ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – Army Spc. Josh Rubio broke a time-honored military tradition of never volunteering by immediately raising his hand for a detail.
But this mission had special meaning for the native of Kansas City, Mo., who recently returned from overseas and is now with the storied 1st Infantry Division, aka The Big Red One.
The call for volunteers surrounded joining a group of soldiers from Fort Riley, Kan., to watch the Chiefs training camp as part of the Thursday’s Military Appreciation Day.
The Big Red One soldiers merged with soldiers from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and airmen Rosecrans Air National Guard Base, Mo., to form an estimated 50-troop contingent.
“It’s great to have the military out here and have their support,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “We know and appreciate how much they do so we can do this, not only the media, but the fans and us as players and coaches. We appreciate it all.”
Still, it almost didn’t happen for Rubio, who said an administrative change found him in the field Wednesday night and preparing for an early Thursday morning ruck march in full gear.
That quickly changed, however, and Rubio, a lifelong Chiefs fan, said he was transported from the field to the rear where he joined others for the three-hour trip from Fort Riley.
“It was perfect,” Rubio said. “It was awesome.”
Rubio joined other military personnel to observe the final day of training camp in the VIP tent before being escorted to the sidelines. The fans in attendance gave the troops a warm welcome and some stood to show their appreciation.
The experience left a lasting impression even for soldiers whose primary allegiances rest with other teams.
Spc. Jason Ortega, a native of San Antonio, admitted his favorite team is the New York Giants. But the Fort Leavenworth solider was humbled by the invitation to attend.
“It means a lot,” Ortega said. “Football is starting up again. To actually meet some of the players, I’m pretty pumped up about that.”
Fort Riley’s Maj. Ivy Williams, a native of Miami and a lifelong Dolphins fan, agreed.
“Being in our position we’re off and on an island,” Williams said. “We’re separated from our families and the outside world. So when we come back, we’re still working and somebody says take a break because you’ve been invited – we as soldiers, we hardly get invited, we get ‘voluntold’ to go here, go there – but when they reach out and say we want you here and it’s not because of your mission.”
“It’s not to take a hill. It’s not to man a checkpoint. It’s to come out and relax, get to know us and just fellowship. I really think that’s a very important aspect of the game and I think them inviting us makes us feel important.”
Of course, the close proximity to Kansas City for both Army installations prompts Williams and Ortega to root for the Chiefs.
“Definitely living here for the last three years they kind of rubbed off on me,” Ortega said. “I would definitely say my second team is the Chiefs.”
The Chiefs have a partnership with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and in recent years have visited Fort Riley, Fort Leavenworth and Whiteman Air Force Base as part of the NFL’s “Salute to Service” initiative.
The open-arm approach with military neighbors offered extra incentive for Williams to appreciate the Chiefs.
“It’s not just for what they do on the field,” he said, “it’s what they do off the field. It’s the fact they do reach out to us, they talk to us. For me, that’s very important.”
The NFL fully engages the armed forces and participates in USO tours to forward deployed areas.
Former Chiefs players such as Will Shields have visited soldiers overseas. Reid and spread game analyst/special projects coach Brad Childress have participated in USO tours.
Williams, a combat veteran, said watching an NFL game overseas offers soldiers a relief.
“The football players look at us and thank us for our service,” Williams said. “They don’t know the service they’re providing us because they give us an opportunity, a moment of pause to exhale, to take a break and to live vicariously through them. For us, getting to watch a football game? That’s magic, especially when you’re forward deployed.”
Rubio, who returned to the U.S. after a tour in Italy, echoed his superior officer.
“I see plays that remind me of being home and growing up,” Rubio said. “It means a lot to me to watch football overseas.”
But seeing it on TV is one thing, experiencing it with a sideline view quite another.
The Chiefs and troops met at the center of the field following practice where gifts were exchanged. The troops received footballs, while Reid received a Big Red One football jersey.
Smiles were present everywhere as troops shook hands and took photos with the players and coaches.
Thursday proved why the NFL remains No. 1 in Williams’ heart.
“We call baseball America’s pastime for its richness and history,” Williams said. “We call basketball America’s game because it’s one of the few sports that originated in America. But football is America’s legacy, and we get that.”