A Coach's Salute

Ravens' Harbaugh Spending Holiday Weekend With U.s. Troops On Nfl-uso Tour Of The Persian Gulf

July 04, 2009|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,jamison.hensley@baltsun.com

John Harbaugh is experiencing a different level of patriotism on this Fourth of July weekend.

The Ravens coach is in the middle of the inaugural NFL-USO Coaches Tour of the Persian Gulf, where he has already met nearly 6,000 troops on the morale-boosting trip. Harbaugh has signed autographs, taken pictures and shared stories while feeling the pride of the U.S. soldiers in the Middle East.

"This is something I've never dreamed of experiencing," Harbaugh said Friday from Iraq, where he is touring with the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin, Tennessee Titans' Jeff Fisher and former coaches Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden.

Harbaugh added: "It's not just life-changing. It's life-affirming."

The coaches' first day was spent with Ray Odierno, the commanding general in Iraq. He briefed them for about an hour on the situation in Iraq, from what the troops are trying to accomplish to mistakes that have been made.

Besides talking about the war, Harbaugh spoke to Odierno about what it takes to be a soldier and how it relates to sports.

"He talks about teamwork and watching out for each other's backs," Harbaugh said. "It's all like we talk about in football. But here it's critically important. In football, you lose a game. Here, you lose a life. I can't wait to share everything with my guys."

Jumping from a Black Hawk helicopter to Odierno's jet, Harbaugh and the coaches went to Mosul, a hotly contested city. Harbaugh said it was "all blacked out" and he could see signs of the conflict.

The next stop was Forward Operating Base Warrior, an Air Force base in northern Iraq. Harbaugh said the servicemen were extremely enthusiastic, and the coaches received a signed jersey from the football teams on the base.

"I kept saying, 'What are you thanking us for?' " Fisher said in a video posted on NFL.com. "It's about thanking them for what they are doing for our country."

U.S. soldier Steven Whitmore told the NFL's Web site: "These coaches didn't have to come here. This is huge. It makes a big difference for us."

Harbaugh has met several Ravens fans serving in Iraq. They talked about everything from Ray Lewis being the best linebacker in the game to who is replacing linebacker Bart Scott in the starting lineup.

The conversation wasn't always about football. The soldiers took Harbaugh through the process of disarming roadside bombs.

"It's amazing to see the scope and the brilliance of the people working here," Harbaugh said. "We are seeing the best and most capable fighting force in the history of the world. It's an unbelievable degree of success."

The coaches' hotel is one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. But the accommodations seem more like training camp.

With the coaches staying in one room, they have dealt with Coughlin snoring while making Gruden sleep in the top bunk over Cowher.

"I think Gruden got the top bunk because he was the youngest," Harbaugh said with a laugh.

Still, it's the connection with troops that will be most remembered.

The coaches have signed everything from footballs to towels to even Iraqi money. But Harbaugh said the coaches have received much more in return.

"You get insight into Iraq," Harbaugh said. "We're learning why and how we're doing it. It's not propaganda. It's reality. We are seeing a moment in history."

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