NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division gathered at 6 a.m. Wednesday in Fort Campbell, Ky., and after a head count, they loaded into a bus headed for Nashville.
Destination: Saint Thomas Sports Park, where they'd spend a day with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.
And it started out with a lasting memory.
"Breakfast was amazing," First Sergeant Karl Akama of the First Brigade said with a smile. "A lot of these soldiers, they are single soldiers, so they eat in the chow hall every day. So they were utterly floored with how good the food was. This was a tremendous upgrade for them."
But the 54 men and women didn't visit the Titans for the bacon, eggs and pancakes, of course.
They were invited to the facility to get a sneak peek into the day of an NFL player, and they left the facility bright-eyed and sweaty. And so, too, did the Titans players and coaches, who spent part of their day mingling with the soldiers, who got a behind-the-scenes look into every aspect of the organization.
"Fort Campbell Day" was a winning experience for everyone involved, general manager Jon Robinson said. Earlier this week, the Titans traveled to Fort Campbell as part of their annual Titans Caravan. The Titans and the 101st Airborne have been involved in a number of events together over the years.
"These young men and women, they sacrifice a lot to protect and to serve our country, and they allow us the freedom to do what we love," Robinson said. "And to take a day out and still get our work in and incorporate them into what we do on a daily basis and kind of pull the curtain back and show that to them, it is pretty special I think, for them and for us."
Jon Robinson, Mike Vrabel, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Succop, and Nate Palmer headline Day 3 of the 2018 Academy Sports + Outdoors Titans Caravan in Fort Campbell and Clarksville. (Photos: Susanna Nickell, Nate Bain)
After breakfast, the soldiers listened to a Q&A with Robinson and coach Mike Vrabel before heading into a team meeting room, where they had a film session with Vrabel.
Then came sessions with Titans Director of Team Operations Brent Akers, Director of Security John Albertson, Director of Player Engagement Chic Ejiasi, and Director of Player Personnel Ryan Cowden.
"Myself and my commander kind of made the little connection on how similar military is to a football organization," Akama said. "Down to your support operations, your day-to-day activities, your specialized coaching and stuff going on in certain areas – offense and defense, the same way we play."
Then came the fun part.
Decked out in black shirts with "Army" across the front, and black shorts, the soldiers went on the practice field, where the Titans were taking part in their offseason work, for stretching and drills.
Vrabel and strength and conditioning coach Tom Kanavy and his staff loosened the soldiers up. Vrabel noticed some soldiers using improper technique, and corrected them.
Later, the soldiers were turned loose, and into groups. Secondary coach Kerry Coombs barked out orders to soldiers as they backpedaled, and caught footballs. Spread out across the practice field, soldiers went through drills with other position coaches.
Tony Dews had his hands full with running backs, as offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Pat O'Hara worked with the QBs. Arthur Smith led the tight ends. At one point Titans tight end Delanie Walker came over and slapped hands with soldiers. Groups were active all over the field as the Titans watched.
"We had two volunteers for the offensive line," Robinson said with a grin. "Everyone wants to catch the ball or throw it."
With Guns N' Roses playing in the background, Akama went through drills himself.
"It was a blast," he said. "They were all excited, you could tell. That same aggression they put out there on the battlefields, running down the roads, they bring it over here.
"Doing something like this, it is awesome. It is awesome people have our back. We do what most people don't want to do, for whatever reason. So any support we get from the community or organizations like the NFL, it is awesome."
At the end of the workout, the Army solders lined up, and the Titans lined up.
A handshake line then played out on the practice fields, and players and soldiers said hello and shook hands. Titans players and coaches thanked the soldiers, as they said hello to some to some of their favorite players. Some players, including quarterback Marcus Mariota, posed for pictures and signed autographs. Many of the soldiers are from Kentucky and Tennessee, Akama said. One asked tackle Taylor Lewan about his legendary catfish display at the Predators game from earlier this week.
Akama, who is from Honolulu, is a fan of the Titans quarterback.
"He's an island boy," Akama said of Mariota. "How can I not be?"
The day ended with the soldiers meeting coaches in their offices.
And, of course, lunch. Then it was back on the bus, and back to the base.
"It was great having them," Robinson said. "I saw a lot of grit and determination out there. I am glad these guys and gals are good at taking care of bad people. We'll take care of the football, and they can take care of the enemy.
"A day like this, it is special. And it just shows our appreciation for what they do for our country. It is a great relationship that we have with that group at Fort Campbell, and hopefully we can continue that."
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell run drills and meet players at Saint Thomas Sports Park. (Photos: Gary Glenn, Nate Bain)