Fishing with Falcons

Falcons' reciever Roddy White holds up the biggest catch of the day, a 3.5 pound spotted bass, while center Todd McClure and Private Theresa Thomas look on. J. Michael Moore, courtesy Atlanta Falcons

ATLANTA — For injured soldiers, it's a therapeutic getaway; for NFL players, it's an eye-opener.

It was an outing of wounded members of the U.S. Armed Forces from the VA Medical Center in Augusta, Ga., and a close look at the occupants of the pontoon boat as it cruised Lake Lanier showed this was no ordinary fishing excursion.

On deck was a woman in her 20s in a neon green wheelchair. Alongside her, dreadlocks tied back with a rubber band, stood an athletic man wearing a faded red and gray Air Jordan tracksuit, diamond encrusted sunglasses and Nike sandals.

Two guides in flannel shirts took the vessel from spot to spot as a spinnerbait skipped deftly across the water surface at the hands of a 6-foot-1, 301 pound man.

The soldiers cast for fish alongside the likes of Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White and center Todd McClure, who has started 134 of 137 games in his 11-year NFL career.

They've been brought together on a breezy, unusually cold day in May for a community outreach event hosted by the Atlanta Falcons.

It might seem a difficult task to gather professional athletes and take them an hour away from their homes to shiver on a boat in a remote location for several hours. But not this group, says McClure, who last year helped the Falcons' running game become among the most dangerous in the league.

"I think there were actually guys that were asking if they could come along too, and they got turned away because of the number of boats," says McClure, on his second such trip. "It's fun for us to get out here for the men and women who have served our country, especially while they're going through their rehab and everything, to show our appreciation for what they've done for us."

Last year, McClure hit it off so well with one of the recuperating soldiers that they still keep in touch. When the Falcons made a trip to play the Vikings, McClure left tickets and sideline passes for the soldier, who lived in Minnesota.

For the football players, the Wounded Warrior outing is a fun day on the lake, with a fulfilling community aspect thrown in; fishing for a good cause. For these soldiers, it may be the first time they've left the hospital in weeks.

"A lot of the guys…spend all day in the hospital, and you go from therapy to therapy all day long," says Staff Sgt. Craig Showers, who was injured while on scout reconnaissance in Iraq in May of 2008. "In your downtime, you have just enough time to rest to get back up and do therapy again in the morning.

"Getting out and doing this is just some normalcy for us."

Showers considers himself lucky to be a bystander rather than a participant this year. He has recovered from the brain injury he suffered in combat and his subsequent diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder , which he shrugs off with "I think they give that to everyone who gets blown up."

Pointing to Justin Watkins, a young private who has been confined to the hospital for three weeks in a white plastic brace from his neck to waist after breaking his back in training, Showers says, "At least he can forget about the hospital for about 13 good hours."

As the group of boats blast off from shore, there are 26 injured soldiers and 19 players and coaches from the Falcons. Head Coach Mike Smith will join them at the cookout later that evening, perhaps tied up with charting a second consecutive trip to the playoffs.

Represented are athletes and soldiers from every walk of life, from running back and avid outdoorsman Jerious Norwood to Staff Sgt. Roger Salter, who tore his rotator cuff while leaping from a helicopter with 80 pounds of body armor.

Star receiver White shares his boat with Theresa Thomas, a private. The bite is slow, leaving them time to exchange life stories — White growing up in Charleston, S.C., and playing college ball at Alabama-Birmingham before becoming a first round pick by the Falcons in 2005.

"Every time I go fishing, I don't catch nothing," White complains to whoever will listen.

Thomas grew up fishing Lake Erie in Pennsylvania and is more than happy to dole out advice to White from her wheelchair. It took her two marriages and two kids to figure out where she belonged, and injuries like a fractured hip during training be damned — she plans to continue in the Army.

"I don't want to get out," she says. "It took me too many years to get in."

The day drags on with only sporadic bites. White does manage to land a three-and-a-half pound spotted bass, leading him to proclaim, "the next time people tell me I can't catch no fish, I'ma tell 'em they ain't never seen this."

Neither the soldiers or players seem to mind his act. Sgt. Salter tells stories from Iraq of palaces trimmed in gold, chandeliers "as big as a school bus" and battles that "light up the night like a fireworks display."

Both White and McClure listen intently. McClure flicks a spinnerbait back and forth, searching for a bite. White muses that "our stories are nothing compared to what they do. One guy told me he was out there in 150-degree heat, and I couldn't even believe that. I'm upset because we've got to go out there and it's 100 degrees. I mean, you just applaud those guys for everything they do."

The pontoon boat sputters back to shore at sunset at a snail's pace over the choppy water. The soldiers and players reconvene at picnic tables, recapping their day, fish caught and lost.

Coach Smith joins the festivities, thanking the soldiers for their service before adding that "the rest of the country ought to be thankful that we have men and women like this among us."

Soldiers respond with down-turned eyes and embarrassed looks.

"People look at the military and say, 'You're my heroes,' but we have our own heroes, too," said Thomas, who has not yet experienced combat. "I get to live with them every day. Some of them were hit by shrapnel, some have missing limbs.

"When you hear stories from people who have come back from combat, you say 'That's why I'd go over there — to save people like you.'"

Staff Sgt. Cary Dunaway is one of those combat veterans. During her first tour in Iraq, she was hit by a Humvee, tearing her rotator cuff and forcing her return to the States without completing her mission. She's bouncy and energetic after her day on the water, but she also expresses guilt over missing her unit's re-deployment later this month.

"Unfortunately I'm going to miss this tour, but I'll make it up on the next one," she says in between bites of a baked potato. "I can't wait."