By Jim Dresbach
Pentagram Staff Writer
BALTIMORE - A mutual admiration exists between the current National Football League World Champion Baltimore Ravens and the United States military.
A total of 3,500 service members and their families basked in the warm August sunshine and enjoyed premiere seating for the NFL Champions’ preseason practice Aug. 11, which doubled as military appreciation day. As the seats filled, the east end zone of the Ravens home field M&T Bank Stadium could have been dubbed the camouflage zone instead of the red zone.
A fanatical devotion has been built between the Charm City’s NFL franchise and the five branches of the armed forces. Soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors and members of the Coast Guard and their families were armed with Raven memorabilia — footballs, jerseys, helmets and framed pictures — as the front-line autograph seekers went eyeball to eyeball with Coach John Harbaugh, Super Bowl most valuable player quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and at least a dozen other Ravens following the two-and-a-half hour practice.
Sitting front and center between the end zone goal posts was Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall-based Old Guard Soldier Pfc. Robert Leegrand of the 529th Military Police Company. The Raven military appreciation day practice was his first, and he leaped at the chance to attend.
"I’m in the front row; this is pretty cool," Leegrand said. "[The Ravens] are very supportive of the soldiers and all the branches of the military. I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Testaments toward the purple fervor were numerous in the military section. Fort Meade’s 1st Army Division JAG Corps Maj. Melissa Colesky was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in February, but took leave to head stateside for the Super Bowl. While she waited for player signatures, Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins; adjutant general, Joint Force Headquarters Maryland National Guard, was on the turf surveying practice drills and the scrimmage.
"We have a close relationship with the Ravens," said Adkins, who is a die-hard fan. "The two times they won the Super Bowl, they rode with the Maryland National Guard in our vehicles in the victory parade. I had the honor to ride with Coach Harbaugh this past year when they rode to victory."
Air Force Capt. Andrew Hott is a ROTC instructor at the University of Delaware and made the hour-and-a-half drive to Baltimore with his family. He has been attending the team’s pre-season practices religiously since relocating to the Mid-Atlantic region.
"We love the Ravens; we try to get here every year since we moved to the east coast," Hott said while his family roamed the stadium sidelines. "Anytime I can get over to see my team, I get over here."
Each summer, Adkins gets the opportunity to meet training camp rookies, free agents and veterans. He remembered a past preseason when an impressionable Raven running back approached asking for a favor.
"I assumed this job in 2008 in the summer, and one of the first things I did was to come out to one of these practices and got to meet Ray Lewis, break a huddle and do that sort of thing," the adjutant general recalled. "There was this young football player who came up to me and said, ‘Sir, can I have my picture taken with you?’ I told him sure. I remembered his number, and I went to look him up later, and it was Ray Rice. It was his first training camp, and now I would be asking for his autograph and a picture."
Harbaugh and Flacco addressed the crowd before the 5 p.m. practice commenced and verbally appreciated those in attendance — especially the men and women in uniform.
"I hope everybody has a great time," Harbaugh said over the public address system. "As for the military, they give so much, so we want to give back to you. We thank you for what you do."
In May, 2012, Harbaugh received the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award during a Twilight Tattoo at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. He has been instrumental in organizing and sending care packages and holiday card campaigns to service members in Afghanistan.