NFL: Humbled Seahawks become soldiers for a day
AP Sports Writer
FORT LEWIS, Wash. — T.J. Houshmandzadeh is used to manhandling NFL defensive backs. That skill made him the most coveted wide receiver in the free agent market this offseason.
But giant logs stacked into an A-frame, forming an apex 40 feet above sawdust? Those manhandled Houshmandzadeh on Thursday.
"What do I do now?" the 6-foot-2, 203-pound Seattle Seahawk cried from atop "The Weave."
It was the first test in a confidence course, on which soldiers train before leaving for Iraq and Afghanistan at one of the Army's most active domestic posts.
Fort Lewis is about an hour south of Seahawks headquarters, and about a world away from their opulent, lakeside training facility.
Beads of sweat dripped off Houshmandzadeh's goatee and into the sawdust below. With green pines stretching into the sunny sky, the Seahawks spent this 90-degree day with 16 different units participating in operations and exercises to emphasize the similarities in the team concepts of the NFL and the Army.
Houshmandzadeh spent his morning with combat medics carrying fictitiously wounded colleagues under 2-foot high barbed wire amid simulated gun fire. After lunch in unit mess hall, Houshmandzadeh was trying to weave his body over and under a series of horizontal logs to the top of the A-frame and back down.
He got up easily. Getting without falling and embarrassing — if not hurting himself — in front of more than 50 other Seahawks and dozens of soldiers running the course or cheering them on? That proved more difficult than beating a Pro Bowl cornerback on a go route.
Oh, Houshmandzadeh finally made it through "The Weave." He burned friction holes through a sweat shirt and workout T-shirt doing it.
"We're trying to correlate it to football. It's teamwork," Houshmandzadeh said. "But this is different. We screw up, we lose a play, maybe a game. These soldiers screw up, they lose a life."
While getting a preview of the 50-foot walls and ropes of the obstacle course, defensive back Jordan Babineaux called out, "I'm getting dizzy already! Heat exhaustion!"
Millionaire NFL players crawling through the same sawdust as privates who make a few hundred dollars a month is unique, but not unprecedented.
After two-plus hours under the hot sun, the Seahawks were reminded of a former NFL colleague who made a heroic and ultimately tragic career change.
"It's flippin' crazy, what Pat Tillman did," Houshmandzadeh said, before boarding an air-conditioned, chartered bus that took the Seahawks back to their facility. "It's unbelievable. It's literally unbelievable, man, to know what he did is what you're out here doing — only 100 times harder."
Tillman is the former safety for the Arizona Cardinals who gave up his NFL career by volunteering for the Army as an enlisted solider. He became a Ranger, deployed to Afghanistan and was killed there in 2004.
"It's unbelievable," Houshmandzadeh said again. "There's no way you can really have an appreciation, being out here, for what he did."
Seahawks assistant coach Larry Marmie, born in 1942, impressed his players by being one of the only coaches to go through each of the obstacles. Marmie was Tillman's position coach and then his defensive coordinator with the Cardinals.
Marmie and Seahawks safety Brian Russell were talking about Tillman minutes after they finished the confidence course.
"I was shocked when he first told me," Marmie said of Tillman's decision to give up NFL riches for the life the Seahawks got only a taste of Thursday. "But after I had a chance to talk to him and I thought about it, I could just see him doing something like that."
Despite the tragic ending, Marmie doesn't regret not talking Tillman out of leaving the NFL.
"Pat did what he wanted to do. It was his calling, his passion," Marmie said. "I just have the regret that he didn't come home."
Going home, of course, is what the Seahawks got to do after their day in the Army.
"Talking to them, the biggest sacrifice is the stress on the families," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "We have it tough in training camp, being away from our families for four weeks. These guys are doing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan for 15 months."
Hasselbeck spent his morning with the 555th combat Engineer Brigade, manning a machine gun while on a simulator clearing improvised explosive devices with teammates. Hasselbeck called it an "adrenaline rush." He spent the afternoon walking the courses with a pack on his back — "I'm the medic," he joked. After missing the majority of last season with a back injury, the Seahawks don't want to risk anything.
"It's amazing, to see what a day is in these soldiers' lives. And this is probably one of their easier days, hosting us," Hasselbeck said.
None of the soldiers said they wanted to trade lives with their privileged NFL visitors, defensive tackle Craig Terrill said, "and that was the coolest thing of the day."
"They are all very proud of their jobs," he said. "This is an all-voluntary military. No one forced them to do what they do. And they love it."