BETHLEHEM, Pa. — In a day full of reflection and giving thanks to members of the armed forces, perhaps the most poignant moment of Wednesday’s training camp session occurred at midfield of one of the Eagles’ practice fields.
It wasn’t a bone-crunching tackle, or a beautiful catch for a touchdown down the far sideline; rather, it was Eagles third-year wide receiver Chad Hall, who sat somewhat uneasily in a folding chair near the 50-yard-line.
One-by-one, Hall’s teammates, as well as some of the 600 members of the armed forces, whom the team and Dietz & Watson honored as part of Military Day at training camp at Lehigh University, took turns shearing his golden locks.
Hall, a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, agreed to have his blond surfer-boy hair shaved to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services to severely injured service members who are in transition from active duty to civilian life.
Several of Hall’s eager teammates pledged their own money — some of them as much as $1,000 — for the project, and before long his flowing hair had been reduced to an uneven, short-cropped cut.
ON THE CUTTING EDGE
The man who finished the job was Shane Parsons, a 27-year-old Army veteran who lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb near Baghdad in September 2006. Despite having to learn how to perform all of his basic skills again, including reading and writing, Parsons couldn’t have been more upbeat as he dragged the electric clippers across Hall’s scalp.
“I wanted to help give him a good cut, but I’m not sure how much he’s going to like it,” Parsons said with a laugh.
Parsons, a native of Findlay, Ohio, said it was important for him to be on hand for the Eagles’ kickoff to their 2012 Hometown Heroes program to show people that even a few missing limbs wouldn’t prevent him from living life to the fullest.
“Nothing keeps me down,” said Parsons, who said he joined the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “I rock climb. I ski. I play hockey. I hunt. I skydive…I do everything. I don’t like the word ‘can’t.’ It’s not in my vocabulary. I can do everything that anyone else can do, just a little bit differently.”
Parsons was the shining star of an overall marvelous day at Eagles training camp, where active members of the armed forces, as well as veterans, flocked to Bethlehem to see their favorite team prepare for the upcoming season. They were treated to complimentary food from Dietz & Watson, a Wissinoming-based company, as well as a Q&A session with Eagles radio voice Merrill Reese, raffle prizes and much more.
SPECIAL DAY OF HONOR
Military Day kicked off the 2012 Hometown Heroes program, a signature program for the Eagles. At every home game this season, the Eagles will honor men and women of the armed forces at halftime at midfield, “acknowledging friends and family members whose bravery and strength make them deserving of special recognition,” according to the team’s official website.
On Wednesday, most of the soldiers filed into the bleachers at about 2:45 p.m. to watch the Eagles practice, while some lucky ones were selected to watch from directly on the field. After practice, all military members joined the team for a post-practice huddle with the team, followed by meet-and-greet and autograph sessions with dozens of Eagles.
“We basically just got to shoot the s—- with them, find out about them and what’s going on in their lives,” said Airman First Class Jonathan DeRivera of the U.S. Air Force, also a 2008 Frankford High School graduate and Cheltenham native. “From afar, you’re not really sure what these guys go through or what they’re thinking, but we can really relate to each other face-to-face.
“In a sense, what they do is similar to what we do — being physical, staying in shape, constantly moving, working toward a common goal and being very disciplined,” DeRivera said.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the soldiers, and in a sense, it was one group of heroes meeting another, though the Eagles made it clear who the day was all about.
“We owe it all to you,” Eagles head coach Andy Reid told the assembled group after practice. “We’re able to do what we do best because of you.”
“What we do, that’s a game,” said former Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker, who addressed the troops before practice began. “What you all do…that’s business.”
For members of the military young and old, the experience was an eye-opener for both dedicated fans and casual football observers.
“I just returned from Afghanistan where I woke up at all sorts of crazy hours to watch these guys play the Giants and Cowboys,” said Chief Master Sgt. Steve Agrew of the Pennsylvania National Guard, a 37-year veteran of the military and native of Oxford Circle, who now calls Cinnaminson, N.J. home.
“Last year I was deployed in the middle of their season, so I wasn’t always able to see them. You don’t know what you miss until you don’t have it anymore, and sometimes I felt that way about them, about all the Philly teams. What’s really nice is to be back home and seeing everyone support the military. That’s what you want to see.”
For others, like Staff Sgt. Aamir Cooper of the Air Force, a 28-year-old graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School, just having the opportunity to be back home and watch his favorite team practice meant the world.
“You miss what you know, whether it’s your family, your friends, your girlfriend, your job. It’s all part of your normal life,” he said. “And the Eagles are part of that for a lot of people. You get back home and realize how much everyone misses and appreciates you, and time kind of stops for a moment.”
Cooper said he was likely to be deployed to Afghanistan again soon for his third tour of duty, and a lot of the others in attendance would likely be heading there, too. But for now, Wednesday was all about appreciation for these hometown heroes who joined the armed forces to keep American citizens safe and free.
“It’s what I believe in, to fight for what you love,” Parsons said. “I was in cardiac arrest three times, but there’s no quit in me. And watching these guys fight for what they believe in out on the field…I totally understand where they’re coming from. They helped so many soldiers, so thank you to Coach Reid, to the players, to everyone, thank you from the bottom of my heart.” ••
Sports editor Ed Morrone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or firstname.lastname@example.org