INDIANAPOLIS –Adam Vinatieri has a great deal for which to be thankful.
Vinatieri is playing in a 17th season in a sport adored by many and one that he loves. He has crafted a career that should lead to the Hall of Fame.
Vinatieri has a loving wife, Valerie, and three children (Adam, Jr., Allison and Gabriel), as well as an immediate family that includes parents Judy and Paul and three siblings – Chad, Christine and Beau.
The Indianapolis Colts and the NFL saluted service individuals over the past two weekends and yesterday was Veteran's Day, a day set aside to honor the nation's true heroes. Honoring those who served comes easy for Vinatieri.
For Vinatieri, it was not just another day. Military service runs deeply in his family – generationally deep.
Some people are aware that military service in his family extends back to his great, great grandfather, Felix Vinatieri. An accomplished violinist by age 10, Felix joined the US Army in 1861 in Boston as a musician. He re-enlisted in New York in 1867, then was discharged three years later in South Dakota.
In 1873 following a concert given in his honor, General George Armstrong Custer crossed paths with Vinatieri and offered him a chance to serve as a chief musician for the US 7th Cavalry. Vinatieri reassumed duty, but was not part of the fate Custer met in 1876 at Little Bighorn.
Paul Vinatieri joined the Army out of college and fashioned a communications career during the 1970s that had the family stationed in Germany for a period when Adam, the second of four children, was young. Adam's brother, Beau, the youngest of the kids, followed his father's and great, great grandfather's example by joining the Army ROTC right out of college.
Beau, who has a wife and two sons, served overseas and is back home now in the Las Vegas area, and older brother Adam feels a deep regard for what Beau and others do in serving the nation.
"Military service is very important and special to my entire family and to me," said Vinatieri. "Having my brother in the Army National Guard is very rewarding. My father served in the Army as well. He went in right out of college, served in the early 1970s, just after Vietnam, and retired as a Captain after about eight years of service. He and my mother, Judy, were stationed in Germany when I was a baby. While serving, my dad was in a Transportation Unit and went into civilian work after fulfilling his obligation.
"My brother is following in his steps. Beau was enlisted and then completed the Army ROTC program to become an Officer just like our dad, and he has been served ever since. Beau is currently a captain like our father was. He is back in the States now, but he recently returned from Afghanistan in January after serving for more than a year. It shows his commitment to our country. His service is very important to our family."
While Vinatieri has seen first-hand how his family has been called into action, he knows his family is not unique. There are many others like his that have had dedicated members who are serving now or have in the past. It is not something he thinks about only on days like this Sunday, or just when something befalls our nation. It is something Vinatieri appreciates continuously.
"There have generations of men in our family who served the country. You see it in other families, too. There are people who get patriotic when something happens to our country, but it is not only in times of crisis that we need a strong military. We need them in times of peace," said Vinatieri. "It might be less harmful in times without strife, but the dedication of all service people, regardless of the world's condition, is to be admired and respected.
"We always have to be vigilant and ready to defend ourselves or others, so all my respect goes to those men and women. They leave their families behind, and they're doing something that is much bigger than any of us. They put their personal lives on the back-burner while they defend the American people. We should never lose sight of that."
Though Vinatieri's father never saw combat duty, Beau did serve in Afghanistan in a communications technology role. Adam was able to keep tabs on Beau via email and Skype. Though not a Facebook practitioner, Vinatieri said Judy is and kept the scheduled date of Beau's return marked on her calendar. The family was able to send care packages to Beau and some who served with him. The Vinatieri family waited until Beau was able to safely return to Nevada this past February.
That military personnel help protect the world is something that Vinatieri and the entire family regards.
"I have a huge admiration, respect and appreciation for all our armed service personnel, for the freedoms they provide for us, the freedoms they provide for people internationally and not just for our own country," said Vinatieri. "Our military steps forward and tries to help the world. Sometimes they get put in some pretty difficult situations going into certain locations and trying to defend people's freedoms, their rights to vote and their rights to democracy.
"What they've done for our country and across the world, it's impossible not to shake their hand and say, 'Thank you for everything you have done, allowing us to live comfortably and free, knowing that we're safe at our home and safe at work.' All of those comforts we enjoy are because of their efforts."
Vinatieri is as accomplished in his line of work as was his great, great grandfather was when he caught General Custer's eye. Vinatieri has conquered NFL moments that won his teams championships, and the personal acclaim rightfully earned is something he will have forever.
Still, Vinatieri can separate the adulation he receives from fans for that he holds for the military. It is a matter of perspective.
"People sometimes say, 'You guys are such heroes. You do so much on the field. You're going to battle this Sunday.' They all mean well, I love fans and I don't want to say what they tell us is a cliché, but it's not the same as military service," said Vinatieri. "I have an appreciation for what true war is about. We go out on a field and for 60 minutes we're "battling and fighting" and all those terminologies are used for what we're going through against another team, but we're relatively safe. There may be injuries, but we're not in it with guns, shooting and having
the potential of lives lost. There is risk in what we do, but it is not the same thing, not even close.
"Having the pleasure of meeting some Navy Seals and top service people in Washington that we met (recently), those are the real heroes. We get to play a kid's game and bring entertainment to people. Sometimes they get a break from reality and life to be fans of our game and it is pleasurable for us to see that, but the true heroes are the men and women who are risking their lives to defend our freedoms."
Vinatieri was a part of the Colts contingent that visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC on April 23, 2007, before the team visited the White House after winning Super Bowl XLI. The team's players and coaches encountered numerous service members who were wounded badly in combat.
The poignant visit left everyone affected, Vinatieri included, and it further distinguished the heroism involved in military service.
"That was a tough, but rewarding day, watching young people have such life-changing injuries. We saw soldiers missing limbs, having brain trauma. It's a humbling time when you see people who have sacrificed so much to try to defend our nation and the world," said Vinatieri. "They were excited to see us. They told us the Colts and the NFL brought them such joy to watch the games while they were overseas. It was a small way we were helping them, but they truly were helping us in a much, much bigger way.
"It gave our team a very real chance to understand the sacrifices the soldiers went through and that when they came home, their challenges were not over. There are injuries and rehabilitations some of the soldiers must go through. It was humbling because you saw the price they paid for us. Sometimes, you didn't know what to say, but you knew what your heart felt. Our guys didn't avoid giving hugs and showing our thanks. We all were impressed and humbled by their commitment. Until you see something like that personally, you never really understand it. We all left there changed in a significant way."
The NFL remains in action, and Vinatieri is one of 53 players on the Colts' active roster who works for a common cause on the playing field. It is a freedom he enjoys, but one he knows comes at a price. He could never quantify the cost of lives served or spent over past years, nor what it will be in the years ahead. What he will not forget is the selfless service of many individuals.
"I never will stop thanking our service people for what they do," said Vinatieri. "I am grateful beyond words that I know my family and I can live in a world where we have freedom of speech, where we can walk down the street and know we're safe. I want my children to know there are people defending our democracy and who are trying to make our world a better place.
"I want them to know 'thank yous' are easy words to say, but I really mean it. I don't know how we'll repay them for the time they've spent in service, but we'll spend a lifetime trying to do so."