By Spc. Jeffrey Ledesma
1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs
BAGHDAD – Instead of an outer tactical vest they don shoulder pads. Instead of combat boots, they slide on cleats. And instead of an army combat uniform top, they slip on their team's jersey.
To increase troops' morale, three National Football League players, weighing in at a combined 662 pounds, visited with Multi-National Division – Baghdad Soldiers at the Liberty Morale Welfare and Recreation building April 16.
As part of the Gridiron Greats Tour 2007, Chris Harris, a safety with the Chicago Bears, Nick Harper, a cornerback with the Indianapolis Colts, and Israel Idonije, a defensive end also with the Chicago Bears, autographed everything from posters to footballs.
One behind the other, Soldiers filed into the MWR building to get closer than pricey seats right at the 50-yard line, to the three Super Bowl XLI players wearing desert tan and Army green camouflage gear.
"It's motivational for people, especially people we label celebrities, that seem above everybody else to just come out and condone what we do and say 'we support you,'" said Sgt. Robert Harbour, a signal support systems specialist with Company A, Division Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division.
"It gives everybody a chance to meet people you don't usually run into when you're back home," said Harbour, a native of Broken Bow, Okla.
"These players understand what (Soldiers) are doing and they understand how (they) are serving and they want to give back to the community, the greater community of the Army," said Joe Canfield, the manager of the three players.
Although they arrived here to raise the spirits of the Soldiers fighting in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, they will depart with a glimpse of what it means to be a Soldier.
"It's been an eye-opener to see what Soldiers go through, where they stay, how they live," Idoniji said. "The unbelievable amount of courage and sacrifice and dedication that these guys have - it's unbelievable."
During the 6-foot-6-inch player's stay he got a chance to talk to young men and women and hear some of their stories.
"Stories about losing friends and how they manage to go back out and continue to do their jobs everyday are truly inspirational," he said.
Idoniji added that back home, media can be very negative and although many people want to support Soldiers, not many people take that extra step to see what's really happening on the ground.
For this African-born, Canadian-grown football player, this tour has allowed him to see and experience what's happening on the ground using the Soldiers as his eyes into this war.
"Being out here and having exposure to the military, exposure to the Soldiers, allows them to go back and share the good things that are going on here," Canfield said. "We know the media doesn't always promote the welfare of the Soldier or promote the image.
"These guys can go back to their fellow athletes, their fellow teams, the NFL, their friends and family and share the good things that are occurring and promote a positive image of the Army overall."
With the recent announcement of extended tours for troops on the ground, it leaves these professional athletes with a greater task at hand.
"It gives them a greater responsibility to be more energetic, more active and raise the morale of the troops who just realized they are staying here for another three months," Canfield said.
Harbour said all the small things, something as small as a handshake or a snapshot, can make a difference by helping Soldiers keep their minds off the sudden, but expected, three-month extension.
"In times of war, it takes special people to come together and do what's necessary to stand for what's right, what we believe in as a people," said Idonije. "I am not here every day crossing the wire, so for me to be able just to hang out with the guys and thank them personally is an honor I am grateful for."
This work, Gridiron greats give gratitude, get glimpse of a Soldier's life, by SGT Jeff Ledesma, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.