Soldiers and Ravens star connect

Servicemen, Heap launch joint Microsoft-USO effort

Anne Arundel

December 10, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

The Ravens tight end and the Army specialist made a good team, trouncing their opponents as they navigated the Dolphins' field in Miami and throwing in some trash talk for good measure.

And when yesterday's game was over, Todd Heap shook Spc. Keith Perry's hand and watched the City College graduate walk away from the Xbox game console, toward the door of the USO International Gateway Lounge at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and onto a plane bound for Iraq.

Yesterday was the kickoff for Operation Live Connections, a joint venture between Microsoft's Xbox Live and USO service centers around the country to connect soldiers with their families and friends overseas.

Through a modem and broadband connection, families can stop in United Service Organizations lounges and play Xbox games such as Halo with soldiers as far away as Germany and Korea - or use the game's headsets just to talk. In addition, on Friday the USO is teaming with AT&T to offer free overseas phone calls from the BWI lounge.

Xbox Live, which allows players to square off against each other online, donated the system, which USO officials hooked up to a 60-inch television set at BWI. Xbox Live also waived the broadband connection fees for the lounges, said Xbox spokeswoman Cindy Carrasquilla.

Perry, who played with Heap against a two-man team from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany that called itself "BrickHouse," was thankful for the donation.

"It shows us that there's someone out there who' s actually thinking about us," he said.

Although Xbox is popular among members of the military in Iraq, hooking up live with soldiers there is difficult because of connection problems, Carrasquilla said.

Even without the benefit of a live connection, soldiers such as Spc. Gino Giberti say they love to play the games in Iraq.

"We dust it off and have Super Bowl tournaments right there in the tent. We'll have 40 guys, they'll all pick a team, and we'll play down to the last man," said Giberti, who, like the other soldiers at BWI yesterday, was returning to duty in Iraq after a brief leave. "It's too bad we don't have Todd Heap out there. We'd probably win."

Heap seemed to be enjoying the camaraderie and the competition as he and Perry walloped the BrickHouse boys, 6-0.

"This is Todd Heap. I'm ready to go," the tight end bellowed into the mouthpiece on his headphones as he got into place for a round of the video game NFL Fever. "Are you going to be the Dolphins? Because I'm the Ravens."

Although Heap has an Xbox at home, he rarely plays football on the device, preferring skating, racing and surfing games. But he tried out NFL Fever, making sure No. 86 - his number - saw his share of the action.

With two grandfathers who served in World War II and an uncle who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, the 23-year-old Reisterstown resident said he was glad he could do something for the troops before they left for Iraq.

"To be able to have this connection is a really cool thing," Heap said. "All these people are a half-hour from going over there, and just being able to see them smile before they go has made it really special for me."

Adrienne Trout, the USO's director of airport services, beamed as soldiers posed for photographs and talked football with the Ravens tight end. "To have somebody like Todd Heap here, it lets the troops know that the risks they're taking and their sacrifices are appreciated," she said.

Even New England Patriots fan Mike Davis was impressed. The 35-year-old Army reservist said he wasn't very good at video games, preferring to watch the action and reflect on a Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas break spent with his 7-year-old daughter and other family near Boston. Soon enough, quiet moments will be hard to steal: By the end of the week, Davis will be back in the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

"It's good for the troops," he said of the Xbox. "It takes your mind off going back, you know?"

The USO Lounge at BWI is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Military ID is required.

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