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Atlanta Falcon Warrick Dunn, left, and New England Patriot Larry Izzo toss out autographed footballs to the troops before the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Pat Tillman USO Center on Bagram Air Base.

Atlanta Falcon Warrick Dunn, left, and New England Patriot Larry Izzo toss out autographed footballs to the troops before the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Pat Tillman USO Center on Bagram Air Base. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Atlanta Falcon Warrick Dunn, left, and New England Patriot Larry Izzo toss out autographed footballs to the troops before the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Pat Tillman USO Center on Bagram Air Base.

Atlanta Falcon Warrick Dunn, left, and New England Patriot Larry Izzo toss out autographed footballs to the troops before the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Pat Tillman USO Center on Bagram Air Base. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Tech. Sgt. Rick Laramee, an avide New England Patriots fan, shows Patriot special teams captain and linebacker Larry Izzo images of his "hootch" decorated with Patriot memorabilia.

Tech. Sgt. Rick Laramee, an avide New England Patriots fan, shows Patriot special teams captain and linebacker Larry Izzo images of his "hootch" decorated with Patriot memorabilia. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Troops waited in a long line to get autographs of NFL players Warrick Dunn and Larry Izzo at Bagram Air Base on Sunday.

Troops waited in a long line to get autographs of NFL players Warrick Dunn and Larry Izzo at Bagram Air Base on Sunday. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elvia Palumbo of the 3rd Battalion,158th Aviation Regiment out of Giebelstadt, Germany, has a football signed by Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, left, as Larry Izzo of the New England Patriots signs autographs at center after the opening of the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elvia Palumbo of the 3rd Battalion,158th Aviation Regiment out of Giebelstadt, Germany, has a football signed by Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, left, as Larry Izzo of the New England Patriots signs autographs at center after the opening of the Pat Tillman USO Center at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Military bases often host foreign dignitaries and distinguished visitors. But a pair of ambassadors of a different sort drew the attention of hundreds of servicemembers Sunday.

Pro football players Warrick Dunn of the Atlanta Falcons and Larry Izzo of the New England Patriots signed hundreds of autographs and created just as many smiles while attending the dedication of the Pat Tillman USO center.

Dunn, who earned the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award for community service last year, said he might be considered a hero by many. But he said those serving in the armed forces in dangerous spots are the real heroes.

“It’s just a game,” he said of his sport. “Life is way more important. Freedom for our country is way more important.”

A standout running back who started his career in Tampa Bay, Dunn isn’t new to touring military bases overseas. He was among a group of NFL players who visited troops in Germany last year.

He said the atmosphere then, with thousands of troops getting ready to deploy to Iraq, was tense. But he said he didn’t even think about refusing an offer to come to a far more dangerous place.

Izzo, special teams captain for the Super Bowl champions, echoed those thoughts.

“If I could do this every year, I would,” he said. “I’m going to encourage all my teammates and friends to do this.”

Izzo is no stranger to military life. His father, Lawrence, retired as a colonel after 23 years in the Army. That included stops overseas in Darmstadt and Karlsruhe, Germany. Izzo’s older brother, Leonard, served in the 1st Armored Division in Germany and left the service as a captain.

Undersized for an NFL linebacker at 5-feet, 10-inches tall, Izzo said he’s made up for that with a work ethic and toughness he got from his father.

“Obviously, that came from his time in the military,” he said.

Those still in uniform appreciated the visit by the two players.

“I’m exhilarated by Warrick Dunn being here,” said Spc. Timothy Danley, part of a helicopter crew based in Giebelstadt, Germany. “I followed him all through his college career.”

Danley’s brother, Joe, an Army specialist based in Illesheim, nodded his head: “He’s got outstanding character.”

Air Force Capt. Ron Oliver said it was a good boost for morale.

“And it’ll be good for them to go back and tell other people what they saw here,” he said.

Dunn and Izzo, who play on opposites sides of the ball when the two teams play each other, didn’t leave all the competition behind — even though the upcoming season is months away.

Both got to shoot AK-47 assault rifles in a visit to troops in remote areas on Saturday. Dunn, yet to play in a Super Bowl, proved to be the better shot with a 9 mm handgun.

But Izzo didn’t let him brag about it too long. Asked where his three Super Bowl rings were, he replied: “I think Warrick’s got them. I haven’t seen them.”

Dunn just shook his head and smiled.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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