When the Redskins returned to practice after the bye week, they did so under the careful supervision of some of America’s finest: airmen from Andrews Air Force Base.
The military men and women were welcomed by USAA and the Redskins, who have teamed up for the NFL’s Military Appreciation celebration, being celebrated in Washington this Sunday.
“Any day that you can dedicate to warriors, both veterans and active, is really special,” said Redskins fullback Darrel Young, whose brother David is active in the US Army. “What I told them and I’ve been saying for years: we run 100 yards and people think that’s difficult. It’s not. These guys are running from IED’s and bombs, defending us and allowing us to play a game on Sundays.
“They have a joy watching us, and I have a joy kicking it with them.”
This is the first year that USAA teamed up with the Redskins for a practice visit, a connection that USAA Lead Marketing Manager of Sports Sponsorship and Events Brian Eaton called a natural fit.
“Being the official military appreciation sponsor of the NFL, our goal was to increase the tangible interaction between the troops and the team,” he said. “We did a little bit of research last fall and found out that that military has a higher affinity for professional sports, in general, because when you’re deployed or stationed overseas, this is a little piece of home.
“The Redskins were a natural choice for us and it was the first team we pursued. The Redskins have been great to work with because they already have some great military programs, so for us to come in and enhance them.”
Eaton called Monday’s experience the beginning of a strong relationship, which will continue on Sunday with other active military being selected to attend the game at FedExField.
With so many military installations in and around the Nation’s Capital, Eaton couldn’t think of a better way to spend Veterans Day.
“Washington D.C. is a huge military market, and it’s important for us to have a connection with teams that already have a strong affinity for the military,” he said. “It was very important for USAA to bring the military and the teams closer together, by having interactive experiences and letting them experience what the other one does.”
For Major George Onyenyeonwu, this was the first time watching a professional football team practice in person.
“This is an outstanding opportunity for us to be out here today and be this close to the players,” he said, scanning the practice drills. “It makes you feel appreciated, being here in uniform.”
Onyenyeonwu has been stationed all over the world during his career, and is currently in the middle of his second tour in Washington.
He admitted that he usually cheered for the home team wherever he goes, but the Redskins hold a special place for him after he got to know former Redskins defensive end Andre Carter.
“He was college friends with one of my neighbors, and I met him in 2004,” he said with a smile. “When I was deployed in 2009, Andre sent us Redskins items for the troops stationed in Afghanistan. Last year, he even came over to Andrews Air Force Base to sign autographs during our sports day.”
The airmen made their way down to practice shortly after it began, and were greeted by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who stepped away from warmup for long enough to shake hands and welcome them to stand closer along the sidelines.
After practice ended, Griffin III was the last player to leave the practice field, signing autographs and taking pictures with the men and women and sharing his own military background.
“My appreciation is deeper because I am a military kid,” Griffin III said. “I understand the life, I understand how devastating it can be at times and how much discipline it takes to live the life that they live, so I definitely appreciate them.
“People like them helped bring my dad home. To have them out here today to watch practice, and the little things that you can do to show that you appreciate them, that goes a long way.”
The appreciation wasn’t lost on Senior Airman Bahja Jones of Fort Worth, Texas, who said she was a little star struck to meet one of the most exciting players in all of football.
“It was really cool that he came up and personally shook everyone’s hands,” she said with a broad smile. “He actually ran out of practice to do that, so that was awesome. Both of his parents were military, so he understands.”
Jones said that she also comes from a military family, and looks forward to being stationed at the same base as her brother next year.
She said she couldn’t wait to rub it in her brothers’ faces after Monday’s practice that she got to watch the Redskins practice.
“I’m going to Qatar, and it’s going to be really cool,” she said. “But while I’m still here in Washington, I hope to catch another Redskins’ Military Appreciation game.”