Wednesday was Chad Hall's third Military Day with the Eagles at Lehigh. Two years ago, when Hall was a rookie, a couple of months removed from his 2-year active-duty stint as an Air Force second lieutenant, he would discover close connections with the 300 or so service personnel invited onto the field after training-camp practice – they had friends in common, maybe places they'd served.
That might not be as true now, as Hall's time as the 421st Fighter Squadron's assistant commander for maintenance fades into the past, but many of Hall's classmates in the Air Force Academy of 2008 remain in harm's way. He emails and talks regularly with people who have been affected by the war. It is never far from his mind, even though an NFL locker room is about as far away from Tikrit or Kabul as you can get, in so many ways.
Hall believes he is the only current NFL player to have served in the military. The Eagles weren't sure how to check that, but they weren't able to name any others. Wednesday, Hall was the player who put the most effort into Military Day, organizing a charity event for the Wounded Warrior Project.
Hall, a wide receiver who had been growing his blond locks for about 6 months, decided to get his head shaved at Military Day, with teammates and the public pledging money to the Wounded Warriors online. Offensive lineman Evan Mathis scooped up the shorn locks and planned an online auction, also to benefit the charity, which provides programs and services to wounded service members.
"I just thought it would be a good idea to take our minds off camp and focus on the real heroes," said Hall, who is still a Reservist as he works off his service commitment. "I've been in their shoes, and it is a tough life. It's every day, all the time, weekends, no matter what. They prepare over here to fight over there. Just to give them some of our time, it's just special to do. I told all my teammates to really enjoy this, because [the service personnel] are the reason we have these freedoms."
On hand to preside over the shearing was former Army Sgt. Shane Parsons, on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project. Parsons lost both legs above the knee to a roadside bomb near Baghdad, Sept. 30, 2006. He also suffered a severe anoxic brain injury; though Parsons seems to think and speak completely normally now, his brain was deprived of oxygen during the three times he went into cardiac arrest following the explosion. If you listen closely, he struggles to come up with the right words.
"I lost the ability to read and write," said Parsons, who said he has relearned to read, but only at a first-grade level so far. "[I lost] a little bit of depth perception. Nothing huge."
Parsons spent tedious years at various rehab sites around the country. Now he is finally at a point, as he prepares to turn 27 on Friday, where he has passed a coaching certification test in his native Ohio, and is coaching offensive linemen at St. Wendelin, a Catholic high school in Fostoria, Ohio. Parsons grew up in Fostoria, played on the o-line for Fostoria High, wearing No. 68, now retired in his honor.
"I got to play against Big Ben," Parsons said, referring to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "He's from Findlay, I'm from Fostoria. It's a huge rivalry. It was a good game. They beat us."
The Sept. 11 attacks occurred early in Parsons' junior year at Fostoria High.
"I got really pissed and wanted to do something about it. My one grandfather served at Normandy. One of the grandfathers served in Korea. Other relatives in Desert Storm," Parsons said.
He was a month from the end of his deployment when the Humvee he was driving blew up. Parsons later told his mother, Cindy, he would do it all over again.
There was a time when the world of the NFL "warriors" was closer to the world of Parsons and those uniformed troops who collected Eagles autographs Wednesday. Chuck Bednarik , now 87, who visited camp last weekend, flew 30 missions as a World War II waistgunner on a B-24 bomber. Former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan was a combat veteran of Korea. But the military draft – which was never televised on ESPN -- ended nearly four decades ago. Even if today's players and coaches have relatives or friends from school who put their lives on the line in the Middle East, and even if they tour with the USO, as Eagles coach Andy Reid did in 2010, the only guy from the NFL to put himself squarely in harm's way was Pat Tillman, who is memorialized by a statue outside the Arizona Cardinals' stadium, more than 8 years after his death. One thing Military Day at Lehigh does vividly every year is trivialize all that silly football talk of battles and warriors. You get a sense many of the players realize this, in the almost sheepish way they mingle and sign autographs.
Parsons seemed thrilled to be on a football field again Wednesday. He said the main thing he wants to teach his o-linemen isn't so much technique as attitude.
"I want to get the kids out of the house, show them they can succeed in whatever they do," Parsons said. "There is nothing that can ever keep me down. I rock-climb. I ski, I play hockey, I hunt, I do everything. I just want to make sure the kids have that opportunity – there's no such thing as 'no' … I can do anything anybody else can, just in a different way."
Hall, 26, left the 421st, the "Black Widows," for his NFL shot a few months before their deployment to Afghanistan. "I know a ton [of soldiers who have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan]," he said. "I do whatever I can for them. It's a rigorous life over there."