INDIANAPOLIS – Clyde Christensen has spent 17 years in the NFL meshing talents into cohesive and productive offenses.
For the past 11 seasons, Christensen has helped coordinate efforts that made the Colts one of the NFL's top teams, but what he saw over a six-day period recently gave him a vivid picture of true teamwork and sacrifice.
Christensen was a part of a USO group that included Peyton Manning, Austin Collie and Curt Schilling, among others, that visited service personnel in six different areas – Italy, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, Germany and Afghanistan.
The group visited bases and an aircraft carrier as guests of Admiral James Winnefeld, whom Christensen met in Indianapolis.
It was the invitation from Admiral Winnefeld that provided Christensen with a chance to witness something special.
"We flew about 27,000 miles, and it was approximately 40 hours on the plane. The experience exceeded my expectations," said Christensen. "I knew there were a lot of people making sacrifices and there were going to be great examples of leadership, but you realized how far from home our soldiers are. You see how rugged the mountains are in Afghanistan, how primitive the living conditions are.
"You saw how well everyone functions as a team. The leadership is tremendous, from the nuclear engineer all the way down to the 19-year old enlistee. They all have a role, and they all do their work. Somehow they're all formed into a team quickly and efficiently. Their youth and ability to function as a team really jumped out at me. Their egos are small, and no one looked down on another's position, whether you're a Navy SEAL or a cook. They treated each other as equals, which was neat."
Following visits to the Walter Reed Medical Center and the Pentagon, the group flew to Italy and Spain before spending time at Al Dhafra. A visit to the USS Stennis preceded stops at camps in Afghanistan, and the trip included a visit to Germany before heading back home last Saturday.
The way Christensen coaches individuals to have a common purpose was something he saw on greater display with service personnel.
"The teamwork did stand out, because I have an appreciation of how hard it is to get people to work together, how hard it is to blend egos, races, different income levels, different backgrounds. I don't think anybody does it better than our armed forces," said Christensen. "They blend some who didn't finish high school with some well-decorated Academy men, and they all function together and do their jobs.
"I was impressed, almost touched, that they could have one cause and come together. Nothing else mattered to them. You saw every nationality at every base. You saw every age group, from 65-year old generals to 19-year old women soldiers and everything in between."
Among the best exhibitions of unified effort came while on the USS Stennis, a $3.5 billion vessel that houses 5,000, serves almost 17,000 daily meals, has 2,000 phones, 900 miles of cable and wiring and enough technical manuals that would stand as tall as the Washington Monument if stacked up.
"Teamwork was shown when they were landing F-18's on the carrier," said Christensen. "It went from the person flagging the plane in there to the one lining them up straight, to the decision-maker of whether they land or take back off, to the one who tightens the cable to make sure the planes are grabbed, to the mechanic underneath the plane fixing it. It was an amazing demonstration.
"They do a good job of, 'You don't want to let your partner down.' No one wanted to be the weak link. That's what we stress in football, 'You don't want to be the one to let your team down.' "
Everywhere they went, Christensen said service personnel were interested and informed.
"You could tell they all followed the NFL. The visit gave them some distraction and recreation, a different element to their day to get their mind away from what they're doing and being away from home," said Christensen. "There's something about the NFL and your home team. You like how much they knew and loved the NFL.
"At each base, I didn't have to read the paper, soldiers were telling me what was happening in free agency, who got tagged as franchise players. I think we were in Djbouti (Africa) when they told me Pat McAfee had been tagged. You bring that interest to them. Our visit gave them a little bit of home."
Camp Bastion was built in Afghanistan by the military. Approximately 25,000 troops reside on the base that awed Christensen.
"I didn't understand how extensive the effort is to move that many people into the mountains of Afghanistan and set up a base, get them organized, set up security and get out on patrol," said Christensen. "You see how hard the communication is and how it's tied in with the drones and how it's totally coordinated. You're impressed with how young the soldiers are, how long the stints are, how rugged the living conditions are and the danger they face every day.
"The danger is real. You know it mentally, but then you see it. You see how they live on edge. You see when they lay their heads down that they don't know if a missile will come over the fence. It's a constant pressure and tension. They have to be alert at all times."
Christensen is a savvy coach who has been around service individuals before, just not to the extent which he saw first-hand. His appreciation runs deeper because of the experience.
"All the branches of service work together. How they support each other through the whole process is amazing," said Christensen. "I think it's both human spirit and patriotism. There's patriotism and something in them that they just have a duty to do, and they do it. It's hard work. They all have a resolve to get their jobs done.
"Before a football game, you shake hands with soldiers who are part of the anthem on the field, but there is something more special about looking them in the eye and shaking their hand on their turf. You offer thanks for their work and sacrifice. To see it all in their environment was remarkable."