Supporting troops does matter to them

May, 25, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Confession: After 30 years of covering live sporting events, I sometimes get desensitized to patriotic symbols.

It happens when you've heard, by my math, the national anthem more than 5,000 times and seen countless more military members honored.

It's not out of disrespect.

You just sometimes take these things for granted, like you do many things in life that you're around all the time.

But this week -- this weekend in particular at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- I am reminded that patriotism in sports is a big deal. It began Monday when I met retired Navy SEAL Mike Thornton, one of 80 living Medal of Honor recipients, during a golf fundraiser for the USO.

At each hole, there was a plaque telling the heroic deeds of others who received the military's highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.

Most read like the one for Thornton: Upon learning the Senior Advisor had been hit by enemy fire and believed to be dead and believed dead during a three-man Vietnamese Navy SEAL patrol, Thornton returned through a hail of fire to the lieutenant's last position; quickly disposed of two enemy soldiers about to overrun the position, and succeeded in removing the seriously wounded and unconscious Advisor to the water's edge. He then inflated the lieutenant's lifejacket and towed him seaward for approximately two hours until picked up by support craft.

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Support Our Troops
Geoff Burke/NASCAR/Getty ImagesEven the tires carry a message this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It was humbling beyond belief.

All of the stories were.

They reminded me I never should forget the significance behind the patriotic symbols that take place at sporting events, at NASCAR events more than most.

Thornton certainly doesn't, particularly when it comes to NASCAR. He grew up in Spartanburg, S.C., with Hall of Famer David Pearson, his racing hero, and 2014 HOF selection Fireball Roberts. Thornton once drove in a charity event with Pearson, Cotton Owens, Lee Petty and Richard Petty.

"I beat [Richard] Petty that day," Thornton said. "I didn't beat Pearson though. And Cotton couldn't see past his hand."

In 1960, Thornton attended the inaugural World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He still calls it the World 600 -- I love that -- even though it's been the Coca-Cola 600 for years.

He spent time with the late Dale Earnhardt, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been his favorite driver since he put the Navy SEAL Trident on his Nationwide Series car years ago at Daytona.

NASCAR is in his blood, and Thornton can't thank the sport enough for everything it does to honor the military.

"God bless we live in a country where we're able to do this," Thornton told me.

Thornton won't be at CMS for Sunday's 600. He is in California for a memorial honoring more than 20 Navy SEALS.

But there will be three other Medal of Honor recipients in attendance. There also will be 10,000 troops in the stands for what is billed as the world's largest military tribute. Six hundred will march through the crowd down to the frontstretch.

There also will be a military member standing with each of the 43 drivers on the starting grid, including a female Marine that will be with Danica Patrick.

Retired Lt. Col. Oliver North will read a speech about the meaning of freedom.

Every Goodyear tire will carry the words "Salute our troops."

"NASCAR's respect for the military is in our DNA," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

There is no way to be desensitized to this, particularly this weekend.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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