For those who selflessly give so much, one day to say thank you simply isn’t enough.
That’s how the NFL’s Salute to Service was born.
“Salute to Service is a more concentrated effort by the league as a whole to dedicate an entire month to honoring military men and women,” said Stephanie Pemberton, Vice President of Marketing for the Colts. “Salute to Service is a platform to shine a brighter light on these true heroes. People look at professional athletes, NFL players, and put them up on a pedestal. This is our way of putting these heroes up on a pedestal and giving our players, our coaches, our staff, and our fans an opportunity to recognize them.”
Sunday was gameday. The Colts hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lucas Oil Stadium. It was also Veterans Day. And the Colts used it as an opportunity to honor America’s heroes.
“Today on Veterans Day, it’s just so special,” said Maj. Gen. Courtney Carr, Commander of the Indiana National Guard. “We’re repelling in the game ball, we’re doing the anvil, we’ve got an obstacle course at halftime. The soldiers are super excited, the families are excited, and it’s just a great tribute for our soldiers to feel special on Veterans Day.”
That support doesn’t just build morale, it’s helped the Indiana National Guard become the fourth largest unit in the country.
“We’re the 17th largest state in population. So, some of my peers will say, ‘How is it that the Indiana National Guard can have such a big organization?’ I say, ‘It’s about Midwest values and Hoosier patriotism,’” he said. “We benefit from that in being able to support a very large National Guard, which in turn benefits the state of Indiana because any place in Indiana that has an emergency, the governor has us at his fingertips.”
Just like football, the military is an operation in teamwork.
“It’s about people and working together. When you join the Army or the Army National Guard, you’re joining a team and you’re serving with a team of people that have similar values.”
Sidney Walton is one of those people.
“You’re on the field here at the Colts game on Veterans Day. Does it get any better than this, Dad?” asked his son, Paul.
“No, it doesn’t,” he replied.
At 99 years old, the World War II Army veteran served as the honorary coin toss captain. His one regret in life? Never meeting a Civil War veteran when he had the chance. He’s currently on a 50-state tour giving other Americans a chance to meet him.
“To make up for that one regret my dad has had all his life, he wants people to know there are a vanishing number of World War II veterans left and in a few years, there won’t be any.”
Meeting Walton was a highlight for Brig. Gen. Ronald Westfall with the Indiana National Guard.
“It’s an honor, especially on Veterans Day, to have any veteran here. But to have a veteran of the greatest generation, which my father was also a part of, it’s just an honor.”
Westfall’s father, Harold, was a Marine in World War II. His career inspired his son’s and he inspired his daughter’s. Now, they’re a three-generation military family.
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri also comes from a military family.
“My dad was in the military, my brother was in the military. All the people out there who fight for our country and risk their lives for our protection and for our lifestyle, you can’t say enough thank yous,” he said.
Vinatieri was part of a very special thank you on Sunday.
Eric Banschbach retired from the Air Force and now works tirelessly for other veterans through Wish For Our Heroes.
The Colts invited Banschbach and his family down to the field at halftime.
“We thought we were playing plinko,” said his wife, Ellen.
As partial faces of Colts players were revealed on the big screen, Banschbach had to guess who they were.
When he correctly identified Adam Vinatieri, he popped up on the screen and thanked him for his service.
“When I saw the video, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool,’” Banschbach said. “And then, he was standing right next to me.”
But that wasn’t the only surprise.
"To be able to present a couple Super Bowl tickets to one deserving fan, it was pretty awesome," Vinatieri said.
“We’ll remember this for a long time,” said Banschbach.
And that’s the idea behind Salute to Service – to remember.
Prior to the start of the game, the Colts honored 100 Gold Star families on the field. They waved flags and wore shirts in honor of their loved ones – heroes who paid the ultimate price for freedom.
“We get to play a sport for a living. We get to live out our dreams. But during this month, we celebrate the people who make it happen for us,” said linebacker Anthony Walker. “That’s what it’s about – us taking the time out to really celebrate them and appreciate them for their service.”
On Monday, Colts players, cheerleaders, and Colts mascot, Blue, visited with patients at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center. They went room-to-room, delivering hats, posters, and gratitude.
The Colts were there to listen to the stories of the veterans. But the veterans were more interested in hearing from them.
PHOTOS: Community Monday - VA Hospital Visit
The Indianapolis Colts visited the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center for its annual Veterans Day event. Colts players distributed decorated footballs and care packages to the patients as a 'thank you' for their service to our country.
“Most of the veterans, they wanted to talk about the win,” said defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad. “So, that was just awesome. It was awesome to see them and see that they were in good spirits.”
They may have been down the street, but on Sunday, veterans like Brandon Sutton, a retired Marine, were with the Colts in spirit.
“They turned the lights down in the middle of the game and you could just hear cheering through the halls," he said. "It was supposed to be quiet at naptime and there was no napping going on throughout the entire hospital.”
For Muhammad, it’s a blessing to be able to live his dream playing the game he loves while inspiring those who make it possible.
“It just makes me want to play harder, win and keep winning so we can keep making people happy and brighten their days. It’s a great feeling knowing that you can have that effect on people.”
Veterans Day is one day.
Salute to Service is one month.
But for the Colts, every day is Veterans Day and every gameday is a salute to service.