Army sergeant forms special bond with team
By TOM REED | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 23, 2017
Will Caito hates surprises, which is understandable given the nature of his overseas duty as a sergeant first class in the Army.
So as he prepared to drive to Columbus from his home in Virginia to watch his favorite sports team, his wife, Joan, informed him of a secret that family members had been harboring. The Blue Jackets planned to recognize him at the Feb. 11 game in Nationwide Arena.
Caito would be interviewed on the bench between periods. He also might get a chance to meet the team owner, John P. McConnell, and a select player.
Even with the detailed scouting report, the Blue Jackets managed to stun the soldier. As McConnell welcomed him to the owners' suite, Caito saw a display mounted on a wall containing items he had sent the Blue Jackets from Afghanistan. It included a folded American flag, a certificate, a hand-written letter and a photo of Caito, 31, wearing an autographed Jackets jersey on top of an old Soviet tank.
“It meant so much to me that it had meant so much to Mr. McConnell,” Caito said.
An evening capped with a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings kept getting better. The owner handed him a drink. Caito, a career military man, was not about to disobey a direct order.
“When John McConnell offers you a shot of Fireball, you drink a Fireball,” he said.
The experience marked one of the most memorable days of his civilian life. When does a team you love, love you back like that?
Caito tried to process the events that led to the moment. He knows it began a year ago during a particularly dark time in Afghanistan when he opened a package from a man he has never met.
Becoming a fan
Caito was born in Indiana, he grew up with a deep appreciation for military history while watching television programming with his father. Spurred to action by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Caito joined the Army out of high school four years later. His twin brother, Nick, also enlisted.
While stationed at a base outside Tacoma, Wash., Caito became a hockey fan in 2011. His friends were into the sport and soon enough he started playing. He needed to find an NHL team to support, but which one? Caito wasn't going the bandwagon route.
“No way was I becoming a (Chicago) Blackhawks or (Pittsburgh) Penguins fan,” he said. “Those are the evil empires.”
He identified with the Blue Jackets and their gritty style. They were a relative new franchise, he reasoned, and Caito was a new fan. He developed favorite players — Rick Nash, Jared Boll, Matt Calvert and Cam Atkinson, whom friends said would never survive because of his lack of size.
“I liked Cam because he's 5 foot 8 and I'm 5 foot 9,” Caito said. “I told my buddies, 'Shut the (heck) up.’”
Caito's emotional attachment to the Blue Jackets grew. During an overseas deployment, he woke in the middle of the night to watch their 2014 playoff games. He recalls hopping into taxis in Malaysia and Cambodia to find WiFi strong enough to listen to radio broadcasts.
“In (South) Korea, I remember sitting in a train station listening to a game," Caito said. "I missed two trains listening to the second and third periods. The guy with me was kind of peeved."
A year ago, as Caito patrolled Afghanistan, halfway around the world businessman Doug Cadle heard the story of the soldier's affinity for the Blue Jackets. The executive for Worthington-Armstrong Venture, a subsidiary of Worthington Industries, was having cocktails with Phil Caito, a salesman and cousin of the sergeant.
“Phil started telling me about Will and how he was a crazy Blue Jackets fan," Cadle said. "I made a mental note of it."
Cadle knows McConnell's passion for military service and how the team often recognizes soldiers at home games. It's a bond that has deepened with the arrival of coach John Tortorella, whose son Nick is an Army Ranger. Cadle relayed Caito's tale to McConnell, CEO of Worthington Industries, and wondered if the team might send him an autographed jersey.
Cathy Lyttle, a Worthington Industries executive in communications and investments, took the idea and made it a reality.
A debt he can't repay
Last February, Caito opened a package in Afghanistan addressed from Cadle. He didn't know who the man was until he read the letter explaining Cadle's chance conversation with his cousin.
Cadle, McConnell, Lyttle and the Blue Jackets will never fully grasp what the autographed jersey meant to Caito. The winter deployment had been a particularly arduous one. American soldiers had been killed in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.
"Some bad things had happened and we were tracking it," Caito said.
The sergeant wore the jersey when he listened to games. Fellow soldiers suggested taking a picture of Caito in the sweater and sending it to the team. Not just any photo would suffice, however. Caito waited until they visited an old tank farm outside of Kabul.
He also flew flags over his base in honor of McConnell, Lyttle, Cadle and the Blue Jackets. He wrote thank you letters. He sent them the flags, special military coins and certificates, which included famous quotes. McConnell's certificate reads:
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." — John F. Kennedy.
Meeting his man
After Caito celebrated the Feb. 11 win, he was led to the Blue Jackets' locker room. Waiting for him was one final surprise: An meeting with Atkinson, the team's freshly minted All-Star.
Atkinson signed posters and memorabilia for Caito, his three cousins and Joan. The Blue Jackets winger has many family members who have served in the military, and he has founded a nonprofit organization, Force Network Fund, which benefits military personnel, first responders and their families.
"It was an honor for me to meet Will and thank him for what he has done for our country," Atkinson said. "He has some amazing stories, and I'd really like to read the letter he sent to Mr. McConnell."
Joan Caito noted that her husband is not someone who frequently smiles. She said family members saw the pictures from the Blue Jackets visit and observed, "He looks happier than he did on his wedding day."
Caito will be home for the playoffs. Assuming the Blue Jackets qualify, he won't miss a game. And there is one last meeting Caito desires. He wants the chance to thank Cadle in person and buy him a few drinks. Told of the soldier's intentions, the executive laughed.
"I can't wait," Cadle said. "He can fight me for the check, but I'm going to win that battle."
©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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