WEST POINT, N.Y. – Kyle Pitts sat at a large round table, surrounded on all sides by U.S. Military Academy at West Point cadets. These Black Knights were all football players, hanging on every word, every story the Pro Bowl tight end told over lunch.
Having a star player in their midst is a rarity, and the players took full advantage of access to such a genuine and approachable talent. Pitts wasn't the only one holding court.
Falcons and Black Knights broke bread (and rotisserie chicken and shrimp fettuccini alfredo), across a massive meal room right after a Sunday walk-through at Michie Stadium, telling stories about the sport they all play.
This wasn't, however, a Q+A. This was a free exchange where players and coaches from both teams learned about one another and how they got to where they are.
"It was really cool," Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said. "The common bond everybody in the room had was football, but everybody's experiences are completely different. Certainly, for our guys, their football experiences are very different.
"Listening to the stories about what these guys have to do, not only playing football here at West Point, but the other requirements that go into their time here, their schedules are extremely tough. It's a great academics school, plus all the other commitments they have with the Army, but they still find a way to get it all done. I think it was pretty inspiring for our guys to listen to those stories."
The Falcons did more than just practice, eat and leave. The entire traveling party spent the day learning about West Point, its history and the sacrifices some of its alumni have made in defense of this country.
That included a trip through West Point Cemetery, where veterans told stories about their fallen classmates. That included tales about Capt. Eric Paliwoda, Capt. Matthew Ferrara and Maj. Thomas Kennedy, with the focus on how they lived before making the ultimate sacrifice.
"I didn't know the history of the cemetery here, but that was very powerful to see, and very sobering," Smith said. "I can't thank West Point enough for letting us come around and showing us the campus."
Coming to West Point was Smith's idea. Only a walk-through was scheduled for Sunday, a light day between two joint practices with the New York Jets and Monday night's preseason game against them.
"We had a day to fill, and I wanted to do something that I thought we all could learn from," Smith said. "It worked out perfectly."
It also set up a homecoming of sorts for Steve Cannon. Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment's CEO graduated with honors from West Point in 1986 and was Airborne Ranger qualified and a reached the ranks of U.S. Army 1st Lt. during his years of service.
Take a look as the team visits West Point the day before facing the Jets.
It was as important to Cannon as it was to Smith that this be far more than a grip and grin.
"When you raise your hand to swear an oath to the Constitution, you're offering your life up," Cannon said. "Over the last 20 years we've seen a lot of that. You have to make that meaningful. It's not just about football. Because of places like West Point, and because of the military, we're able to enjoy football on Sundays. I know that story resonates with the players."
Telling those stories is something important to the Falcons, Cannon and executive chairman and AMBSE owner Arthur Blank. That's why this was the second trip to West Point in the last four years and part of extensive efforts to honor the U.S. military.
"We take Salute to Service seriously," Cannon said. "Salute to Service is a one-week-a-year thing in the NFL. Arthur [Blank] has said that Salute to Service is something we're going to do 365 days a year. We use all of our platforms, from the Falcons to the United to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to continue to shine a spotlight on service and sacrifice.
"For the coaches and players to come here, to take time out of a busy schedule before they take the field against the Jets, it's a huge testament that we honor and respect those who are protecting all of us. This is a cool, visible sign that we mean what we say."