Flowery Branch, Ga. --When Atlanta Falcons long snapper Joe Zelenka took the stage Friday at Fort Gordon U.S. Army military base, his message to the over 900 soldiers that filled Alexander Hall was a little different than what they're used to.
While he and the seven other Atlanta Falcons accompanying him, along with 12 Falcons cheerleaders, were certainly there to say thank you for a soldier's service, he wanted to remind them that a team of football players and a collection of soldiers aren't all that different.
"It's the only sport in the world where you can put 53 guys together from all walks of life," explained Zelenka to the soldiers. "We've got ping-pongers from Ireland; we've got people from the D.C. streets, and from Compton. We bring them all together, work together, and form a team. It's not unlike what you guys have to go through every day."
On the surface, Zelenka said, the similarities are clear. Both groups wear protective gear, helmets, and run in the heat.
But beneath that, soldiers and football players know what it means to come together, put differences aside, and work toward a common goal.
Football players and soldiers, as Zelenka said to the crowd, know what it means to have everyone doing their job correctly and to the best of their ability—without it, failure is imminent.
Using himself as the example, he explained that a long snapper, while involved in only a handful of plays in a game, is as critical as any other player when it's his turn to perform. A poor snap on his part can be as costly as an interception by the starting quarterback.
"I don't care if you're the Colonel or the dude that sweeps the floors," said Zelenka. "It doesn't matter. I don't care where your rank is or what your pay grade is. Everybody's job is important and nobody could do their job without every single piece of the machine working."
During his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Zelenka become close with numerous Navy servicemen. He, along with special teams captain Coy Wire and starting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, wanted to point out that unique bond they share with the soldiers - the men and women whose courage and sacrifices make possible the game they play and millions enjoy.
"There's a bond of brotherhood that people forge when they're sweating together, when they're working together, and they have something greater than themselves that they're working for," said Zelenka following the event. "That's what these guys have and that's what we have in our locker room. That's why you play the game. That's why you join the military. It's for that fellowship, that band of brotherhood, that fraternity that is pretty cool."
Once the emcee finished sharing, he made sure there was enough time for fun and games.
The 11-year veteran brought two soldiers onstage to compete with running back Antone Smith and Lofton in a push-up contest.
The winner, who was built more like John Abraham than Gomer Pyle, completed 93 in two minutes and dwarfed Lofton's effort of 49.
The duel exemplified yet another point Zelenka was trying to make in the comparison of football players and soldiers and why the Falcons were visiting with them.
"They're just normal, everyday guys," said Zelenka. "We often think soldiers are this way or that way. They're just normal guys, just like us. I wanted them, these guys we spoke to today, to know that we're just like them. We're loving on them. If the roles were reversed, I bet you could go in that audience and find a couple of guys that could be in the NFL. I bet you could go in our locker room and find a couple of guys that could definitely serve in the Army."
In addition to push ups, the players gave away signed Lofton, Ryan, and Roddy White jerseys to the soldiers capable of answering their Falcons trivia questions. After the event, they spent an hour signing autographs.
But Zelenka and company didn't stop there.
They joined servicemen from the Wounded Warriors Project, soldiers injured in service, for lunch catered by Hooters and then spent time with cadets from the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, a program designed to intervene in and reclaim the lives of 16-18 year old high school dropouts.
The players' time with the cadets was similar to that with the soldiers--instead of push-ups thier time together featured a touchdown dance contest--but also a moment when Zelenka, before a hushed audience, spoke quietly and directly to the youth about an individual's sweat equity and working harder than the troubles before them.
"For every moment, give it everything you have," he said. "It's tough now, but it will all be worth it when it's done."
Time spent shaking hands, giving hugs, and signing autographs was the highlight of everyone's day in Fort Gordon, but the hour-long flight to the military base on three U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters took a close second.
The sound of chopper blades reminded Zelenka of a story, one that he shared with his audience, that he felt fully explained the gratitude for the job the men and women he spent time with on Friday do.
Because of what they do, he and his teammates are allowed to line up and play a game on Sundays and he was always reminded of that moments prior to games during his time in Jacksonville.
He described the hair-raising feeling during pregame when out of nowhere jets fly over the stadium, an event that has become almost synonymous with sports in America.
For Zelenka, it was a reminder.
"When those aircraft fly over, that to us is the sound of freedom. The absolute sound of freedom."