Skip to main content

'Steve's a maverick': AMBSE vice chairman Steve Cannon honored with USO Merit Award

The USO Merit Award is bestowed upon a public figure using his or her platform to interface and integrate with active-duty service members. 

In the late 1980s, a recent graduate of West Point was deployed to Germany during the sunset years of the Cold War. There, this young first lieutenant patrolled the East German border.

It was during those late, moon-lit nights and early, fog-misting mornings when the young man saw, with his own eyes, the clash of two contrasting systems of life. On one side was freedom and democracy. On the other? Authoritarianism and communism. No longer was this collision of thought and governing colored in abstract, something merely taught in his classes at West Point. Now, the collision was concrete, right in front of him, truly depicted in the infrastructure and technology differences between one point of the world to another.

Three decades have passed between the fall of the Iron Curtain and the world 20 years into the 21st century. It was in 2023 when that young soldier, now a man, made his way back to Eastern Europe. That man was Steve Cannon, the Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment vice chairman, and this time, he was making the trip with NFL players and coaches in tow.


In the summer of 2023, Cannon, along with kicker Younghoe Koo, outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and other former Falcons players and coaches, made the long trip east, working through Germany, Romania and Bulgaria to visit USO military bases and the American soldiers stationed at each.

In jam-packed vans, one of which lacked a working air-conditioning system, the Falcons contingency wove through the Balkan Mountains en route to a resort along the coastline of the Black Sea. As Koo remembers it, the farther the group traveled from Germany and the more remote the locations became, the less English people spoke in the public areas around them. As the trip spanned new countries and cultures, Koo and the others on the trip felt the norms of America slip away.

That understanding of what service men and women go through when they are deployed, Cannon explained, was one of the main points of the trip.

"Every time we deploy (soldiers), we send them away from their friends, from their family," Cannon said. "We put them on the front edge of freedom. And then we ask them to do their job: to protect us."

For American civilians, there is a growing lack of understanding about what military life is like, especially for those who are deployed. The United States has soldiers on the ground in more than 130 countries, even during a non-active combat time period. The further society gets from the 20th century great wars and the end of the Global War on Terrorism, the less generations remain with family members who were active-duty service men or women at some point in their life.

That used to be the norm. It's not anymore. Cannon sees this lack of understanding by civilians as a "strategic problem" for the military.

"If nobody in society understands what the heck our soldiers are doing and they don't appreciate it, then suddenly the gap widens between society, people like us, and the army, the military that serves (society)," Cannon said. "If there's a lack of understanding, there's a lack of support, there's a lack of appreciation."

The foundation of the USO trip was to build back a semblance of that understanding.


The second point of the trip, though, involved bringing a little bit of home to the bases in Eastern Europe. So, when Koo took on all challengers in ping-pong, when the players ran through a military-grade workout in the heat of the Romanian sun alongside the soldiers they were visiting, when they drove tanks, broke bread together, FaceTimed family members back home and more everyday activities, the mission became crystal clear.

"I came away from Romania, Bulgaria thinking, 'Wow, if I could just bottle this up and serve it like Coca-Cola across the country, our society would be falling over to help support our military,'" Cannon said. "But it's really hard to bridge that gap, because how does somebody sitting in Marietta, for example, understand what a 10-month deployment in Iraq feels like?"

For Koo, who didn't know much about the trip before actually being on the trip itself, the experience was transformative. His education grew as the trip went on. By the time he, Carter and others were on their last leg of the trip in Bulgaria, they were opting to skip dinner with their coaches, Cannon and the military officers in exchange for more time in the barracks with the soldiers they'd been hanging out with all day. The connections, Koo felt, were real.

"This," Koo said of those moments, "is what we're here for."

There was an ever-present respect flowing from players and coaches to the service men and women they met on that trip last summer. It's a love affair between the NFL and the military that has been growing for years. It's a love affair Cannon has been helping cultivate with the power of the Falcons organization since the day he walked into owner Arthur Blank's office years ago, asking if he could make giving back to military service men and women a pillar of the organization's work in the community.

"Permission to take us to benchmark?" Cannon remembers saying to Blank before saluting.

Blank in response: "Go for it, Steve."

A number of years passed before a short video depicting the USO trip to Eastern Europe made its way onto Lisa Marie Riggins' radar. Riggins is the USO's regional president for the Southeast, and the video pricked her heart.

Then, Riggins began doing more research on Cannon and the Falcons. Through that research, she saw this was actually the second USO tour the Falcons had put together. The first saw then-head coach Dan Quinn join Cannon in Iraq, visiting bases in the Middle East in a similar fashion to the latest tour in Eastern Europe. Riggins saw other moments, too: visits of the team at military bases in Georgia, Washington and -- two years ago -- Cannon's own alma mater, West Point in New York. She saw the recent moments of the Falcons' Call to Service game in November 2023 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was there that the organization spent halftime showcasing hundreds of men and women taking the oath and re-enlisting in the military. From 20-yard line to 20-yard line, they pledged their allegiance to the U.S. military.

Halftime enlistment ceremony during the Week 9 Game against the Minnesota Vikings at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, November 5, 2023. (Photo by AJ Reynolds/Atlanta Falcons)

It was all of these initiatives over the years -- and many more not listed -- that painted a very clear picture for Riggins: Cannon, along with the men and women of AMBSE, Falcons and Atlanta United organizations, deserved to be honored for that work.

"We always like to highlight if there is someone threading that needle between the civilian community and the service members in an impactful way," Riggins said. "... A lot of people can talk the talk, but Steve walks the walk."

It's why Cannon is being honored in the nation's capitol Thursday night with the USO Merit Award, an honor bestowed upon a public figure using his or her platform to interface and integrate with active-duty service members.

This isn't an award given out yearly. In fact, Riggins said there wasn't going to be a 2024 award recipient at this year's gala. That is, until she saw the Falcons' video of their USO trip.

"It isn't a committee and we don't have finalists or nominations," Riggins said. "If there isn't anybody who's doing this kind of work, we don't give the award. So, it's only if somebody rises to that level and is doing something like Steve."

Riggins called the NFL one of the biggest brands that is actively working to further the military cause. Cannon is very much a part of that work.

"I think Steve is doing all he can with one of the most powerful lightning rods that we have in this culture to keep people aware and awake," Riggins said.

For Cannon himself, he won't be accepting the award Thursday with only himself in mind. He was adamant he's accepting the award for all the men and women of the organizations he leads in Atlanta who have touched this yearslong journey.

Still, there's a chance the lives of active-duty service members in Bulgaria and Romania in 2023 wouldn't have been touched without the seedling of an idea planted in Cannon's own head all those years ago as he patrolled the Eastern German front as the Iron Curtain fell. For that reason, the award goes down in his name.

"Steve's a maverick," Riggins said. "... He's keeping the brand alive for the USO."

Related Content