The soldiers expressed their gratitude over and over to the NFL coaches who made the trip to Iraq.
"They kept thanking us," said the Tennessee Titans' Jeff Fisher. "We kept thanking them."
Fisher, the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin, the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden are taking part in the first NFL-USO coaches tour over the Fourth of July weekend.
A world they knew only through the distant glimpses of news reports turned very real for the coaches as they met with hundreds of soldiers in three cities in a long first day Thursday. In a phone interview from Baghdad, Cowher recalled talking to military members on their second or third deployment who described how much the bombs and casualties have decreased from several years ago.
The coaches wanted to know about the troops' lives; the soldiers wanted to know about their favorite NFL teams. The coaches began the day meeting for about an hour with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. They all talked about the similarities between football and the military.
"The whole concept is about trying to build a team based on trust, camaraderie, sacrifice," Cowher said. "They can identify with our game."
Fisher was impressed by soldiers asking about some of the Titans' backups and wondering how the draft picks are doing. He signed one servicewoman's Mother's Day present from her husband: a Titans jersey with the name "Mom" and the No. 1.
There were so many Terrible Towels being waved that Cowher declared Iraq to be "Steelers Nation."
After two days of travel, the coaches arrived in Iraq late Wednesday night. On Thursday they met with soldiers in Mosul, Kirkuk and Baghdad.
The NFL has been working with the USO to send players to visit troops overseas since 1966. Last year, commissioner Roger Goodell joined players on a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, Jared Allen, Danny Clark, Larry Fitzgerald and Will Witherspoon spent 10 days traveling through Iraq and Kuwait.
But this is the first coaches trip.
Fisher has frequently taken his players to meet with soldiers from Fort Campbell, which is about an hour north of Nashville. When the commissioner's office asked him to participate, he was told to think about it for a couple of weeks and get back to them.
"I didn't think about it for more than a couple hours," he said.
Cowher fielded plenty of questions from the troops about whether he'll coach again. But his thoughts were far from football at the end of the first of the trip's three days.
"Sometimes we worry too much about ourselves," he said, "instead of about what kind of difference we can make in the big picture for other people."
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