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Monday, January 27, 2003
Updated: January 28, 2:09 PM ET
Watching the big game with real heroes

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

SAN DIEGO -- The aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis is docked at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island, just a few miles from where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders played Super Bowl XXXVII. While thousands of fans donned spikes and helmets and painted their faces in team colors inside the stadium Sunday, the security entrance on Coronado Island held a subtle reminder of more serious things outside Raider Nation.

Next to the newspaper box for the San Diego Union-Tribune was a box for Baseball Weekly. There is only one paper inside the box, and it has been there, apparently untouched, for quite awhile. Although the cover photo of Roger Clemens is faded, the edition date remains clearly visible: Sept. 5-11, 2001.

Tradition dictates that the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers will return home today for a parade worthy of conquering heroes. Back in the real world, the Stennis faces more pressing matters.

The crew will ship out for three weeks of sea trials, a shakedown cruise. Following the trials, the Stennis will return to port and await its deployment orders. That could take several weeks or several months -- it's impossible to predict, given the current world situation. Lt. Commander Ray Wetmore of the nuclear reactor unit hopes the ship won't deploy until at least late May, after his beloved Braves have come to town to play the Padres. Michael Sexton hopes it won't deploy until at least late June, after his first child is born.

Whenever the deployment comes, there is a good chance the orders will take them to the Persian Gulf.

"A lot of my friends (in the Bay Area) are worried," Stennis crew member Eric Villavicencio said, while watching the Super Bowl in the ship's galley. "I have an old co-worker who works for Wells Fargo now. She and a couple of the other tellers are worried, because they know how dangerous it is. They can't picture me out there.''

Sunday, however, was not a day to think about that. Like everyone else in America, the Stennis crew spent Sunday focused on the Super Bowl, the Bucs and the Raiders, and underwear models fighting over light beer.

With the ship departing for sea trials in two days, most everyone who could spend the day at home with family did so, leaving the ship relatively empty. The remaining crew watched the game on TV monitors throughout the ship -- in the galleys, the officer's lounge, the police office, even in the air traffic control center. The officers had plates of buffalo wings and the game programs sellling for $15 at the stadium were distributed free to the crew.

U.S.S. Cleveland
The U.S.S. Cleveland shipped out of San Diego last week -- and the Stennis could be soon to follow.
It was a lot like Super Bowl gatherings throughout the country, only there was no alcohol.

All in all, it was a better way to watch the game than last year, when the Stennis crew was in the middle of a 111-day assignment in the North Arabian Sea, running night operations for air strikes into Afghanistan and safely handling 10,600 sorties. Super Bowl Sunday was one of the few days of rest for the crew, and it celebrated by gathering on the hangar deck at 3 o'clock in the morning to watch the game broadcast live.

"We worked about 100 days without a port call, and we were all working long hours, about 18-20 hours some days," Air Traffic Controller First Class Ron Bittner said. "The whole ship got time off, and it was a good time. It makes you feel good to get to watch it, but it didn't make me feel closer to home, because you're still on a ship and you're not on your couch in the living room. Nothing beats being home."

"During the Gulf War, (our ship) didn't get the tape of the Super Bowl until three weeks after the game was played," Lt. Commander Pat McNally said. "That was the year Scott Norwood missed the field goal at the end. We all knew what the final score was, but we were all going, 'Will he make it? Will he make it?' "

The 5,000-member crew represents virtually every state, which becomes noticeable on a couple occasions. One is when the ship docks and the crew leaves the ship for liberty in every possible manner of dress -- from cowboy to hip-hop. Another is during the NCAA basketball tournament, when everyone roots for the teams from their home state.

Sports, like the military, is the nation's great unifier.

The crew will set up portable baskets between jets in the hanger deck and play basketball. Others will take advantage of the 1,100-foot-long flight deck to run or play football. You run a curl pattern to the F-14 Tomcat and you run a post pattern to the F-18 Hornet. On three.

Many of the enlisted crew are 19- and 20-year-olds who enlisted immediately after graduating from high school. While the nation's columnists and talk-show hosts fiercely debate whether LeBron James is ready for the demanding life of an NBA millionaire, they will be serving their country, possibly in a war zone, and no one will question whether they are too young.

