MMQB Mailbag: USO visit humbles Goodell and solutions for Packers
Roger Goodell sounded totally spent over the phone from Afghanistan, but he also sounded totally exhilarated at the same time. That's what taking a one-week trip to the twin war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan last week did for him.
"A life-changing experience,'' he told me Friday, late at night his time, and early afternoon my time. "I'm absolutely exhausted, but it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever gotten to do.''
Friday is when Goodell, Osi Umenyiora and Drew Brees helicoptered into FOB Tillman, a base just 700 meters from the Pakistan border, and a base close to -- and very similar to -- the one that was attacked by Taliban extremists early Sunday morning, resulting in the deaths of nine American soldiers.
This Tillman base, as with many others in the Afghan war, is invented and built to gain a foothold in an eastern area of the country that sees an attempted daily influx of Taliban. The American troops must intercept the Pakistanis, then determine whether they're either harmless (Bedouin tribesman, perhaps, or simple shepherds), or militants invading the country to try to drive out the Americans.
It's not always easy to tell, and it's not always easy to prevent the Taliban from secretly crossing the border and engaging in firefights with the Americans. On Sunday morning, somehow, the militants crossed the border, gained access to the small base and used grenade launchers and machine guns to kill nine and wound 15 American troops.
All of which made the will-Brett-Favre-play-or-won't-he stuff dominating the football news rather insignificant to the Goodell party, back on American soil Monday.
"The news was a lot more personal than it would have been a week ago,'' said Goodell, back at his Manhattan desk Monday afternoon. "And my first thought was: 'Did I just meet these kids?'
Goodell said at FOB Tillman, 10 troops stood lookout on one hill near the base and 14 on another hill close by. These sentries were charged with securing the border and stayed atop the hills for days at a time. The base commander told Goodell that about eight kilometers away on the previous day, 70 soldiers from the base engaged insurgents in a firefight with no American casualties. On Sunday, men and women from the nearby base weren't so lucky.
"What impressed me so much,'' Goodell told me, "is of all the men and women we met at so many different bases, not a single one complained about anything -- not their missions, not about how long they were there, nothing. It's inspiring. We are so fortunate to have so many great people in service to our country. And I felt how meaningful and important the NFL is to these people.
"One of the most sobering moments of the tour was our return to Bagram Airbase [the main U.S. base in Eastern Afghanistan] from FOB Tillman. Shortly after we landed we were driven to an area on the flight line to take part in a Fallen Comrade Ceremony for two of our soldiers. Our entire group stood in a line on the airfield along with hundreds of other soldiers, paying our respects as the coffins were loaded into a cargo plane. It was absolutely quiet and emotional. My heart goes out to all the families as well as their fellow soldiers."
I saw one of those on my USO trip to Afghanistan in March. Unforgettably emotional. I get choked up thinking about it four months later. I've got to applaud Goodell, Brees and Umenyiora for taking this trip, particularly so close to the season. I felt a searing gratitude from everyone I met in the military in my week overseas; I can only imagine how a marquee quarterback, a Super Bowl champion and the commissioner of the game were made to feel.
Not to get on my flag-waving soapbox here, but I'd really love to see a couple of coaches and more high-profile players go next year. Regardless of your feelings about these conflicts -- and I admit I'm a card-carrying dove if there ever was one -- we cannot do enough to show the men and women risking their lives how much we appreciate what they do. Stepping outside the cocoon of the NFL to do that is something more of our football heroes should do.
One comment on the Favre interview on Fox News last night. In retrospect, Favre should probably have told the Packers last March that he wouldn't make a decision on his future 'til June 1, and if the Packers couldn't live with that, they should release him. Hindsight's 20/20. But it's clear now we're dealing with a player who thought he was convinced he was done but clearly wasn't in a frame of mind to make any absolute judgments in late February or early March.
If you could hear the tone of the voicemail he left me in March -- I was in Afghanistan, and he left me a three-minute message with the reasons for his retirement -- you'd be amazed at his flip-flop now. I've played the message for people in the last couple of months, and invariably they say words to this effect: "Man, he's done. He's beat.'' Just goes to show you it's probably not a good deal with emotional people to rush into decisions.