KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Approximately 80 family members received red-carpet treatment at Missouri Western State University on Aug. 4.
The families, all military Gold Star members, took in the sights and sounds of Chiefs training camp from the VIP tent as special guests of the team.
But the day proved especially meaningful for children of the Snowball Express, whose purpose is to “provide hope and new happy memories to the children of military fallen heroes who have died while on active duty since 9/11,” according to the organization’s website, SnowballExpress.org.
The children played in the Kids Zone and watched the Chiefs train throughout the morning.
And the occasion reached a high point when a group of players, led by defensive end Mike DeVito, interacted with the children after practice.
The 6-3, 305-pound DeVito bonded with a young girl from central Kansas, spending time with her before handing over his helmet.
The child took DeVito’s helmet, and then carried it as the pair took the trail leading from the practice field to walk up the steep hill to the indoor training facility.
The scene offered a moment without a lot of media attention.
But DeVito’s gesture didn’t go unnoticed to retired Marine Maj. Fred Galvin, who serves as the charity coordinator of the Snowball Express for Gold Star families in Kansas and Missouri.
“I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I’m sure he recognized when he had that girl carry his helmet, her father had worn a helmet that was a little different and he was on a battlefield that was different,” Galvin said. “It was his way I’m sure of trying to connect with her with gratitude of a special connection. I tell you what, that means so much to these Gold Star families when a professional athlete will make that connection.”
DeVito’s work with the Snowball Express earned him a recent nomination for the fifth annual “Salute to Service” award presented by USAA and the NFL.
The award recognizes players, coaches and personnel who “demonstrate an exemplary commitment to honoring and supporting the military community,” according to the news release announcing the list of 32 nominees.
Finalists will be revealed in January, with the winner recognized at the “5th Annual NFL Honors” awards show in San Francisco on Feb. 6, the night before Super Bowl 50.
“What a huge honor that is,” DeVito said. “Of all the things I’ve been put up for and nominated for, this is probably the biggest one. I’m excited about it, really grateful for the people who really matter, the real heroes who serve and protect us.”
The military has commanded a special spot in DeVito’s heart for as long as he can remember and he has been involved with veterans since entering the NFL in 2007 with the New York Jets.
DeVito, who doesn’t seek attention for his work with veterans and their families, is a noticeable presence whenever a Chiefs contingent visits Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
But the Snowball Express’ mission touched him where he took matters into his own hands to engage the organization when he arrived in Kansas City in 2013.
“That’s the ultimate sacrifice those families made and those soldiers made,” DeVito said. “I can’t think of a better organization to help and try to get involved with than Snowball Express and what they do.”
With DeVito leading the way, the Chiefs have invited the Snowball Express to training camp the past two years.
He also appeared at the Kansas City International Airport on Dec. 11, 2014 to help send off families on a flight to Dallas for the organization’s annual holiday event with children of fallen service members from around the country.
Chiefs rookie offensive lineman Laurence Gibson, who has personal ties to the Army, couldn’t help but smile when informed of DeVito’s connection with military families.
Gibson once attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and his mother is currently stationed with the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C.
He appreciates his teammate’s involvement with the Snowball Express.
“When you meet one of the little kids, I mean, they lost one of their parents overseas,” Gibson said. “It’s so gut-wrenching because they don’t really understand what’s happening or what’s going on. They just know their parents aren’t there. For someone to go and try to console them – anyone who has lost anyone like that – that’s just a great thing to do.”
DeVito, whose grandfathers served in the armed forces, once dreamed of attending the United States Military Academy.
A then-17-year-old DeVito attended a recruiting trip to West Point before admitting he wasn’t fully prepared for the rigors of the military lifestyle.
“I wasn’t tough enough then or now,” the now 31-year-old DeVito said. “I remember my dad being so upset and he said if you don’t join the military, then you better play in the NFL. Those were my options coming out of high school, so I delivered on one.”
DeVito, a native of Wellfleet, Mass., continued to keep the military close as his NFL career progressed, visiting troops at Fort Dix in New Jersey while with the Jets and being involved in Kansas City.
He recently visited the Kansas National Guard Armory in Lawrence during the bye week, taking the initiative to coordinate with the Chiefs community affairs because he wanted to spend his down time with service members.
“I got to ride in one of the tanks, do the virtual simulations, all the technology they have shooting weapons,” DeVito said. “It was a ton of fun.”
He is also known to bring books on the Navy SEALs and the military with him whenever he attends training camp to keep things in perspective.
“I get upset when I have to leave for two weeks to go to training camp and leave my family to go play football,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, leave your family for a year or years on end and go put your life on the line. It’s something I wish I could be that mentally and physically tough.”
DeVito’s passion for the military runs deep and he concedes to having “what if” moments to when he originally wanted to raise his hand and take the oath.
“I always look back and think, man, what that would have been like,” DeVito said. “Had I had the mindset I have now, I would’ve thought about it differently, but another thing I respect about the military is how tough you have to be at a young age. You see those guys go in at 17 years old and they’re already men, another reason why I respect them so much.”
The admiration of the men and women in uniform is so strong that DeVito also admits to keeping a dream alive of potentially serving when his playing career comes to an end.
“Personally, what I’m looking at, I really like the idea of the National Guard for myself when I get done if I’m not too old,” he said. “Something I could involved in, maybe even join if I could convince my wife.”
DeVito is in luck if he chooses to pursue the Army National Guard, where the age restriction for recruits without prior service falls at 34.
But whatever happens at the end of DeVito’s playing career, the Snowball Express appreciates his ongoing commitment to take care of military families of fallen service members.
“For a guy like Mike DeVito wanting to make a connection with a young girl and now want to get more involved,” said Fred Galvin, the Snowball Express charity coordinator for Kansas and Missouri. “It has to move your heart when you see a child whose life was disrupted like that, it kind of moves a giant to where he wants to do more. To me, that is incredible. It makes me want to support these families even more.”