Amputee Vets Top Pro Football Alumni in Warrior Care Month Game
By J.D. Leipold
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2013 It wasn't smash-mouth football, but the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team remained undefeated with a 28-21 victory Nov. 16 over a squad of National Football League veterans and Washington Redskins alumni at Bishop O'Connell High School’s McMurtrie Field in Arlington, Va.
Former Washington Redskins star Brian Mitchell tries to move around former Cleveland Browns player Eric Metcalf as an amputee player rushes in to yank the flag off Mitchell during a Warrior Care Month flag football game at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., Nov. 16, 2013. Sponsored by the nonprofit Military Benefit Association, $60,000 was raised for the amputees. U.S. Army photo by J.D. Leipold
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The game was part of Warrior Care Month, an observance established by the Defense Department in 2008 as a way of making the public aware of the sacrifices of wounded, ill or injured service members. The month also showcases men and women whose resilience rebuilt what they once felt were shattered lives.
Before the kickoff, presentation of the colors was followed by a prayer and the dedication of an engraved bench honoring a former coach at the school. In addition, retired Cleveland Browns player Eric Metcalf, a 1983 Bishop O’Connell graduate who set numerous records there, was inducted into the school's hall of fame.
Then the amputees were introduced to the cheering crowd in the bleachers who had come to support the fund-raising effort put on by the nonprofit Military Benefit Association, which raised $60,000 for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team and raffled off a grand prize trip for two to see the Redskins take on the New York Giants on Dec. 29. Players from both teams signed footballs and jerseys and nearly anything else a fan wanted signed.
Then the Redskins alumni and alumni from other NFL teams introduced themselves. In addition to Metcalf, they included former Redskins’ players Brian Mitchell, Larry Brown, Mike Bass and Mack Alston; free agent C.C. Brown, formerly of the Houston Texans; Eric Hipple of the Detroit Lions; Tony Lilly of the Denver Broncos; Bruce Laird, who played for the Baltimore Colts; Stan Gelbaugh of the Dallas Cowboys; and former Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian. Other former NFL players on hand included Derrick Dockery, T.J. Fitzpatrick and Ted Vactor.
Hall of famer Sam Huff served as head cheerleader, and former Virginia Gov. George Allen, whose father coached the Redskins from 1971 to 1977, served as coach for the NFL Alumni.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Greg Reynolds -- who lost his left arm and shoulder blade when a car hit his motorcycle shortly after he returned from Iraq -- said he initially dealt with depression and anger at the extent of his injuries, but that he's since become a changed man who can pump out 100 one-armed pushups while hardly breaking a sweat.
Today, Reynolds not only serves as co-captain of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team, but also plays left field for the Wounded Warriors Amputee Baseball Team. He offered some advice for others facing challenges.
"There are a lot of things in life that happen," Reynolds said. "The one thing that we all can control is our attitude, so instead of being negative about it, try to find the positive. Nobody wants to be around a negative person. Find the positive, and things will come your way. Don't sit on the couch feeling sorry for yourself."
Yepremian, who emigrated to the United States from Cyprus, brought his soccer skills to the NFL in 1966. Although the first American football game he played in was also the first game he ever saw, he later would be part of the 1972 Dolphins team that remains as the only team to win the Super Bowl without having lost a game en route.
The Warrior Care Month game marked a reunion for Yepremian and Bass, who were involved in one of the NFL’s most infamous plays in Super Bowl VII. When a field goal he was attempting was blocked, Yepremian tried to save the play by fielding the ball and throwing a pass. But he batted the ball into the air, and Bass picked it off and returned it for a touchdown.
Yepremian said he came to the game not to play, but to thank the amputees and see old NFL friends, including Bass.
Professional football players didn't earn big salaries in Yepremian’s playing days, so most held other jobs the rest of the year. Yepremian said a "real love of country" led him to join the Army National Guard. He served for six years, beginning at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
"My friends told me that I'd better get in shape, and I said, 'No problem, I've been to football camp,' he said. “I went to basic [training] and I found out it was 100 times tougher than an NFL football camp and it made me a stronger man, gave me more discipline, and it's made me a better person."
Yepremian, who later became a U.S. citizen, had dinner with the amputees the previous night. Their resilience was evident, he said.
"I saw a lot of the young soldier amputees yesterday, and I told my wife, 'I will never complain about my pain anymore, because I'm 69 years old, and I've had many problems as far as back and shoulder problems [are concerned],'" he added. "I look at them and I say, ‘I can't believe this -- these guys have given 100 percent of their lives to our country, and now they come back without an arm or leg, but they're not letting that keep them down."
In 2003, former Army Staff Sgt. Michael Caine lost his right leg in Iraq when his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine and rolled over. His surgeons had been trying to salvage his left leg for 10 years, but they determined in October they couldn't continue, so it was amputated below the knee.
"I was upset at first, but then I took a couple of deep breaths and decided I wanted to do whatever I had to do to get back up on my feet and get back to my regular everyday life," he said. "So now I play hockey for the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Team, and I'm just waiting for my rehabilitation to be over and I'll hopefully be able to get a job working with the Washington Capitals in the front office."
B.J. Ganam, a former Marine Corps staff sergeant and co-captain of the football team, was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq on Thanksgiving night in 2004. The blast killed his gunner and left Ganam with his leg amputated below the knee.
"When I first realized I was being [medically evacuated], that was it for me -- that was my career,” he said. “It was pretty depressing and took a lot of time to get over -- a lot of work with a bunch of different organizations, a lot of supporters to help me get to the point where I am now, where I think I'm thriving and doing a lot of good stuff."
Ganam said his life has come full circle through the help of veteran organizations and that he's moving ahead, not looking back at what has been. He's now working as a veteran-to-veteran mentor for the Semper Fi Fund and America's Fund to help veterans transition. They have to learn, adapt and overcome, he said.
For the Amputees vs. Alumni game, the field was shortened and played between the 25-yard lines, with no kicking allowed. Runs and passes were along sidelines, "Hail Mary" passes wobbled through the air, and some of the players enjoyed soft takedowns, even though it was flag football.
With this fifth victory in five games under its belt, the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team's sixth game Jan. 25 promises to be a tough match, as they’ll face 9/11 first responders from the New York Fire Department.