ORONO, Maine — There was no shortage of smiles on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium during the University of Maine’s football practice Thursday afternoon.
Although it was business as usual for the majority of the practice, there were three practice participants who were having a particularly good time when they had the opportunity to get involved in a football drill.
Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, Michael Downer of Norridgewock, Tyler Blakney of Fairfield and Clay Landry from Canaan did a handful of drills with the Black Bears. They are Specialists in the Maine Army National Guard’s 488th Military Police Company and they recently returned from a ninth-month deployment in Afghanistan along with Danny Ojeda of Bethel, who couldn’t participate in the drills because he is recovering from a concussion.
All are former athletes.
The Maine football players wore shoulders pads and helmets but they were in shorts rather than their normal pants.
The soldiers were invited to watch and participate in practice by Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove.
“This is a way to show our appreciation to them for what they do,” said Cosgrove who noted that they are approximately the same age as his players. “They protect our country. They look out for us. We try to get our players to perform at a high level every Saturday. But they have to perform at the highest level every day.”
Cosgrove added that he hoped the day gave them an enjoyable and well-deserved break from their routine.
Blakney is 22 years old, Landry is 23, Ojeda is 25 and Downer is 27.
“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be out here on this great day playing a game we love,” said Maine senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski. “We appreciate everything they do. It’s an honor having them out here with us.”
Maine junior defensive tackle Matt Wilson knows about the sacrifice that goes into being a soldier.
His father, Chris, is a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam war. Three of his cousins attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. and served in the Navy. One is still on active duty now.
“It’s nice to give back to them for all they have given to us,” said Wilson.
“It’s great to see them have a chance to come out here and have some fun and be like regular people for a little bit,” said Maine senior defensive end Michael Cole. “It’s an honor having them here watching us [and participating].”
The soldiers enjoyed every minute of it.
“The guys are loving it. As soon as we got here, they were talking all about it,” said Ojeda.
One of the drills involved running short pass routes and catching the football. Every catch was cheered by the Black Bears but drops received good-natured jeers.
“It has been a blast. It has been awesome,” said Downer. “We’re showing that we care and that we support what they do. I’m a huge supporter of Maine football.”
“It was really enjoyable to watch the team and how organized they are. It was nice to see that in addition to the hard work they put in,” said Landry. “We met with [Cosgrove] before practice and he gave us the layout about what was going on. He gave us the practice schedule.”
“It was exciting being out there with them,” said Blakney.
The soldiers discussed the similarities between being a soldier and a member of a football team, and they had the opportunity to learn from each other.
“There are the leadership skills, structure and discipline [involved with both],” said Downer. “We learned from them and they learned stuff from us like building up your ranks, ranking up and having that chemistry so they can come together like we come together. That’s the best way to complete the task at hand.”
Downer gave a little talk at the end of practice, encouraging the players to give their best, and players and soldiers alike raised their arms in unison before breaking with a loud “Maine.”
“You have to work as a team and you have to have that camaraderie in order to reach your goal,” said Ojeda. “For them, the goal is winning games. For us, the goal is getting our job done.”
Blakney noted that football players break down into “single groups like we do. We have our teams, then we move into our squads and then to our entire platoons. Then we have our entire company. That’s basically what they do here. They do their small groups, move into their lines and then into their entire offense. And then they play against each other working as a giant group like we do as a company training for everything.”
The players said their jobs pale in comparison to the soldiers’ tasks.
“What they do is a lot harder,” said Wilson. “They get shot at. They sacrifice for their country. We get to play a game.”
“I can’t compare football to the military although there is a lot of the same structural things in that you have to be disciplined, have to be on time, have to take orders and you all work toward one goal,” said Cole.
The soldiers hope to attend some Maine games this season and lend their support and they are understandably happy to be back in Maine.
“It’s good to be back with family and friends,” said Downer.
The soldiers were businesslike when discussing their time in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan was Afghanistan. That’s the best way to put it,” said Downer.
“It was a deployment. You go there, do your job and come home,” said Landry. “It’s good to be home.”
“It was a little stressful,” said Ojeda who added that the United States is making progress in the region.