Under the Radar

Renewing the Military/NFL Connection at USAA's Salute to Service Lounge

The USAF Thunderbirds hanging in USAA Salute to Service Lounge during Super Bowl LIII weekend in Atlanta. (Military.com)

The NFL goes out of its way to support military causes, reinforcing the idea that its players are warriors and that pro football is patriotic. No one in the armed forces really seems to mind, because the U.S. military loves football, and the Super Bowl is one of the biggest days on the calendar for men and women deployed around the world.

USAA is a league sponsor and works to make that mean something with its Salute to Service campaign. That program peaks at the Super Bowl every year with its Military Appreciation Lounge at the NFL's Super Bowl Experience.

The Super Bowl Experience is a giant carnival for fans, including those who don't have a prayer of getting into the game. Back in the early days, it was a gathering spot for sports card dealers, memorabilia and autograph sellers, and local businesses looking to get some cred by hanging with the NFL.

That's all changed. It's now a giant corporate event with activities aimed at families, a chance to get your photo made with the Lombardi Trophy and to see examples of all the Super Bowl rings from previous games. It's all very slick and professional, with no scary hustlers to make the customers uncomfortable.

The entry fee in Atlanta was $40 for adults, but USAA members got half off at the door. Also, if you're planning to go in Miami, Tampa or Los Angeles over the next three years, make sure you attend SBX on Friday or early Saturday morning because the crowds on Saturday afternoon were massive.

Once you're in the door, USAA gave military members and veterans a chance to sit in on up-close interviews with NFL legends and then meet them for photos and autographs. It's a great experience because they limit the audience to 150 or so for each session, so you're getting a rare chance to ask questions and chat with the players during the photo ops.

In addition, USAA enlisted eight NFL players to donate tickets to active-duty military members and veterans and to meet with the recipients at the lounge.

Arizona Cardinals legend and future Hall-of-Famer Larry Fitzgerald works closely with the Pat Tillman Foundation and, earlier this season, honored Tillman's memory through the My Cause, My Cleats program. He gave tickets to Army 1st Lt. Jameson Lopez, who was leader of a tank platoon deployed in Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. Lopez is also a Tillman Scholar.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey teamed up with USAA and the Wounded Warrior Project to give tickets to Army veteran Sgt. Alex Somerson. Somerson deployed twice to Iraq while assigned to 1/327 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, and served from 2004 to 2009.

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce should have been on the field on Sunday, but he sure seemed glad to be there when he appeared onstage with Fitzgerald in the Salute to Service Lounge. He teamed up the VFW to present tickets to Sgt. Patrick Benson, who served in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2004 and deployed to Germany, Kosovo and Iraq.

NFL legend and former Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas is the greatest NFL player who never appeared in a playoff game, such a travesty that even the Browns admit it. The future Hall-of-Famer teamed with USAA and the United Service Organizations (USO) of Northern Ohio to give tickets to Coast Guard veteran Chief Warrant Officer Jay MacKenzie, who served from 1984 to 2006 with assignments in Alabama, Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, New York and Ohio. MacKenzie also completed 13 deployments/patrols throughout the Caribbean.

Atlanta Falcons coach (and 2017 Salute to Service Award winner) Dan Quinn joined USAA and TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) to donate tickets to the family of United States Marine Corps Pvt. 1st Class Zachary R. Boland, who passed away in 2016 during training at Parris Island. His father, Army veteran Bob Boland, and his brother, Lance Cpl. Nathaniel Boland, attended the game in Zachary's memory.

Denver Broncos quarterback Case Keenum worked with USAA and Together We Served to donate tickets to Army and Air Force veteran Senior Master Sgt. James Reece. Reece served 40 years in the military. He and his brother Tom have made it their mission to uncover a photograph of every service member who died in the Vietnam War. Their work can be found on the Together We Served website and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins worked with USAA and the Wounded Warrior Project to give tickets to Army veteran Staff Sgt. Anthony "Tony" Craidon, who served from 1999 to 2011 as a military police officer in Germany, Alaska, Louisiana, Missouri, Bosnia, and Iraq.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is another guy who probably should have been on the field at the Super Bowl. He partnered with USAA and United Service Organizations (USO) to give tickets to Army veteran Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Gray, who recently retired from the 82ndAirborne Division after 20 years of military service. Gray was deployed to Afghanistan and based at Fort Benning, SHAPE Belgium, Fort Sill, Fort Stewart, and Fort Bragg.

Our friends from We Are the Mighty streamed the interviews throughout the weekend. Navy veteran Roger Staubach talked about both his service in Vietnam and his NFL career.

Air Force Academy grad and Atlanta Falcons guard (and 2019 Salute to Service Award winner) Ben Garland and his coach Dan Quinn also visited the lounge on Friday.

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