NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Titans fan Alfred Santacroce sent a letter to the team back in 2016, he had no idea he'd get back so much in return.
Santacroce, a gunner's mate in the United States Navy, first received an autographed football from quarterback Marcus Mariota. After further correspondence, he got back a text from Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk.
It was the start of what's now a two-year friendship that has Santacroce in Nashville, set to join Strunk in the owner's suite for Sunday night's Titans vs. Colts game at Nissan Stadium.
"I am still in that phase of "Wow. Is this really happening?," said Santacroce, who flew in from San Diego. "For Amy being who she is, and being a person of her status, she's one of the nicest people I've ever met. She's gone out of her way for me, and I am forever in her debt because of it."
Strunk said the connection has been special to her as well. Her father, late Titans owner Bud Adams, served in the Navy himself. Strunk said she's enjoyed getting to know Santacroce and his wife. Strunk said the team's relationship with the military is important to her and the entire organization.
"I call him my Navy pen pal," Strunk said with a smile. "It's just been a fun thing. He goes on deployment … and we stay in touch. He appreciates his connection with our team, and really loves our team. It is just so humbling to have someone feel so strongly about us that lives so far away."
Santacroce, who's active duty Navy currently stationed in San Diego, grew up in Los Angeles and picked the Titans as his team in 2000.
A few years ago he sent a letter to the team, and after getting the Mariota signed football, he sent back Navy merchandise to several members of the organization, including a planner with Strunk's name embroidered on it.
When the Titans played in San Diego in 2016, Santacroce met Strunk and received tickets to the game. The two have remained in contact in the months and years since. Santacroce, who has been deployed to the Middle East and the South Pacific, gave Strunk the email to the ships he was on each time.
"She would send me emails, praying for a safe return," Santacroce said.
Santacroce said he doesn't often brag about his friendship with the owner. The friends he does tell, well, they don't believe him anyway, he said.
Santacroce has sent gifts to Strunk, and the team. He once sent a giant artillery shell, roughly four feet in size, to Strunk. He sent the whole team, including general manager Jon Robinson, coach Mike Vrabel, and all the players military-inspired name plates.
"He has this love for the Titans," Strunk said. "When Marcus (Mariota) is hurt, he's hurt. He lives and breathes it. He's that big a fan. He's amazing"
True story: Santacroce had the San Diego police called on him because he was yelling so loudly on Derrick Henry's 99-yard touchdown run against the Jaguars earlier this month. Police came in, checked his place out, and then gave him grief for being a Titans fan, Santacroce said.
Santacroce said he texted Strunk about Sunday's game with the Colts, asking her if she'd set a ticket aside he could purchase. Strunk told him if he'd get to Nashville, she'd have him covered.
So Santacroce took the red-eye from San Diego to Chicago on Friday night, and was in Nashville on Saturday, at Saint Thomas Sports Park. He spent Saturday at practice, with Adams, and he met players and coaches. He went to the Titans Locker Room store at Nissan Stadium with Adams.
And then he got his ticket to the game.
"When I got the envelope and opened it up, it said, "Owner's suite," Santacroce said. "I'm thinking: This is intense.
"All of this, it's hard to believe it's happening. I am just very proud and fortunate to be Amy's friend.
"When I say I love this NFL franchise, I mean it. And I feel this NFL franchise really loves me back."