JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. (Jan. 22, 2013) -- Former professional football players met "real warriors" Jan. 12, and discovered they had a lot in common.
With a central theme of psychological health and wellness, more than 100 Joint Base Lewis McChord, or JBLM, Soldiers, Airmen and their families sat around tables in front of a big screen at Nelson Recreation Center on Lewis Main for the National Football League Game Day event to hear from retired NFL players Orlando Huff, Chris Sanders and Joe Tafoya.
The NFL Players Association, or NFLPA, partnered with the Defense Centers of Excellence Real Warriors Campaign to show appreciation for the military. As they spoke, the correlations and similarities became apparent between Soldiers and professional athletes playing a violent sport.
JBLM Commander Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr. told audience members they were present to watch the Denver Broncos vs. Baltimore Ravens playoff game, as well as talk about the partnership with the NFLPA.
"The things you find with our service members -- hard work, sacrifice, loyalty, physical and mental strength -- are the same attributes you find in our NFL players," Hodges said. "We're teammates in many respects."
The Real Warriors Campaign was founded three years ago as a multimedia public awareness campaign that encourages help-seeking behavior among service members and veterans. Hodges said the Game Day event was to help break down the stigma sometimes associated with reaching out and seeking help for traumatic brain injuries or psychological health issues.
"There is no weakness in asking for the assistance you may need," Hodges said.
The retired NFL players shared their own personal testimonies of losing fame and glory and transitioning out of the league into corporate jobs, similar to service members' transition into the civilian sector.
"A lot of times the Soldiers look at us as heroes," Sanders said. "I want to come in here and show that athletes and people in the military go through the exact same thing. We go through struggles. We go through pains."
Sanders played at Ohio State University and was drafted by the Houston Oilers in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft. He played eight seasons in the NFL with the Houston/Tennessee Oilers and the Tennessee Titans.
"I have never been to war, but when I retired my war started," Sanders said.
The former player said after retirement he lost his money and his wife. Sanders said he had it all, including a 4,500-square-foot house, in which he sat contemplating suicide.
"All we have to do is reach up and get the help we need," Sanders said. "Until I reached out and got help, that was when my life changed."
Tafoya and Huff share similar stories about transitioning out of the NFL, an ongoing process for them. They said the adjustment period averages five years for most players.
Huff was drafted out of Fresno State by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth round of the 2001 NFL Draft. He played six seasons with the Seahawks and Cardinals. He became a father during his post-NFL transition, when phone calls from agents and teams stopped coming. He encouraged the audience to get their "teams" of family and friends together to help.
Tafoya played seven seasons in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. He appeared in the 2005 Super Bowl as a Seahawk against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During the 2008 training camp with the Cardinals Tafoya suffered a career-ending injury -- the year the Cardinals went on to the Super Bowl.
"Some people can smoothly transition and other people need help," Tafoya said. "And I was one of those who needed help."
Tafoya said he used skills learned in professional sports during his transition. He is now the CEO of a media company in Seattle.
Spc. Preston Grove, with B Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Division, said he related to the stress the former athletes experienced. Grove was on his second deployment to Afghanistan when he was shot in his right shoulder in October. When he returned to JBLM he found it difficult to to be around other people, especially off base.
But Grove was excited for the opportunity to meet and talk with the NFL stars in person.