By Troy Phillips for www.armedforcesbowl.com
Fort Worth, Texas, December 29, 2010 – Before the setbacks dealt Marine Corps Sgt. Nathan Dee in 2007 while on active duty, life was challenging enough. His wife served in another branch of the military, and they had three kids to raise.
Stationed in Iraq as part of a transition team that trained the country’s local police forces, Dee was the victim of an insurgent truck bomb and mortar fire that struck his unit. Now a patient at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and part of the Wounded Warrior Battalion East, Dee has a new set of daily struggles.
He suffers from a brain injury, post-concussive symptoms, two severely injured knees – Dee walks with a cane – and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ve been progressing backwards,” said Dee, one of several guest Wounded Warriors at this year’s Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl game and festivities. “I really wanted to be here. I asked, and got accepted, and it’s been great since we landed.”
Dee arrived at D/FW Airport with other Wounded Warriors and active-duty personnel to a throng of supporters, including players from Army (6-6) and SMU (7-6), who will face each other at 11 a.m. Thursday in the eighth Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl at Ford Stadium in Dallas. The Wounded Warriors again are the bowl’s guest VIPs and will be afforded every luxury and special treatment in a Ford Stadium suite. They’ll be honored in a halftime field ceremony.
The Wounded Warriors were recognized with a standing ovation at Wednesday’s BHAFB Kickoff Luncheon at the Omni Hotel in Fort Worth. Afterwards, Dee marveled at the bowl’s unique winner’s trophy, constructed from actual military hardware. This year, a spent tank round from a Fort Hood (Texas) battalion and frame parts from a Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa recon/ground support chopper were used to build the trophy.
“The DNA of this trophy is truly special,” BHAFB executive director Brant Ringler said.
“It’s an awesome trophy,” Dee said. “It’s awesome just looking at it.”
SMU and Army players spent Wednesday night playing Wii video games with Wounded Warriors and came away from the interaction further appreciating their sacrifices.
“That was special to honor them and enjoy their company,” SMU linebacker Pete Fleps said. “They got to experience being around some college football players, too. It really makes you appreciate their sacrifice and commitment to our nation. They allow us to be free and enjoy just playing football.”
Said Army senior linebacker Stephen Anderson: “Ultimately, they’re soldiers we’ll end up leading. The impact we have on the men and women overseas, it humbles you and brings you down to the level that in the big picture, it’s bigger than a football game.”
Dee, a native of Wasilla, Alaska, said the gratitude and support he and other Wounded Warriors have received has been overwhelming.
“It’s been awesome meeting people, and this hotel [the Omni] is beautiful,” he said. “This whole event just portrays the armed forces in such a good light and makes us feel so appreciated. The contractors like Bell Helicopter are already help us so much [in the field], and then they put this on for us, too. I’m so glad I could come.”
During his annual state-of-the-bowl address, Ringler said Bell Helicopter is “extremely happy by all indications” as the game’s title sponsor. After Thursday’s game, one year (2011) remains on the agreement. Ringler joked that Bell CEO John Garrison, a West Point graduate and former defensive back, is “tickled pink having Army in the game. We’re trying to keep him as biased as possible.”
Ringler sounded confident that Bell will remain tied to the event, adding that “Bell is pleased with the way we progressed with this bowl. It has to be more than just a regular football game. It has to be a complete tribute to the military because that’s what they’re all about. They’re not here to sell helicopters, they’re here to say thank you to the military.”
With the BHAFB an official sellout, the only tickets available are standing-room-only for $10 each. SMU’s home attendance record at Ford is 35,481 earlier this season against TCU, which could be broken Thursday. Both teams sold their allotments of 10,000 tickets apiece, and SMU coach June Jones and his players said Wednesday they expect Army supporters to outnumber those for SMU.
Among this year’s attractions in and around the BHAFB will be the interactive Armed Forces Adventure Area; a postgame concert by CSI: New York star Gary Sinise and his band, the Lt. Dan Band; military hardware displays and a flight simulator; meet-and-greets with Wounded Warriors, paratrooper teams from the U.S. Army Silver Wings and cadet teams; F-16 flyovers and double-amputee Dana Bowman, formerly of the Army’s Golden Knights paratrooper team, landing a 1,000 square-foot American flag at midfield during pregame.
Returning to SMU for the 2011 game is a possibility, Ringler said, but not a certainty. It depends on TCU’s renovation schedule of Amon G. Carter Stadium, which is underway. “Fort Worth is our home. We plan to return. Hopefully it will be next year.”
With TCU moving to the Big East Conference in 2012, the BHAFB’s partnership with the Mountain West Conference could “change down the road.” With Hawaii joining the Mountain West and other shifting, Ringler didn’t rule out change despite 2010 being the first in a four-year agreement to pair teams from the MWC and Conference USA.
Provided it is bowl eligible in 2013, Navy remains guaranteed to receive an invitation that year to the BHAFB. A future eligibility/guarantee agreement with Army remains in the works, Ringler said.
Army last bowled in 1996, when bowls had title sponsors but lacked military-specific themes or concepts other than being in areas heavy on bases or active-duty personnel. The irony of landing in the BHAFB for its bowl return isn’t lost on Army coach Rich Ellerson.
“It’s especially appropriate,” Ellerson said. “The Bell Helicopter people, [CEO] John [Garrison] has done a wonderful job of keeping the focus, keeping the emphasis on our men and women in uniform. This is a tribute to them. Our guys are ever mindful of that. They bring that with them. The events yesterday where we had cadets at the hospital greeting soldiers coming back, they came back glowing. That was not a chore for them; that was an honor for them. That was something they brought back to their teammates and reflected on. That was a glimpse of their futures, a glimpse of the challenge that lies before them, the community they serve.”
By the numbers…
350,000: U.S. servicemen and women deployed in active duty in 130 countries.
90,000: Men and women currently serving in Afghanistan.
50,000: Men and women currently serving in Iraq.
41,000: Men and women wounded during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq going back to 2003.
5,800: Lives lost during wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Quotable – “When I played at Tulsa, I never sniffed a bowl game. I played in a lot of homecoming games. We never ruined anyone’s homecoming. We were the perfect guest.” – Former Dallas Cowboys receiver Drew Pearson, the BHAFB Kickoff Luncheon keynote speaker.
Now a freelance writer based in the Fort Worth area, Troy Phillips covered various teams and beats for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 17 years, including Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, North Texas and small colleges. Among several bowls Troy covered (Rose, Holiday, Cotton, Texas, Galleryfurniture.com) were the last three Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowls. He covered high schools at two smaller papers and the S-T after graduating from TCU in 1990, and covered the debut of Major League Soccer in North Texas when FC Dallas (then the Dallas Burn) arrived on the scene. For more than a decade, Troy was part of coverage teams at the region’s two PGA Tour events, the HP Byron Nelson Championship and the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, and for years was one of the S-T’s backup golf writers. In 2009, he was named Sportswriter of the Year by the Lone Star Conference. He has a master’s degree (1995) from the University of North Texas.