Red, White, Blue...Football!

It's January 27, 1991. The last few hours of daylight radiate around Tampa, Florida. The "twilight's last gleaming", prior to Super Bowl XXV, a match-up between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants.

On most Super Bowl Sundays, I’d be at a party somewhere or in my own home. Eating, drinking, being merry and enjoying the company of family and friends. Just like millions of people around the world who congregate for the carnival of the modern day Super Bowl.

But I was nowhere near a party on that day back in 1991. Just shy of my 21st birthday, I was engaged in “Operation Desert Storm” in the northern Persian Gulf. On the day that game was played (a contest that the Giants pulled out 20-19 when Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed a possible game winning kick as time expired), my ship was involved in surface strike operations designed to eradicate Iraqi naval capability. As quarterback Jeff Hostetler completed passes to Mark Bavaro and other Giants receivers, I was completing engagements that culminated in the destruction of several Iraqi patrol craft.

Running back Ottis Anderson was dodging Bills defenders while my trusty old guided-missile cruiser was dodging mines. Mines are the one thing we fear on surface ships – because you can’t see them. I remember watching the explosive ordnance disposal teams clearing mines and seeing how large the explosions were. I knew for certain that if my ship happened to strike one, it would have been game over. No pun intended.

But in the back of my mind, I really wanted to watch that game. Maybe I just needed to re-connect with one of the core elements of being an American, the freedom to gather in places far and wide to enjoy the big game.

You never know how good we have it here in the U.S.A. until you hang your butt off the edge of the world, on the tip of a spear.

I’ve spent over 17 years in the Navy, and it has been an incredible experience. While I confess to being a football fanatic, it’s even more ingrained in me how vital the lifeblood of watching the NFL has been when I consider some of the unique circumstances that I have found myself in during football season.

Things have changed a lot. During that deployment for “Desert Storm”, we would get the scores in our radio message traffic – usually well after the fact. I watched that Bills-Giants Super Bowl not on a large TV, but on an 8” x 10” piece of carbon copy paper.

Nowadays, most ships have satellite TV that is fairly reliable, most of the time. I was actually able to watch Super Bowl XXVII in February, 2002. I was once again deployed to a combat zone, this time in support of “Operation Enduring Freedom” in response to 9/11, and after an eight-hour watch in the Combat Information Center (CIC) directing air combat operations just off the coast of Pakistan, I spent some down time directing my eyes to one of the TV’s on the ship as the New England Patriots upended the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.

That was right around the time when I realized that football had overtaken baseball as America’s past time. I love baseball, but football is a whole other beast. How many people get together for World Series parties?

It was incredible to be able to watch the Super Bowl from halfway across the world, and even more valuable that we had an outlet to offset the stress and tension of day-to-day operations.

Believe it or not, if operational conditions permit we actually have “clear satellite” courses we try to maintain so the reception stays locked in. We used to compute courses for scouting enemies, wind envelopes for helicopters, and safe navigation tracks in case of a problem with our ordnance. Now we work “TV courses”.

You gotta love it.

It’s not just the game, of course. Even the commercials brought vibrant reminders of the lives we left behind. I never got excited about Burger King commercials, but seeing them while bobbing around near the Straits of Hormuz really brought a smile to my face.
Talk about contrast: drifting in an Iranian Silkworm anti-ship missile envelope while wondering if I really could “have it my way”. It was mildly unnerving yet comforting.

I also recall a deployment to Central America and the Caribbean Sea in 1993/1994, where we spent long months prosecuting the war on drugs. As fate would have it, we left about halfway through the NFL season. I knew I had to do something to get my fix, so me and one of my best buddies on my ship worked over the radio guys and had them connect the Associated Press and United Press International news feed down to a teletype we were “supposed” to use for tactical information exchange in CIC. We got away with it because we were the only supervisors for that area that had the teletype, so we just played it off as status quo. We would anxiously hover over the printer as the scores would stream across. Of course, the science wasn’t perfect – and at times the transmissions were garbled. When that happened, you’d see something like this:

2 QTR SEA $#@! KC %)&^
3 QTR PIT @~+* NYJ $#ZZ

Oh well…we took what we could get. The only hard part was explaining to our chain of command why we went through so much of the teletype scroll paper, which should have lasted about three years. It also must have been amusing for the other guys on watch when I’d see the Seahawks score come across and let out a loud yelp.

The really fun angle was that the new guys had no idea we could get the scores that close to real time. So for awhile, we made a lot of money betting with them. I already knew the Eagles had defeated the Dolphins 27-21, and I’d find a gullible new kid to take the sucker bet. I felt like Biff Tannen in “Back to the Future II” when he brought back the sports almanac.

But don’t worry, I gave the money back. The guilt was crushing.

Eventually, we decided to play nice and we would scribble the scores on one of our status boards so everyone who came into CIC could check it out.

Through it all, my love and passion for the game of football was cemented. I’ve missed entire seasons, but the games were never out of my mind. So far away from home and this great country, any tangible connection becomes paramount.

We all have that thing that keeps us grounded. Nothing was more important than hearing from my family, friends and loved ones, but it was also mentally soothing to be able to realize that life goes on even in the midst of destruction and chaos. I got tired of reading our daily operational tasking messages, and I yearned for a simple box score.

It’s been said that music is the soundtrack to our lives. If that’s true, then football must be the motion picture. The same battles we wage every day exist within each game: the struggle for territory; ups and downs; injuries; exhilaration & painful defeat; bonding & teamwork.

The games may be played on U.S. soil, but they echo across the seven seas and continents and reach soldiers, sailors and airmen everywhere. In essence, football Sunday is the same for you as it is for those deployed overseas defending Old Glory.

They just watch the games in camouflage, flight suits and fatigues.

Greg Renick writes regularly for Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at Top Stories