FLOWERY BRANCH, GA — An infinite debt of gratitude is owed to those that have made the ultimate sacrifice to secure our freedom. So when long snapper Joe Zelenka got word that families of deceased service members would be attending Friday morning's practice, he instantly thought of ways to make their visit more memorable and show his appreciation, especially for the children.
Two families arrived at the Falcons training camp facility Friday morning, accompanied by Army Community Service Chief Director Jocelyn Coleman of Fort McPherson. Coleman is part of Survivor Outreach Services, which provides ongoing support to the kin of fallen soldiers.
"S.O.S. enables families to stay connected to the military, for those who have lost a loved one," Coleman said. "When we called the families to invite them to watch the Falcons, they were just blown away and excited about it."
The excitement continued after the families were escorted to the viewing area. They settled into to their seats, assuming they were just there to watch a regular practice and then return home.
Just after the team finished warm-ups, however, Zelenka gave a hand signal from the far across field. It was a unique gesture few people have ever gotten. It was a special invitation for the children to join him and the other specialists on the field. This was something he had planned to do well in advance, and the look on his face proved he was immensely looking forward to it.
Normally, visitors are not allowed on the field, but head coach Mike Smith made certain these children were an exception. The kids were elated, running onto the field and beaming from ear-to-ear.
The parents reacted in awe, including Coleman.
"It's wonderful. We're just excited and we're just overwhelmed," she said. "To see them out there playing and getting their picture taking is great. You know they're going to go tell all their friends. This has been wonderful."
Shannon Jenrette, widowed wife of Major Kevin Jenrette, brought along her two sons and daughter.
"We're big Falcons fans and both of my boys play football. This has been great," Jenrette said.
Of course, kicking field goals and running with the big guys wasn't all that was in store for these families. Immediately after practice, Smith instantly made his way to the families to spend time with them. Other players made a special visit as well before heading back to the locker room.
The adults were thrilled to have met the members of the Falcons, but the real honor was for our team to meet these courageous families. Taking time out of practice wasn't nearly as big of a sacrifice as these families have made.
As for their kids, when asked about their favorite part of the day, they exclaimed in unison, "Running with the ball!"