to being seated near the endzone, service members received T-shirts, patriotic gifts, and opportunities for autographs and photos with players and cheerleaders.
Prior to the practice, Harbaugh met with service members to sign autographs and shake hands.
"Just want to thank all the folks from the U.S. military who were here ... just all of our good friends in the military for being here," Harbaugh said after the practice. "Thank you for what you do. Freedom is not free, and we can't do what we do without you. Thank you very much."
During practice, several service members including Linnington and Fort George G. Meade Garrison Commander Col. Edward C. Rothstein walked around the field for a closer look at the practice and to meet several of the players including running back Ray Rice and safety Ed Reed.
Staff Sgt. Reynold Thomas of the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va., was among the fans watching the practice from the endzone seats. Saturday was the closest Thomas had ever been to an NFL field.
"I would like to go on there," he said.
Several service members said they enjoyed watching how the team trains for the season.
"It's great seeing how they practice," Thomas said. "It looks kind of chaotic out there."
Staff Sgt. Clayton Hodge of the Fort Meade Medical Activity didn't know people came to watch preseason practices.
While he doesn't follow the Ravens, Hodge said that as a fan of football he appreciated the team reserving seats for service members to see the action up close.
"It's nice," he said. "It's good."
"It's well worth it," he said of the event. "I don't know how they do it, but I appreciate it for sure."