Football provides connection to home

The best thing about having been a coach for so many years is my former players. Many of them care about their coaches, and create the most remarkable ways to get in touch, stay in touch, and remind us of the most important reason we coached the sport of football.

They have no idea how powerful their impact is on the psyche of their mentors; suffice it to say that hearing their voices or reading their words makes my pulse quicken much the same as if my own family were in touch. Hearing that they are happy and well is among the highlights of my life. Sharing their disappointments and helping them deal with problems is a privilege.

I am always curious to know their whereabouts and find myself shaking my head at their daring. I have been sent pictures of my guys standing on the Great Wall of China, received a huge postcard from London and communications from places such as Israel, Germany, Spain, India and every corner of the U.S.

Invariably there is some mention of the time we worked together, and often an allusion to values derived from our shared experiences, teammates and days on the gridiron. What they remember most seems to be the essence of the huddle, in which every person is of equal importance and is afforded equal respect, regardless of racial, ethnic, religious, social, educational or political backgrounds. They have each learned the crucial nature of positive leadership.

Not surprisingly, they also have photographic memories of every stupid thing I ever said or did in their presence.

In all these years I have never gotten as significant an endorsement of all that is good about our sport as I did this week.

Lt. Col. Deeds, USMC
Lt. Col. Derrick Deeds, U.S.M.C., loved the grind at Georgia Tech so much that he finished school, missed the esprit de corps, and joined the Marine Corps. He is a lifer, and remains as Semper Fi as any Marine I have ever known. When he contacted me two years ago, I chuckled, and wrote back to him that I pitied him because of his assignment at the time … Hawaii.

A year later he was transferred, my chuckle became a prayer, and I agonized with him and his unit as they arrived at their new location, New Orleans. They were just in time for Katrina. His tales from that nightmare were predictably chilling.

A couple of weeks ago he e-mailed from his most recent assignment, Iraq. The messages I receive are marked "Unclassified," reminding me that much of Derrick's work is just the opposite.

While college coaches live in a state of hysteria that someone might slip into their practices and steal their hand signals, Derrick and his fellow officers are concerned on a daily basis with such matters as how many of America's finest young men and women will return alive from their missions in the vicinity.

Today I spoke to him by cell phone as we worked to secure permission for this article. He insists that his job is a "safe" one, but that always has been his attitude about anything he does. I am awed, deeply moved, and grateful to him. I asked permission to quote him and one of his fellow officers, each of whom had been in e-mail correspondence with me in the last week. Permission has been granted, and Derrick's friend requested anonymity.

Naturally, Derrick and I focused on our alma mater, Georgia Tech, as we began to talk football. I expressed surprise about the availability of college and pro football in that part of the world, and he responded with a more profound answer than I had imagined possible.

"Football has a great connection and association with home for all of us out here," he wrote. "College football has a special connectivity with the particular states as many went to college or have peers they graduated high school with and they are now going to those institutions.

"I even heard two officers, both graduates of Big 12 schools, making a bet before we departed the U.S. The loser was going to have to get his picture taken in front of the opponent school's flag as payment for the debt."

Derrick's fellow officer wrote:

I know that, in an objective sense, football shouldn't mean that much. All I can tell you -- and I know this won't surprise you -- is that it's not what football is, but what it represents. It may be a crazy game, but it represents sanity and normalcy to the young kids fighting over here. Time and again I've seen 19- and 20-year-old Marines and soldiers come in from long arduous combat patrols on very mean streets, drop their 50-60 pounds of gear, and head straight for the TV, especially if it's a Saturday or Sunday.

You'd think their first thoughts would be of food, sleep or a hot shower. All of those things are on their minds, but first they want to see how their teams did, or are doing. They want to watch someone, anyone, throw a touchdown pass, or run back a kickoff, or just make a good tackle. I can't explain it, but it's a fact, and I think it's important for the players, coaches, and broadcasters to know that. I think by and large they do. I'm confident that the same phenomenon would have been true with baseball, in our fathers' generation, if technology had allowed them to stay connected the way it does today.

One of the things I regret I've never been able to do is personally thank the Packers of my youth for all of the still clear and remarkable memories I have of those 1960s teams and their accomplishments. I guess it's never too late to start. Thank you, and good luck in the future.

One other thing. I mentioned in a phone call to my 11-year-old son (big fan of Brett Favre and Donald Driver, his generation's Bart Starr and Boyd Dowler) that I had received an e-mail from you. After I explained who you were, he said, 'Dad, I didn't think any of those guys were still alive.' I assured him that many were.

Yes, son, we are alive, and we deeply appreciate your father, his great service, and his stirring words. Whatever debt is owed us for playing our sport has been paid in full by men and women like your father and Derrick Deeds. The fact is that we played our game and lived our lives as free Americans only because of people like your dad. We owe him. We will continue to live as a free people because there are many men and women who are willing to do what your father is doing for us now.

Football is the greatest team sport ever invented, the only game in which every player needs every teammate on every play, simply to survive. In that sense, it is virtually a mirror image of these United States. Its strange allure to our people is demonstrated again and again in times of crisis. Remember the crowds after 9-11. Indeed, remember the crowd in the New Orleans Superdome a couple of weeks ago.

As my great mentor Herb Barks reminded me this morning, it is the remembrance of community that resonates in human hearts and minds. That makes a difference. When we focus upon it, we transcend the foolish aspects of the game, and remember to celebrate its true values, the ones that coincide with those that have kept our nation free.

We will never forget those who give sacrificially so that we can live as we do. They make all the difference.

ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is the executive director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.