On Nov. 13, the Washington Football Team and USAA invited five TAPS families for a special practice viewing at Inova Sports and Performance Center in Ashburn, Virginia. After watching the Burgundy and Gold finalize its Week 10 preparations, the five families were told that Washington players would be wearing helmets with the initials of their loved ones in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
The surprise was one of three marquee events Washington hosted in collaboration with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) as part of the team's Salute to Service month. For Washington personnel and TAPS, marking players' helmets with the initials of troops who have passed is a sacred and personal gesture that embodies and furthers a commitment Washington has forged to recognize the sacrifice and service of these families.
The Burgundy & Gold has long held a special place in the heart of TAPS founder and current president Bonnie Carroll. In 2015, Washington became the first NFL team to partner with the organization. Since then, nurturing that relationship and spotlighting the important work TAPS spearheads has been a top priority for Washington. On Saturday, that attention to thoughtfulness was on full display as Carroll and the TAPS families were welcomed with, what she described as, a "really intimate experience" with Washington legend Doug Williams, current players and head coach Ron Rivera.
Part of that intimacy involved opening up about the emotions of having loved ones in the military and the indelible impact those individuals have had on the lives of those around them. Many Washington staff and players share in that experience.
"We talked about what it means to really serve this country and sacrifice and these families are the living legacy of American service and sacrifice," Carroll added.
Several TAPS families were treated with a special trip to Inova Sports Performance Center, presented by USAA, where they were allowed to attend the Washington Football Team's Saturday walkthrough ahead of its game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Photos by Emilee Fails and Karlee Sell/Washington Football Team)
The Stoddards is one of those families. They are made up of the surviving loved ones of Commander Sergeant First Class James J. Stoddard, who died in Afghanistan in September of 2005. On Saturday, Camaron Cheeseman announced that he and the rest of the Washington special teams unit would be wearing "JS" on their helmets. Putting on a helmet with those letters is something Washington's long snapper doesn't take lightly.
"It's truly an honor to be able to represent such a great individual that was a part of such a great family," Cheeseman said. "Being able to play not only for him, but for everybody else that knew him and being able to build and grow his legacy that he's left behind, I think that's something we can take into our hands everyday."
Cheeseman's teammate Jamin Davis announced that Washington's defense would be wearing the initials "CO" as a tribute to 1st Lt. Charlie Owens, who lost his life in a US MC-130 Combat Talon II crash in Albania in 2005. Bobby Owens was just 4 years old when his dad died. Bobby, along with his mom Amanda and brother Adam, recently relocated to the DMV area from Texas. For Bobby, revealing of the initials encapsulated the in-depth, arms-open approach Washington took towards the week paying tribute to families like his.
"I was shocked by how much they [Washington] put into it. The events we've done. The things we've got to see. The people we got to meet. It's been amazing," Owens said.
Getting to spend time with members of the team has been particularly memorable for Hannah Eure, the widow of Staff Sergeant Ronald Eure. The Eures, high school sweethearts from Virginia, grew up Washington fans. Hannah knows that, somewhere, Ronald is giddy about the likes of Terry McLaurin and Chase Young wearing the initial "RE" on their helmets.
"It means everything," Eure said. "My late husband was a huge Washington fan, absolutely loved them from birth. I know he's watching us and he's smiling that they're honoring him in this way."
Bonnie Collins believes it too -- that on Sunday, as Washington faced off against Tampa Bay, five standout men, somewhere, watched. They saw their loved ones be recognized at FedExField. They cheered as Washington players, protected by helmets with a special two letters on the back, made big hits and dazzling plays.
"I know that this team has a 'deep bench' up in heaven who is rooting for them," Carroll said.