Wednesday was no off day in Kansas City. Though the Chiefs were off the practice field for the first time this week, Todd Haley, the quarterbacks and running backs joined the likes of Bobby Bell, Deron Cherry and Bill Grigsby in a 66-mile jaunt eastbound to Whiteman Air Force Base.
Part of the Chiefs ongoing partnership with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Return the Favor program, the base visit was Kansas City’s second within the past month. GM Scott Pioli and members of the Chiefs defensive line paid a visit to the soldiers and families of Ft. Leavenworth, KS back on May 11th.
Each of the Chiefs players came prepared with sharpies and autograph cards in hand, but once feet hit tarmac it was tough to determine who was more awestruck – the children and their parents meeting gridiron stars for the first time or the players seeing the world’s most elite aircraft up close for the first time.
"That was kinda crazy," Cassel said of the guards. "I'm not gonna lie. I was sitting there going, 'Should I not step over this line? Where's my boundary?' But it was great to meet these people up close and personal."
Whiteman houses the United States’ arsenal of Stealth B2’s, which cost a whopping $2.26 billion per aircraft to create. Yes, that’s billion with a “B” (I’d have armed guards protecting that investment as well).
“The B2 Stealth Bomber is air power is its purest, most elegant and deadly form,” R. Stephen Linch, SrA, USAF said. “If you can't see us, you can't stop us and if you can’t stop us, then there is no place on earth for America’s enemies to hide.
“(The Apache and A-10) are both close air-to-ground support for our Army and other service members on the ground fighting the war,” Linch explained.
It was the men and women (and their families) who operate, support and maintain these aircrafts that members of the Chiefs targeted for a special visit at Whiteman AFB on Wednesday. The aircrafts on display and generous impromptu tours were nothing but surprises to the Chiefs.
“If I was a little kid at Whiteman Air Force Base, today would be an amazing day for me,” Linch said. “A lot of them see these guys on TV and they’re just happy to see them out here and in person.”
The players who made the trip were pleased to give back, while their head coach also signed autographs and mingled with various Air Force personnel. One of the men whom Haley spent the most time with was Col. Rickey S. Rodgers, Vice Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing.
Both men have quite the job.
With flight missions that have lasted up to 40 hours in length, the 509th can launch operations with its fleet of Stealth Bombers directly from Missouri to anywhere in the world. One of the most famous units in the United States Air Force, the 509th was formed solely to perform atomic missions in World War II. In effect, it was a B-29 (“Enola Gay”) from the 509th that ended WWII in Japan.
Brigadier General Robert E. Wheeler currently commands the bomb wing, while Rodgers serves as Vice Commander.
“You always hear comparisons between football and these guys, which are totally unfair,” Haley said. “They are playing real life; we’re playing a game.”
Just like the visit to Ft. Leavenworth, the mutual respect displayed between those involved in military operations and those involved in professional athletics is a sight to see.
“Our military members go through a lot of challenges and face a lot of difficulties in just serving,” Rodgers said. “Knowing that people outside of the service care about us – these professional football players are just awesome and our families think the world of them. To have them come out here and spend time with us just means a lot.”
For Haley, the decision to make an hour-plus long drive during the middles of OTAs wasn’t something to even think twice about. When the opportunity arose to meet those who serve the country in our own backyard, the only question came as to how early the busses should leave (they left at 0745 hours, FYI).
“We just want to return the favor to all of these women and men who make the ultimate sacrifice so that all of us as Americans can live the life that we live,” Haley said. “They do a great job and we’re grateful to them.”
Plus, seeing those B2s up close, as opposed to on the sidelines was pretty cool too.
“I’m fighting back tears (when military aircraft flies over before games) and that’s the truth,” Haley said. “As an assistant coach I could cry and it was alright because nobody could see me, but as a head coach there is a camera around and you try to fight it off a little bit, but it’s a unique feeling and I think I speak for every player that you get a charge that you can’t really describe (the feeling when you see the flyover). It’s a feeling that’s indescribable.”
No matter where our troops are servings, they are continually on the minds of their fans in the United States. Haley is obviously one of those fans. On the flip side, the same can be said of military personnel who follow and support their favorite sports teams from stations as far away as Iraq, Afghanistan and Guam.
“There is no such thing as a fair weather fan in the Air Force,” Rodgers said. “The Chiefs fans here have been Chiefs fans forever. They still remember the heydays and we’re looking forward to that coming back around and are very excited about that. This could be the year for that to happen.”
Ultimately, that’s the goal for everyone when it comes to the football side of things.
“On top of coming out here today, I told the Colonel that in-season, when things go a lot better, we’ll hopefully be able to give back a little to them and make their weeks a little more enjoyable,” Haley finished.
The Chiefs are partners with the VFW and you can be too. Check out www.returnthefavor.org for more details.