Joining active and veteran military members at the Paralyzed Veterans of America headquarters, Redskins players enjoyed a Madden tournament and plenty of competition on Wednesday afternoon.
For several hours on Wednesday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., the second floor of the Paralyzed Veterans of America building turned into video game central, connecting Redskins players with active duty and military veterans over a Madden NFL '16 tournament.
Active duty members and veterans of the United States Armed Forces played with and against Washington Redskins players in a Madden NFL 16 tournament on Wednesday, March 16, 2016,at the Paralyzed Veterans' Headquarters.
Hosted by Redskins Salute, which partnered with USO Metro, the third annual "Pros vs. GI Joes" event welcomed -- and brought out the competitive nature of -- linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, defensive end Ricky Jean Francois and former running back Clinton Portis, each of whom spent the day interacting and playing against military members and speaking with a couple soldiers in Kuwait via Skype.
"It really is neat," Kerrigan said. "What these soldiers go through is unlike any other and I mean I can't even begin to try to imagine, and especially to give yourself physically like a lot of these guys have. It's a special price they pay and the least we can do is come out and spend some time with them and hopefully make their day a little better."
"I mean, I think it's a great opportunity" Portis said. "Just being able to hang out with these guys and knowing how much they give to this country, how much they provide for us. Coming out to give your time to play Madden, that's simple."
Previously, "Pros vs. GI Joes," founded by Greg Zinone, who was on hand Wednesday, had been hosted at Redskins Park, bringing the game consoles to the facility to connect military members with players over Wifi.
But this gathering, which also included a live, on-site broadcast of ESPN 980's "The Sports Fix," was able to provide a more tangible expression of gratitude.
With television monitors lining the walls – some for games, some for practicing – and another table filled with small suitcases that folded out into monitors holding Xbox consoles, both Paralyzed Veterans members and young active duty had their pick to sharpen their video game skills and interact with the players they were learning to control on screen.
U.S. Air Force TSgt Thomas White wound up the winner, taking home an Xbox as his prize, one of many that were also raffled out for those that attended.
Sherman Gillums, the executive director of the PVA, knows the importance in events like these ever since an accident at Camp Pendleton in 2001 took away the use of his legs and ended his military career at age 29.
"The one thing you first appreciate when you're a newly paralyzed veteran is that there are a lot of paralyzed veterans out there," Gillums said. "They'll talk to you about relationships, about staying active, staying healthy, all the ins and outs of getting around in a wheelchair. So that's helpful. You don't feel like you're alone or abandoned."
He recalled attending a boxing match in Las Vegas for four days and said he forgot in those moments that he was disabled. As a long-time sports fan, he understands the value that engaging with sports—not only in its physical components (attending the Wheelchair Games, for example), but it's transformative powers – can make a major impact with those dealing with long-term injuries.
"We did see a value in bringing the professional sports industry closer to veterans, especially football because they really do put themselves on the line," Gillums said. "Because these [players] are celebrities, we'll be taken in by the moment. But surprisingly, they're very humbled by the experience…there's a mutual respect there. That surprises me every time we get to meet these folks."
Count U.S. Air Force TSgt. Jesse Graham as another surprised by Wednesday's festivities. After 13 years active duty, Graham suffered a neck injury that forced him into a wheelchair, which he quickly turned into an asset. While he may not be the greatest Madden player, Graham plans to represent the Air Force in Salt Lake City at this summer's Wheelchair Games, where he will compete in swimming, shooting, track and field, archery and rugby.
"It's been fun. It's always a good situation," he said of the event. "You don't realize how much support is really out there until you're injured and then you realize there's so many people out there doing so many good things. It opens up your eyes."
That was the goal for "Pros vs. GI Joes," which began in 2007 and has grown into something that Zinone couldn't have imagined when he and his wife, who served overseas, came up with the idea. Years later, they've catered up to 17 NFL teams and countless other sports, making the convergence of military and sports more than just an occasion for handshakes.
"It's nice to see the guys who have served the country that make the peace for us each and every day in this country," Jean Francois said. "The same way they're serious on the battlefield is the same way they're serious on [Madden], but it's good to play a game…I'm happy we that we can appreciate them by playing a game, sitting here talking to them, hold conversation, just look at them as normal people."