Best of BWI: Former Lions visit U.S. troops

As 2012 comes to a close, we're taking this opportunity to recognize the stories that shaped the past 12 months.
On this Christmas day especially, it seems appropriate to remember the men and women protecting our freedoms. Recently, former Nittany Lions O.J. McDuffie and Troy Drayton did the same, making a special trip to Afghanistan to spend time with and lift the spirits of members of the U.S. armed forces.
* This story appeared in the November 21, 2012 edition of Blue White Illustrated.
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By Lori Shontz
Blue White Contributor
When the bomb went off, O.J. McDuffie wasn't worried. Neither was Troy Drayton.
For one thing, it was far away, relatively speaking. They could hear the noise as they were signing autographs on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, but they didn't see anything amiss.
For another, no one around them seemed worried. Although everyone seemed to be on alert all the time, and everyone was wearing a sidearm or carrying a rifle, no one had drawn a gun.
And the biggest thing, for both former Nittany Lions, was the company they were keeping on that late September day. "We felt safe," McDuffie said. "It was probably the best offensive line I've played behind."
Added Drayton: "What did we really have to be worried about when you're protected by the world's finest soldiers?"
And so they kept signing - and chatting with the servicemen and women who had lined up to see them.
The former Nittany Lions spent 13 days this fall in Afghanistan, touring with four cheerleaders from the Miami Dolphins, their former NFL team, and visiting with U.S. military personnel. The cheerleaders did a show. There were trivia contests. Question-and-answer sessions. And sometimes, McDuffie and Drayton just sat around and played cards or dominos with the soldiers.
"We just tried to lighten the mood," McDuffie said. "They call it Groundhog Day - each day is the same, over and over and over - so we wanted to break up the monotony."
And they wanted to show their respect.
"It's 1 percent of our total population protecting our borders," McDuffie said. "It's important for me to go over and let them know how much we appreciate that."
Both men have family members in the military. Drayton's best friend growing up, Glenn Yetter, is serving his third tour of Afghanistan as a member of the Army Reserve (they got to hang out on the trip), and Drayton said that had football not worked out, the military would have been his "second option."
"We just don't understand the sacrifices that these men and women make every day," he said. "And they don't get the recognition they deserve."
Both McDuffie and Drayton have stayed involved with the Dolphins since retiring from the NFL, McDuffie as a radio announcer (he hosts "Inside Dolphins" for two hours every evening) and Drayton as a member of the team's youth and community outreach department. A year ago, when Drayton's boss asked if they were interested in traveling to U.S. military bases, both men were eager.
Their first trip, 10 days long, started at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, and they eventually ended up visiting soldiers in Bosnia. On that trip, they played a lot of flag football, and Drayton learned that he didn't need to know any Croatian words to coach a team of Croatian solider/players. All he needed was a quarterback who spoke a few words of English and a lot of hand signals.
"It was funny how they were doing exactly what I was telling them to do," Drayton said. "What it taught me is that sports is one of the few universal languages."
One unscheduled stop was memorable, too. The players were eating lunch at a food court in a mall when a man who was trying to put together a football team introduced himself. Drayton and McDuffie ended up meeting the fledgling players in a park and putting on an impromptu clinic in the snow.
"It was so pure," Drayton said. "And humbling in a sense. These were people who spoke a different language, and there we were in the middle of all of it teaching them something that we're all passionate about."
When they were asked, several months later, if they wanted to travel to Afghanistan, neither hesitated.
This trip, into a war zone, required more preparation. McDuffie and Drayton took an online anti-terrorism course, a test that took a couple of hours, so they knew what to do if something went wrong. They had to get certain vaccinations. And they had to get fitted for equipment, including bulletproof vests.
That wasn't easy; most soldiers aren't the size of former NFL players, particularly former tight ends. Said McDuffie, "I was OK, but they had to dig really deep for one for Troy."
The danger was real. One of the bases they visited had been attacked by 15 insurgents just two weeks before. On a different tour, at a different forward operating base, a comedian's show was interrupted by an attack.
"The frightening thing is, we went only to the FOBs that were safe to go to, and we still had one bomb," McDuffie said.
Internet reports joked that the former players were there to be bodyguards for the cheerleaders, and McDuffie confirmed that the women were a big hit on the bases. And not just among the male American soldiers.
"I tell you what, a lot of Afghan nationals work at the bases, and they were the first in line to see the cheerleaders," he said, laughing. "They couldn't wait to see women dressed like that."
But mostly, the men said, the soldiers just wanted to chat. They wanted to talk football, college and pro, and other sports. They wanted to laugh and joke about inconsequential things. They wanted to feel as normal as possible.
One of their stops was at the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Force Base. "That took me back through the battles we had on the football field," Drayton said. "It was just kind of taken aback by those things. He was a dedicated and tenacious football player, and he had the same mentality when he was serving on the battlefield."
After spending some time with the military, Drayton said, he sees why battle metaphors are so common in football. "Because really and truly, when you're going out on that field, you're fighting for each other. In both football and the military, there's a brotherhood there and a bond that's unbreakable."
But he said he also realizes that the metaphors only go so far. "If we make a mistake, we get yelled at in the meeting room," he said. "If they make a mistake, it costs peoples' lives."
Weeks after returning home, Drayton was still marveling at the U.S. servicemen and women.
"The pressure that's on them to be perfect - to be mission-oriented and task-oriented - I can't imagine it," he said. "I can't imagine a pressure that's on a guy knowing that the person to the right or to the left of them depends on him like that. Their game is life or death.
"Our game, we get injured, we get a chance to go home and kiss our families and the end. They don't. They make a mistake, they may come home in a body bag."
McDuffie said he hopes he gets asked to participate on another such tour. "It was absolutely amazing," he said. "I'd go back in a heartbeat."
Drayton would, too. "I've gotta tell you," he said, "it was life-changing."