Sports' Real Heroes

We elevate athletes to absurd heights. But then you're confronted with a group of people like the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team, and you realize who really deserves the accolades we all-too-casually toss around. Forget a fourth-quarter comeback, or playing on a sprained ankle—to know this team is to know true perseverance
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Courtesy of Wounded Warriors

Courtesy of Wounded Warriors

WEST ORANGE, N.J. — Four days before Super Bowl XLVIII, some 15 miles away from MetLife Stadium in an arena that holds but a few thousand people, a different kind of football game was played here, for a cause that makes the Lombardi Trophy seem trivial.

It was a charity flag football game played by some of the toughest men and women you’ll ever meet: The Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team, which romped to a 32-14 victory over an ensemble of 9/11 first responders. NFL alums such as Packers guard Jerry Kramer and Steelers running back Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam vet, were on hand for the event, which has been a part of Super Bowl week for the past three seasons. "People say we were warriors," Kramer told the New York Post. "We were pussycats compared to these guys."

Courage. Perseverance. Heroics. These are buzzwords that are used a lot when describing players and teams fighting through the long grind of an NFL season. But they should be reserved for men like WWAFT captain BJ Ganem, a former Marine who lost his lower left leg to a bomb explosion on Thanksgiving night in 2004. Three others were injured and one Marine was killed when Ganem’s vehicle was blasted by an IED in Iraq. Ganem, who also suffered a traumatic brain injury, has endured 19 surgeries to remove shrapnel from his limbs and shards of glass from his left eye, as well as a reshaping of the initial amputation. "To be able to come out and play a game, and get your mind off the injury, and let your body kind of just react..." Ganem said, "it really does help, and it lets you get to the next level of, Yeah, I can do this. And I can have fun."

This flag football game, like the Super Bowl, had its own special halftime show. The Village People played the role of Bruno Mars this year, but the group was upstaged by Greg Reynolds, a former member of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division. Reynolds served 15 months in Iraq, turning 19 and 20 overseas before returning stateside unscathed. But in a tragic twist, he lost his left arm after a car blew through a stop sign and plowed into his motorcycle here at home. His goal coming out of physical therapy was passing the Army’s fitness test. "I could do the run and the sit-ups, but couldn’t do the pushups. You needed to do 42 pushups," he said. Now? "I finally got 42 pushups down." And beyond. He far surpassed that number during halftime, pounding out one-armed reps in a head-to-head competition with a member of the first responders team. The crowd counting along lost track at 75. Needless to say he won the competition, but it wasn’t even the first time he wowed the crowd that night, making one-handed catches in pre-game warmups that left children awestruck.

"I was warming up, and there are little kids there like, ‘How are you gonna catch the ball? How are you gonna catch the ball?’ " said Reynolds. "I just said, ‘Watch me.' "

Make no mistake, there was a playful vibe throughout the course of the game—ESPN’s Kenny Mayne was a guest quarterback who trotted out an arsenal of trick plays—but it was unmistakably intense throughout the competition. And though it was flag football, every other play seemed to end with a tackle.

[pullquote]"It’s just unbelievable how you can heal from [sports], and how it breaks down the barriers of communication, just by being around other men and women who have been through the same things."[/pullquote]

Then again, not everyone was so easy to take down.

Wideout Brian Taylor Urruela dropped jaws with an array of catches and displays of agility that made his prosthetic limb seem so ... natural. Wearing what he called a "cheetah leg"—a blade similar to those worn by Oscar Pistorius—Urruela pulled out a spin move in the second half that was so quick, it seemed as if he’d never had 35 surgeries in an attempt to save his right leg after getting hit by a roadside bomb in 2006.

Let this sink in for a moment. We laud NFL players and seem to be amazed at times by those who make fast recoveries from season-ending injuries. Urruela went through 35 surgeries to try to save his leg, then decided on the amputation, and now he uses sports as part of the healing process. "I went through a really down period when I got out. I didn’t know what to do next. Didn’t really understand where I was going to go from there," said Urruela, who found a support system through team sports, beginning with softball.

Urruela founded VETSports in 2012 to help veterans transition back into their hometowns and into the everyday lives they had to put on hold for combat. "We have five chapters now across the country, and plans for five more this year. And plans for fifteen total in two years," he said. "It’s just unbelievable how you can heal from [sports], and how it breaks down the barriers of communication, just by being around other men and women who have been through the same things."

The Wounded Warrior football team plans to play several more games throughout the country—in cities such as Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego and Detroit—before next year’s Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. "This event allows me to show the community that after something tragic happens, you can still push on to do things that you love to do," Reynolds said, "and that the only limitations you have are the ones you place upon yourself."