***

Like many Americans, the crew enjoyed the commercials Sunday as much as the blowout game. They laughed at the beer commercials and sighed at the promos for "The Bachelorette."

"This is the first time in four years that I've been in the United States to watch the Super Bowl," Wetmore said. "I'm here to watch the commercials. Last year, we got the Armed Forces network feed, and they didn't show the commercials. Instead, they would show beautiful scenes with calming music."

Wetmore is a 21-year navy veteran. He transferred to carrier duty a couple years ago, because he thought the schedule would be more predictable. "Then Sept. 11 happened and nothing is normal again."

Soliders in the Gulf
U.S. soldiers kept an eye on the Bucs and Raiders from a half-world away.
Of course, America learned first-hand about terrorism in 1995 when two creeps from our own country blew up a building in Oklahoma City. Chris Stone was a high school freshman in Oklahoma City that day. He said it helped fuel his interest in pursuing a law enforcement career that brought him to the navy right after he graduated.

"(The Oklahoma City bombings) had something to do with it, and after Sept. 11, that's when it really hit home," said Stone, who serves in the ship's police unit. "That's when I felt like I was actually going to something to help defend my country, that I was doing what I got into the navy for."

Today, Hans Blix will deliver his report to the United Nations on the Iraqi weapons inspections. Tuesday, President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address. Sometime in the near future, we might invade Iraq.

And the Super Bowl will seem a long way away.

"We'll be out there Tuesday night when the president gives his State of the Union address and that will be interesting to see," Wetmore said, "if we can get it there."

***

With her Raiders trailing 20-3 at the half, Lt. Tonya Brown refused to cower, taunting her fellow officers by pointing out that none of their favorite teams even reached the Super Bowl. "Where are you from? Pittsburgh? Dallas? Jersey? I don't see any of your teams playing today."

Typical Raiders fan. Talking smack even when her team trailed by 17.

As the game progressed and the Buccaneers steadily extended their lead, though, the Raiders fans aboard the Stennis began to quiet and disappear. By the time the Bucs tacked on two touchdowns in the final moments, the crew in the Air Traffic Control Center was cheering loudly and planning to call Raiders fans to rub it in. "We chased them off," Bittner said.

Bittner is from Youngstown, Ohio -- "Where football is so big they give footballs to boys on their first birthday" -- and he is a loyal Browns fan. "They're on a five-year plan and they had a winning record in Year Four this year," he said. "And next year they'll win the division championship."

He lives in military housing near San Diego's stadium and frequently attends Padres games. He has a wife, Becky, and three young children, Brandon, Celeste and Dylan.

Serving on a modern carrier is far different from the old days. The berths are air-conditioned. E-mail allows the crew to stay in contact with home. Crew members can log onto computers and surf the net, though downloading a page can take a frustratingly long time. First-run movies are occasionally available for viewing. The air traffic controllers can even hook up PlayStation to their monitor and play "Grand Theft Auto." And occasionally, there are assignments such as two years ago when the Stennis served as the site for the world premiere of "Pearl Harbor."

But all that only makes a difficult assignment a little more tolerable. The fact of the matter is that the crew will be placing their lives on hold and saying good-bye to their families for at least six months. Six months! Six months is a long time to be at sea, especially when you are 10,000 miles from home and serving in a war zone and unsure whether it will really be just six months at sea.

Six months. Assuming the Stennis deploys in late spring, Sexton will be a father by the time it returns. LeBron James will be a high school graduate and an NBA rookie. The baseball season will be over. Michael Jordan will be retired (again). The Montreal Expos could cease to exist. And if things go Bittner's way, the Browns will be well into their championship season, allowing him to cheer them on in next year's Super Bowl.

Six months.

"It's extremely tough, but you just have to do it," Bittner said. "It's very, very hard. My wife has a harder job than I do. I don't think I could do what she does. She keeps busy, she volunteers with the kids. They're in scouting. They have a lot of activities to keep them busy, so they don't pay attention to the time so much."

Six months.

Having won their first Super Bowl, the Buccaneers will return home today, where tradition dictates that they will receive a parade worthy of conquering war heroes.

Meanwhile, the heroes on the Stennis will simply go about their duty.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.