NASHVILLE – Ryan Thoma's Tuesday started at 5:50 a.m. at Fort Campbell, Ky., and by 6:30 a.m. he was in PT with other soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division.
What's usually a jam-packed day on the military base, however, had a nice twist – Thoma and over 100 soldiers traveled to Nashville to take part in a flag football tournament at Saint Thomas Sporks Park, hosted by the Tennessee Titans.
The special day was just part of the team's "Salute to Service" week leading up to Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The soldiers were served dinner, and they got a big surprise at the end of the day -- Titans rookie defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons handed out 200 tickets for Sunday's game, courtesy of Cooper Steel.
"This is amazing -- a once-in-a-life time experience," said Thoma, a 21-year-old U.S. Army specialist from Dayton, Ohio. "I'm loving every second of it.
"To be able to step on the field that so many great athletes play on. … It is almost a humbling experience to know that you are on the same field as some of the guys who are considered to be the best in the world."
Members of the 101st Airborne Division divided up into four teams on Tuesday to take part in the third annual event, inside the bubble at STSP. It's just one of the ways the Titans are honoring the military this week leading up to their "Salute to Service" home game. The first flag football event took place at Fort Campbell in 2017, before moving to the Titans facility last year.
Also on Tuesday, the Titans held a breakfast for season ticket members who served in the military. Also, the team held a USO Pathfinder Employment Readiness Workshop at Nissan Stadium, a professional readiness workshop for veterans trying to transition from military to civilian life.
But it was all about flag football – and competition -- for the Fort Campbell soldiers on Tuesday afternoon.
As part of the NFL's Salute to Service month, the Titans invited more than 100 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to compete in a flag football tournament at Saint Thomas Sports Park. (Photos: Donald Page)
John Williams, a U.S. Army retired master sergeant who is now stadium operations manager for the Titans, addressed the soldiers prior to the tournament while standing in the middle of the Fireball logo at the 50-yard-line.
"I take a lot of pride in seeing this because it is an opportunity to give back one more time to the soldiers who I served with," Williams said. "To see them come out here and have fun, to be able to put the Army stuff aside and be able to enjoy themselves, it is great.
"This breaks their routine and gives some of them a chance to relive their high school days. Most of us soldiers think we are the poor man's version of a professional athlete."
Josh Corey, Football Outreach Manager for the Titans, said Simmons told the soldiers while handing out the tickets on Tuesday evening the team needed them "to show out and be loud on Sunday."
Corey said the look on the faces of the soldiers showed just how much the experience meant to them.
"You know they're excited when you see them pulling their phones out and filming things and taking pictures," Corey said. "It is really neat to see that.
"The most important thing for us is we want them to know how much we appreciate their service and the sacrifices that they make for our country."