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Effects of war alter Taylor

Submitted by: Len Pasquarelli
10-20-2003

ESPN.com - It isn't as if Jason Taylor hasn't heard the two words "thank you" spoken with such feeling and passion and undeniable gratitude in the past. The Miami Dolphins' defensive end had just never seen the expression so eloquently offered before, that's all, and he is not about to forget the moment any time soon.

The scene occurred as Taylor and Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas -- teammates, close friends and now brothers-in-law -- were concluding a weekend visit with American military troops in German bases and hospitals. They had spoken with men and women of the United States armed forces, distributed T-shirts and baseball caps, signed autographs for the kids just back from the Iraqi battlefields, talked football and family and life, and shaken thousands of hands.

And, in turn, they had been emotionally shaken themselves by the residue of war.

But in a sojourn they will years from now recall with great clarity, no moment is likely to be more unforgettable than the snippet of time at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, spent with the young soldier attached to tubes and monitors in the intensive care unit.

Whether he caught the soldier's name or not, maybe eyeballed it on his medical charts or dog tags, Taylor didn't say during a phone interview last Friday with ESPN.com. But the kid, paralyzed and on a battery of life supports systems, will certainly never be faceless.

"Fifty years from now, I'll still remember his face, and be able to close my eyes and see him mouthing the words 'thank you,' believe me," said Taylor, whose visit was a joint venture of the NFL and the USO. "You don't walk away from something like that and forget it very easily. I mean, here's this kid, paralyzed and all. He's got stuff running into and out of him and, if they unplug it, maybe he dies. He couldn't speak. So he just kept mouthing the words. Over and over again. He's thanking me? Yeah, right."

Even from thousands of miles away and across an ocean, with Taylor's words bounced off a satellite and occasionally garbled, there was no mistaking the emotion in his voice.

About a month ago, when Dolphins senior director of community relations Fudge Browne first approached Thomas and Taylor about making the trip, there was no hesitation. Both players immediately agreed to go, along with NFL senior direction of international public affairs Pete Abitante, as part of the league's "Military Appreciation Month," a trip made last year by running backs Jerome Bettis and Eddie George.

As a teen, Taylor had made missionary trips to Mexico and Grenada, the latter to help reconstruct the tiny island torn apart by war. But nothing could have adequately prepared the two Dolphins stars for what awaited them in Germany on a trip that included 20 stops.

"It is," said Taylor, "a different world. It's kind of gratifying but, at the same time, sort of sad. Gratifying to know that we had so many good people fighting the war for us. And sad to see how many of them were injured. There were a lot of 18- and 19-year-old kids who put it all on the line. I'm not ashamed to say I cried a few times meeting some of them and hearing some of the stories."

In Taylor's interview with ESPN.com and Thomas' discussions with other media outlets, the two players related stories of valor and heroism and, quite frankly, pathos. The soldier attacked by a civilian in Baghdad as he sat in his Humvee at an intersection. Another who escaped death, after having a revolver pointed at his head, when he flinched just in time to avoid the bullet. The infantryman who was the lone survivor when his helicopter went down. One whose leg was all but severed by a land mine.

Certainly the war changed the lives of hundreds of the soldiers visited by Taylor and by Thomas, a group termed "a true cross-section of America" by the latter. Just as certain, witnessing first-hand some of the results of the war changed the players, too.

Not surprisingly, the players were besieged by soldiers who are NFL fans, including one who had been in a foxhole for three months and was stunned to learn the Dolphins had traded for linebacker Junior Seau. As is so often the case in such trips, when the visitors are supposed to uplift the morale of the troops, the roles are reversed and it is the alleged comforters who come away more emotionally affected.

Often in such circumstances, the visitors employ hackneyed expressions to relate their experiences, and that was the case at times with Taylor as well. But his words rang trite but true as he inventoried his own feelings and attempted to paint a verbal picture of a scene he acknowledged he could never adequately describe.

"Your views on the war become irrelevant when you see these people, understand what they went through, and are amazed by how much spirit they still have," Taylor said. "I know there are so many things that I, really all of us, take for granted. But never again.

"I mean, when it's July and August, and I'm sweating in camp, I think I'll remember that soldier in intensive care, and my (discomfort) won't seem nearly so bad."
     
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