The greatest sacrifice
Honoring the men that made our games possible
Posted: Monday February 19, 2007 12:07AM; Updated: Monday February 19, 2007 12:45PM
COLLEVILLE-sur-MER, France -- And so I came here a few days ago, consumed with thoughts of how foolish the San Diego Chargers were for firing their coach, wondering if JaMarcus Russell will be wasting his career in Oakland; curious to see if Tiki Barber will be the next Matt Lauer; thinking how down the injury gods are on Drew Brees; hoping the next month is better to Andy Reid than the last one was; trying to figure how Bill Polian can avoid being raided in free agency; and calculating whether it'll be San Francisco or the Jets or some strange suitor who will make Adalius Thomas ridiculously rich sometime in March. In other words, wondering about the stories that 99 percent of the people on earth could give a darn about.
"Do you know what the Super Bowl is?'' I asked our tour guide/taxi driver Nicolas, who has seen American football on TV once, on Sunday afternoon. Nicolas was driving me, my wife, my daughter and her Parisian college roommate from the northwestern France city of Caen to the fabled Normandy beaches and the Normandy American Cemetery here, above the most famous military beach in the world, Omaha Beach.
"I seenk so,'' he said. "I seenk I have an idea.''
Nicolas, 25ish and French through and through, had no idea. I had a feeling he neither hosted nor attended a Super Bowl party. I also had a feeling few others in France had either.
"The championship game of American football,'' I said. "Played two weeks ago today. The Indianapolis Colts won it.''
"Ah,'' he said, nodding. "I see. Yes.''
One of the greatest stories in the history of the world -- and I don't mean the Saints rising from the ashes of Katrina to the NFC Championship Game in 2006 -- unfolded in these coastal farming towns on the English Channel. You've read about the D-Day Invasion of June 6, 1944, when the Allied Forces came ashore to repel the Germans and begin the liberation of France and, ultimately, Europe. We all have. But to experience it is beyond what words can express.
Not to be preachy here, but I'm going to be preachy. We don't know how good we have it in America. To see the site of the slaughter of American, Canadian, British and French troops, who died in the name of preserving the free world, made me think how incredibly fortunate we are to even have a Super Bowl, and to have the lives we do.
You can feel the sacrifice while standing in the 62-year-old now-grassy craters made by bombs dropped from British and American planes, trying to wipe out German cannon sites above the cliffs of Normandy. You can see how the Germans tried, unsuccessfully, to camouflage their concrete gun turrets, many of which were cracked by Allied bombs.
You get chills looking over the cliffs where the first 225 soldiers tried to climb 130 feet to the top, to fight the Germans hand-to-hand at their military command, knowing as they climbed there was a good chance they'd be shot by the surviving Germans in a target-practice sort of way; only 90 of the 225 men survived the battle that morning.
And in the placid, 172-acre American Cemetery, kept so pristinely by a staff of 25 gardeners that it would pass for a Connecticut golf course if not for the 9,387 Italian marble crosses that uniformly dot the serene place above the sea, you see grave sites of thousands and thousands of eternally resting men (and four women). The crosses, with inscriptions, face west toward America, as perfect a cemetery as there could be on earth. Simple inscriptions like:
Peter M. Horback
"So sad,'' the French woman in the visitors center said. "They were just boys. Just boys. Most of them never saw France. They came from America, trained for the war in England, got on ships and sailed for France. And so many of them got off the ships and died two minutes on French soil. So sad.''
Her partner at the center, an older American man, said: "Many died so young so we could grow old.''
Until Sunday, this place, for me, was a Tom Brokaw book, a History Channel show. But as we talked with Nicolas on the hour trip back to Caen, we wondered what would have happened if the Germans hadn't been repelled from France. Would England have been next? And would the emboldened Germans then have crossed the Atlantic and tried to take America? Would our way of life, our football and our baseball, our corner bars and big universities, have been forever changed? The Super Bowl just monopolized the lives of so many in North America. It was one of the highest rated TV programs of all time. Imagine a world without it.
It seems a lot of us do appreciate the sacrifice; some 1.5 million visitors a year walk the hallowed grounds here. But if I can give you one non-sporting piece of advice, ever, it would be to try to get here before you die. You don't have to be a history buff or Joe Patriotic to feel waves of great feelings you didn't know you'd ever feel.
I realize so many of you call up this column on Monday mornings to read football, and I'm getting to it. But I've learned from many of the impassioned emails you send when I write about U.S. Army First Sgt. Mike McGuire that so many of you have a view broader than just who won the game yesterday. I hope you don't mind me taking you on a patriotic detour for this one week. Next week, I'll be live from the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, and I'll give you all the football you want. With a much better perspective on the life-and-deathness of it all.
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