Troops visit leaves impression on Zook

Illinois head coach Ron Zook felt a bit apprehensive as he boarded a C-135 military plane bound for Germany on May 23.

Zook didn't know what to expect in the coming days, as he and three other college football coaches embarked on a USO tour to visit troops in Europe and the Middle East.

"They talked about, ‘Help the troops and boost them up,’" Zook said. "I'm thinking, ‘What can I do for these guys?' I didn’t know what to expect. Believe me, it affected us as coaches a lot more than it did those people over there."

Zook was running on fumes Tuesday afternoon after a trip that took him from Europe to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and finally to his home in Champaign, where he pulled in at 1 a.m. But the coach still had plenty of energy to discuss his "unbelievable experience" visiting troops in seven countries during the nine-day tour.

Like many Americans, Zook had watched war from the sideline. His father served in the Air Force and his older brother Bob logged 1,800 hours in Vietnam during the war as a pilot. But until last week, Zook didn't have any firsthand knowledge of what life was like for the men and women in uniform.

"My brother never really talked about it," Zook said. "Seeing what goes on behind the scenes, I can see why, because it’s real life. It’s life and death."

Reality set in several times during the trip.

The four coaches on the tour -- Zook, Oregon's Chip Kelly, Army's Rich Ellerson and Harvard's Tim Murphy -- were accompanied by several wounded veterans. One of the men had lost an arm and a leg in Kuwait exactly four and a half years before the coaches' tour arrived in the country.

"He was in a coma for like 18 days, so he didn’t really remember anything," Zook said. "It was emotional."

The most chilling moment came in Iraq, while Zook coached a group of troops in a flag football game on a base.

"It was on a dirt field, dust was flying everywhere," Zook said. "I was getting into it and one of the guys, who was [with] our security force, came up to me and said, ‘There’s probably going to be an announcement that we had a rocket, an inbound, that did not go off. Don’t worry.’

"From then on, I kind of lost my stinger," Zook continued. "I wasn’t too concerned about the game. It’s reality. And these guys, they live that every day."

The next morning, there was another mortar attack that landed just outside the base.

"For the troops, it’s like a thunderstorm," Zook said. "It’s not a big deal."

Zook met many military personnel from Illinois during the tour and visited with wounded troops in the main military hospital in Ramstein, Germany. While he used to live in Florida and Louisiana, he had never experienced heat like he did in the Middle East.

He had never seen such courage, either.

"You just wish everyone could see what they do," Zook said. "It’s just amazing. They do it with a lot of pride. The teamwork is unbelievable. There’s a lot going on over there, a lot more than maybe people realize. They make it so we can live the way we live."

It's a message Zook relayed to the Illinois players he saw Tuesday after his long journey back to Champaign.

"I don’t want to hear any complaining," Zook told the players. "I don’t want to hear about being tough. I don’t want to hear about being hot. These people over there, there’s no complaining. There’s smiles on their faces and believe me, they work long, long hours in some adverse conditions.

"The pride and what they do, everybody in America should understand what they’re sacrificing."

One Big Ten coach certainly does.