Bucs, Jets stage dress rehearsal for Atsugi sailors
August 3, 2003
TOKYO — Atsugi Naval Air Facility officials wanted to bring the NFL experience closer to home. They got a sideline seat at the Tokyo Dome instead.
The Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets staged separate workouts Friday before a small crowd that included 36 sailors from Carrier Air Wing 5 and Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (Light) 51. It was a dress rehearsal for Saturday’s American Bowl, the season’s first exhibition game.
The Atsugi contingent was hit with a 5:45 a.m. wakeup call and had to get into their dress whites for the trip, but no one seemed to mind.
“It’s definitely worth it,” said Navy Airman Shaun LaBreck, of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 115. “I thought we’d be stuck in the stands or behind the fence, but they said, ‘come on over to the sidelines.’”
In between passing drills, toss sweeps and special-teams work, several Jets joined them, pausing for autographs and photos.
“I’ve been a big [Jets] fan from back in their Shea Stadium days,” said Lt. Cmdr. Des Connolly, the operations officer for Carrier Air Group 5. “I grew up watching Joe Namath with the bad knees.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to come down. For the sailors here, they’re pretty wide-eyed. At the same time, I feel like I’m 10 years old again, too.”
Petty Officer 1st Class J.C. Maurer, with squadron 195, couldn’t wait to mingle with the NFL stars.
“I hardly slept last night,” he said. “Being able to get this close to the players, it’s just incredible. I’ve never been on an NFL sideline before, and it’s all happening in Japan. I had to come to Japan to get this close to NFL players.”
The opportunity surfaced through the efforts of Lt. j.g. Pat Pepe, whose family has a connection with Tampa Bay’s organization, according to Cmdr. Mike Wettlaufer, VFA-195’s executive officer. Pepe, a naval flight officer who operates S-3 Vikings for Sea Control Squadron 21, wrote to a relative about the possibility of getting players and servicemembers together.
The original plan, Wettlaufer said, was to bring the players to Atsugi. But when Pepe’s squadron got detached to Hawaii for routine training, the effort was steered in a different direction.
“I asked [NFL representative Pete Abitante] a question, ‘Can we come up there?’” Wettlaufer said. “It just steamrolled from there.
“Even if they could’ve gotten up to Atsugi, we would’ve spent three to four hours getting them up there for a 30-minute visit. This worked out much better.”
Wettlaufer found the players approachable and accommodating.
“The greeting from the players has been so personal, and it’s so nice of them to be as excited about meeting us as we were to meet them,” he said.
“Many are asking, ‘What do you do on the ship?’ There’s been a massive amount of interest from the players. I really appreciate their interest, and we’re really happy to be able to share this time with them.”
Jets head coach Herman Edwards, making his third trip to Japan, posed for several shots with the sailors as he led his team off the field after the morning practice.
“It’s an honor for us to come over here,” he said. “It’s fun for us to get out here and meet them. Any time you have an opportunity to invite the military out to watch our practice, it’s great. It’s beneficial for them as well as us, and it gives us a chance to understand what they do for our country.”
Petty Officer 2nd Class Jermaine Chestnut, of Strike Fighter Squadron 27, said he felt like he was at a Michael Jackson concert.
“You don’t get to see them too much on this side of the world,” he said. “They’re willing to come all the way over here to play a game for us. That brings up the morale of everyone here.
“Some people have their Backstreet Boys. We’ve got our football players.”
Lt. j.g. Daniel Betancourt of HSL-51 presented a squadron coin and patch to the Jets.
“This is really great,” he said. “I don’t think people understand how starved for entertainment we are, especially American entertainment. Thankfully, the NFL comes through.”