FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – "Welcome to the Jungle" blared from the speakers at the home of the 101st Airborne Division here on Wednesday morning, and as the Tennessee Titans stepped off their buses, it was their first clue this might be an interesting day.
The second clue came just a few minutes later, when U.S. Army Col. Alan Boyer addressed the Titans, and his Army team gathered around them.
"I expect them to kick your ass," said Boyer, pointing to the group decked out in camouflage, and then looking at the group in Titans gear. "That's the bottom line."
Let's just say the Titans players, coaches and other staff members experienced a day they won't forget any time soon. It started with an obstacle course that left them sweaty, muddy and fatigued, and ended a few hours later with simulated battles on vehicles, helicopters and even some rappelling by members of the coaching staff.
"I didn't envision us getting off the bus and getting right to it like that,'' said linebacker Brian Orakpo, mud caked in his beard, and all over this face. "That's one of the hardest things I've done in my life.
"But it was amazing. It really was amazing. What we do is just a game. This stuff right here, man, it's intense."
Last month, the Titans welcomed members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team "Bastogne" 101st Airborne Division to Saint Thomas Sports Park, where strength and conditioning coach Steve Watterson put company commanders through a strenuous workout.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Army returned the favor, if that's what you want to call it.
"Man, it was hell," safety Kevin Byard said with a smile. "My shoes are dirty, everything is muddy and wet."
Tackle Taylor Lewan said it was mission accomplished for the U.S. Army.
"It was definitely intense," Lewan said. "They kicked our ass. But it was a cool time, an awesome experience."
The Titans divided up into teams and went through an obstacle course filled with military tasks, designed to test their limits. They did some low-crawling under wire, crawled through mud and water, carried logs, water cans, ammo cans and more supplies. They carried simulated casualties, the mannequin-like bodies weighing roughly 120 pounds. They tossed grenades, and to advance they had to be accurate with their throws. They pushed a mammoth Humvee across the terrain. They climbed over logs, and through more obstacles.
"All the things we have to carry into the fight," Boyer said, "we wanted them to experience it. It's an athletic move, but they had to carry it out in a combat-like environment. And I thought they did great."
The course – and competition -- was designed to promote team building.
Five teams of roughly 15 participants each were made up of rookies and veterans, coaches and other staff members. In order to move from task to task, every person had to finish.
Veterans cheered on rookies, and they worked together. Veteran tight end Delanie Walker and rookie running back Khalfani Muhammad teamed up to get a 120-pound mannequin across a field.
"This is a great way to get the team bonding," said Eric Weems, in his first season with the Titans after playing previously with the Falcons. "To get the team together and work on team work, and that's what we did."
Mularkey and Boyer agreed the rigors of the obstacle course produced the desired result.
"I thought it was great to see the competition amongst these guys, especially when a group with the 101st Air Assault competed with us, and against us, and whipped us,'' Mularkey said. "They gave us a head start and whipped us. But it was great. It's a different competition for these guys, and it helped this team grow closer and get better."
Byard said it gave him an even greater appreciation for members of the military.
"It was mentally challenging for everybody and it does make you appreciate what they do," Byard said. "They are doing this in their whole combat uniform and we are in t-shirts. So we appreciate what they do."
Before and after the obstacle course, players mingled with soldiers. They took pictures, and signed autographs.
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was a popular guy. Several soldiers thanked him for his performances as their fantasy football quarterback, although one soldier at lunch told Mariota he owed him $1,200 – he'd bet on the Packers vs. the Titans last season, and lost.
"I probably have a soldier from every state in my brigade, and to have players here they know from college and pro, it means a lot to them," Boyer said.
"And talking to some of (the Titans), the amount of exertion and experience they gained is exactly what coach Mularkey and I were looking for when we built this for the team. It was absolutely a tough event and I think they learned something about each other. And my soldiers enjoyed it as much as they did."
Before loading up buses and returning to Nashville, the Titans took pictures on tanks and on military Jeeps, and examined guns. They chatted with soldiers, and shared the dining hall with them.
At the end of the day, they'd survived a grueling day.
And got better in doing so.
"All of these guys are in great shape, and they're tough mentally," center Ben Jones said of the members of the 101st Airborne Division. "And that is what we want to be as a team. We want to be tough mentally and in great shape. We want to be like these guys."
Titans players and coaches go through Army training exercises, visit with soldiers at Fort Campbell, home to the 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. (Photos: Gary Glenn)