The article below originally appeared on MercuryNews.com and is being reprinted with permission.
Ever had a bad day in the office? That’s what Marine Corps Cpl. Jeremy Stengel calls Jan. 31, 2007, or the day he was blown 35 yards from his Humvee after an explosion during a tour in Iraq. In a medical-induced coma for nine weeks, doctors gave him a 10 percent chance of survival.
His left leg was amputated below the knee, his lower-right leg lost muscle and nerve function. But none of that keeps Stengel from terrorizing NFL Alumni as a defensive end on the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team.
On Feb. 6 at College of San Mateo — the Saturday before Super Bowl 50 is to be played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara — the 30-year-old will join fellow veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces who lost limbs while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan as the WWAFT takes on San Francisco’s NFL alumni.
“It’s going to be one for the ages,” said Stengel, who will fly in from Wisconsin for his fifth Super Bowl weekend appearance with the WWAFT.
The RSVP list continues to grow and includes former 49ers such as linebacker Bill Romanowski, fullback William Floyd and running back Bill Ring, who attended nearby Carlmont High in Belmont and was an all-state member of the 1976 CSM football team.
Add to that, just to name a few, 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, Rams Hall-of-Famers Jack Youngblood and Jackie Slater, Vietnam War veteran Rocky Bleier (Steelers) and Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer, a member of the first two Super Bowl champions.
“Truth be told, there will be not be a place in San Francisco where there are more NFL stars in one place at the same time to meet and greet the public,” said Chris Visser, the event’s operation director. “Because one thing that these NFL alumni have shown a willingness to do is to a man, they respect the service and sacrifice of our wounded warrior amputees.”
As far as celebrities, it’s hard to overshadow Snoop Dogg, whose father served in Vietnam. His inaugural appearance at last year’s WWAFT event prior to the Super Bowl in Arizona helped draw over 10,000 fans to the flag football game.
“It was kind of a shocker to hear that Snoop Dogg was going to be there,” Stengel said. “I listened to his music when I was a kid, and still do. So, I mean, having celebrities jump on board now is a huge boost in awareness for our team and all the veteran organizations that we raise money for when we go out to these cities.”
One avid supporter is Chris Draft, a 13-year NFL veteran out of Stanford, where as a senior linebacker in 1997 he led the Cardinal in tackles. The 39-year-old hasn’t missed any games since jumping on board following the WWAFT’s debut more than five years ago prior to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
So why does he keep coming back?
“You get to see the greatness of football,” Draft said. “So many people see the game through the NFL, but the game is so much bigger than that. The game is teamwork, it is perseverance, it’s challenge, it’s obstacles. It allows you to find your limits and push yourself. And, I think, with these games I get to play side by side with wounded warriors, who have given their lives and given parts of their bodies for our freedom.
“And most of them would in a hot second go back to active duty. They’re competitors, they’re fighters, they’re warriors. So to be able to play with guys like that, it’s tremendous.”
Landing at CSM
The event isn’t run by the NFL. Instead, Visser co-founded the WWAFT with retired Army Lt. Col. Carl S. Ey.
“This team was created to visibly demonstrate, illustrate that the loss of a limb doesn’t mean the end of an active life,” Visser said.
The older brother of Lesley Visser, a sportscaster for CBS and the only woman to be recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he flew out unannounced to CSM almost a week after last year’s Super Bowl for a site survey of College Heights Stadium, located one exit away on Highway 92 from Serra High, the old stomping grounds of NFL stars Tom Brady and Lynn Swann.
“I stopped immediately,” said Visser, a sports producer who will be working his 30th Super Bowl next month. “This is it. We have never had a more spectacular and fitting venue for one of our games ever. This is an incredibly inspiring game and this is an incredibly inspiring venue. And as this is a historic 50th Super Bowl, I can’t think of a more fitting place to have this game than at the College of San Mateo.”
Admission, which costs $10, is free to students and children, with the event scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. On top of free autograph and photo opportunities, raffles will include 49ers, Raiders and NFL autographed jerseys, helmets and footballs.
Plans were also in the works for pregame workouts between local high school players alongside the wounded warriors and NFL alumni.
“We will have a walk-through that morning,” Visser said. “But that’s really our practice, much to the dismay of Kenny Mayne and Snoop Dogg and a couple of the guys on the team, who would like us to practice for the whole week.”
The halftime show will include a performance by Marlisa, winner of X Factor Australia’s sixth season in 2014. The 16-year-old will sing the hit song “Titanium” and has a video tribute for the WWAFT available on YouTube, which is produced with her title-winning song “Stand by You.”
“The beauty of this thing, as you can kind of gather from what Chris is saying, is at the Super Bowl we all become kind of passive participants,” CSM athletic director Andreas Wolf said. “This is interactive. This is bringing people onto this campus and engaging with our veterans, with NFL alumni and kind of getting some sweat and shaking hands and being able to run on the field with them.”
All proceeds benefit the WWAFT, as well as disabled veterans initiatives in the Bay Area.
“You hate clichés, but this really is a synergistic fit,” Visser said. “Everybody is going to come away from this game and this tribute feeling just a bit prouder about our country and this community.”
“It’s special and it challenges the community to have no excuses,” said Draft, who works as an NFL ambassador and runs the Chris Draft Family Foundation. “It really puts your life into perspective.”
The WWAFT is undefeated.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Stengel said. “We defend the title every time that we can get.”
The coach for its first two triumphs was Dick Vermeil, who spent time at CSM and raised the Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XXXIV with the St. Louis Rams in 2000.
“A lot of us played football, whether it was backyard, PeeWee, high school football, before we enlisted,” Stengel said. “So, it gives us a chance to go out there and really test how far we can push our bodies, even though we’re missing some limbs and are not as quick off the draw as we were in the past. But, after each game, we look at how we perform and then build off, ‘OK, how can I do this differently? What can I do to improve my speed?’ ”
The team’s record improved to 13-0 after its victory on Veterans Day over Miami’s NFL alumni — a 63-28 rout. And the wounded warriors don’t plan on suffering their first blemish.
“Because no matter what branch you are in or what your injuries might be, we all know what the job is,” Stengel said. “And that job is pretty much to go out there to win — and show the NFL alumni and the American nation that we may be out of the fight physically, but emotionally and mentally we are still in it till the end.”
“So I think I know who is going to win the game,” Visser said. “But what I do know is that everybody that leaves College Heights Stadium on Saturday afternoon before the Super Bowl is going to have a memory that will last them a lifetime.”
- Tickets can be purchased online at WWAFT.org (or at the stadium on game day). Tickets are also available at Mariner Advanced Pharmacy, a sponsor of the event, located on 43 E. 3rd Avenue in San Mateo.