Wounded Warrior amputees provide NFL alumni with perspective in charity game

Wounded Warrior amputees faced NFL alumni in a flag football game on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 in St. Paul, Minnesota.


By ANDY GREDER | Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. | Published: February 1, 2018

ST. PAUL, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — The wireless microphone kept cutting out during player introductions before the Wounded Warrior amputees faced NFL alumni in a flag football game Wednesday in St. Paul.

Poor Ben Leber. Inheriting the technical difficulties, the former Vikings linebacker tapped the mic for quick checks, only to have it repeatedly go cold when he tried to identify himself at Concordia University’s Sea Foam Stadium.

Then Army veteran and Wounded Warrior player Mike Cain grabbed the mic to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” No hitches, just loud and clear.

The explanations of the donations to the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team weren’t completely heard by the hundreds in attendance, but the oversized cardboard checks clearly showed the numbers: insurance company Humana gave $400,000, and pet-food business Blue Buffalo contributed $150,000.

Once the game started, smiles from former NFL/Gophers players Mark Setterstrom and Dom Barber were as transparent as those of Minnesota military veterans Adam Warden of Maple Plain and Jack Zimmerman of Cleveland.

Zimmerman took a pitch from Wounded Warriors volunteer all-time quarterback Ryan Leaf and navigated his motorized wheelchair down the sideline for a touchdown. With a prosthetic left leg, Warden dove to catch a tipped pass for a touchdown.

In the mix on the other side, Leber loved seeing both plays.

The charity games are tied to a city’s Super Bowl festivities and started in 2013 in New Orleans. Former Viking Robert Smith participated in the 2016 game in Santa Clara, Calif.

“I get embarrassed sometimes because you hear yourself referred to as a hero,” said Smith as he posed for photos and signed dozen of autographs after the game. “And there are people serving our country and being wounded and losing their lives for our country out there.”

During the first half, Wounded Warrior leader Chris Visser shared the story of Jeremy Stengel, a Marine from Mukwonago, Wis., who suffered a serious injury in Iraq’s Anbar Province exactly 11 years ago Wednesday.

Stengel said he was in the last vehicle on a sweep for improvised explosive devices in the dangerous area. They called it a “moon dust road” for the fine sand particles that made it hard to stay on the tight path.

“We might have veered maybe an inch off course, and that’s when we hit the roadside bomb,” Stengel said.

Two members of Stengel’s vehicle died. Stengel said he spent nine weeks in a coma and was given a 10 percent chance to survive. He lost his left leg below the knee and suffered nerve and muscle damage, losing function in his right foot. There were also multiple broken bones and internal injuries.

When Stengel shared his story with the Pioneer Press, he often closed his eyes. This wasn’t so much about keeping his emotions in check, he said, but an effort to focus on the right words because the incident also caused massive head trauma.

Stengel said his routine appearances at the Wounded Warrior games “show that anything is possible, if you have a positive attitude.”

As a Packer fan, Stengel’s favorite memories from the games are when he gets to chat with former Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer, who shares stories of playing for hall of fame coach Vince Lombardi or what it was like in the famous Ice Bowl.

A range of NFL dignitaries tried to do the same for Stengel and other military veterans Wednesday, including Carl Eller, Ron Jaworski, Rocky Bleier, Rich Gannon and Charles Haley.

“I think it’s important for all of us,” Smith added, “no matter who you are, to have perspective in our lives and understand that there are a lot of people that pray for the things that we take for granted day to day. It’s important to be grateful for the people that have served us and to not get caught up in the little things in your life whenever possible.”

©2018 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)
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