- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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Sam Martin didn’t have the right shoes. Then again, he wasn’t planning on punting a football into the middle of the Persian Gulf, either.
Yet that’s what happened on the USS Carl Vinson in February when Martin, the Detroit Lions' punter, and former Detroit wide receiver Kris Durham met a bunch of Lions fans stationed on the aircraft carrier in the Middle East, including one with a Lions football.
Martin and Durham convinced the soldier with the ball to let Martin kick it in exchange for, Durham said, a care package Martin would send him once the pair returned stateside.
And away it went. Kind of.
“It probably wasn’t a very far punt,” Martin said. “But it ended up probably going like 100 yards because of the wind and we’re probably going like 60 miles an hour.”
Martin ended up on the ship after receiving a phone call from Durham in January when the Lions were eliminated from the playoffs. Durham already committed to going on the NFL tour set up by the U.S. Navy and there were extra spots, so he called to see if Martin was interested.
The Lions punter agreed and ended up as one of a small group of NFL players which included former Detroit players Durham, Garrett Reynolds and Shaun Chapas along with Marshall Newhouse, Ryan Taylor, Brad Jones, former Green Bay fullback William Henderson and some Washington Redskins cheerleaders to take the trip to Bahrain and the Persian Gulf to visit troops as part of an NFL tour for the Navy.
The group met in Atlanta and flew to Dubai and Bahrain where for two weeks they visited naval bases and an aircraft carrier group.
“It’s the most humbling experience of my life, without a doubt,” Durham said. “Just to see the lifestyle and what these guys go through on a day-in, day-out basis. You talk to these guys and they were excited and respected us so much yet we’re sitting there and they are the ones that allow us to do what we do.
“It is probably the best trip I have ever taken in my life.”
The group spent one night on the Carl Vinson in quarters with bunk beds and a little desk and sink. They chatted and ate lunch with soldiers, including the one who let Martin boot his football. Martin sat in the cockpit of a harrier. They watched jets fly off the ship and helicoptered for a day to the USS Bunker Hill, a cruiser.
They thought of the movie “Top Gun” when they saw the ready room on the Carl Vinson.
Everywhere Martin went, he said he randomly ran into Lions fans. With it, Martin received the then-obligatory Ndamukong Suh questions and was also asked about the Lions' loss to Dallas.
“It almost became a joke with the Packers guys,” Martin said. “We’d sit down to do autograph signings and the amount of people that would come up with Detroit stuff that wanted to get signed or would be like, ‘Hey, I’m from Kalamazoo.’
“I was pretty shocked.”
A photo posted by Sam Martin (@sammartin_6) on
When the group didn’t stay on ships, they stayed in the Elite Crystal Hotel in Bahrain. During an off-day due to a canceled trip to Djibouti, they visited the Al Fateh Grand Mosque and the Tree of Life in the middle of the desert.
Martin wanted to do a trip like this for a while, but the opportunity did not arise until Durham called. Now, he wants to try and do them as often as possible. He sees it as a way for him to try and give back after seeing and hearing the stories of soldiers the same age or younger than him with far more important responsibilities.
“It makes you think about a lot,” Martin said. “They obviously like what they do. What they are doing has allowed me to do what I do and they all know that.
“… They were all extremely happy and liked what they do with their purpose. They are just normal guys and girls with extremely important jobs. It was cool. It was definitely cool.”