Former NFL players from around the league, including several Vikings alumni, returned to the field, this time at Concordia University to play flag football for a cause.
SAINT PAUL –Super Bowl LII won't kick off until Sunday, but a football game Wednesday night carried a lot of significance for those playing in it.
Former NFL players from around the league, including several Vikings alumni, returned to the field, this time at Concordia University to play flag football for a cause. The alumni competed against members of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team. The WWAFT roster is composed of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who now wish to visibly demonstrate that the loss of a limb does not mean the end of an athletic career.
There was no shortage of aggressiveness, speed and splash plays between the athletes, and team affiliations didn't seem to matter.
One of the WWAFT players, Michael Cain, is a Wisconsin native.
"I'm a diehard Packers fan, but it's a sport," Cain said. "And for all the Vikings Legends to come out and play this game with us, and for us to be able to go out and joke around with them – I've got my Packer gloves on and they give me crap, but at the end of the day, it's all for a good cause."
Cain was severely injured in Iraq in 2003 when an anti-tank landmine blew up underneath a vehicle he was riding in. Cain lost both of his legs due to the accident, but after extensive rehab and recovery, he returned to playing the sports he loves.
"I'm back up on my feet playing football," Cain said. "I also play ice hockey for the USA Warriors Hockey Team, and we skated around with the Minnesota Warriors hockey team – a great group of guys.
"You sit there and look at these Warriors that are out here – they're all smiling, none of them have a sad face, none of them are saying, 'I can't get out there. I can't do that.' They're just out there kicking some butt," Cain continued. "Just to see these guys out here is awesome. It means a lot to us to have the Vikings and the other Legends come out here and play with us."
Former Vikings who participated in the game included QB Rich Gannon, RB Robert Smith, LB Ben Leber, QB Sage Rosefels, QB Todd Bouman and DE Talance Sawyer.
Sawyer said he didn't have to be asked twice to join in an activity that allowed him to support wounded veterans while reuniting with former teammates.
"It's always a party when we get together. If we haven't seen each other in 10 years, it always feels like we just saw each other yesterday," Sawyer said. "So seeing Robert Smith, Rich Gannon and quite a few of the guys I really knew well, it's always exciting."
Gannon, now a commentator with CBS Sports and Sirius XM NFL Radio, said the Wounded Warriors charity is "near and dear" to his heart. Both of Gannon's parents were in the military – his mother in the Army and his father in the Navy – which led to his passion for and support of United States service members.
"I just have so much respect for them," Gannon said. "It's hard to play the game when you're healthy. It's really hard to play when you're hurt, and these guys come out here with all kinds of significant injuries, some amputees, and it's amazing what they're able to do. The passion, energy and commitment is just really incredible.
"It's good to see them, but more importantly, it's good to see them out here at this type of event," Gannon added of the reunion with other Vikings Legends. "It just shows you where their heart is."
Smith drew plenty of fan attention when he made his return to the gridiron.
Of all the activities going on in the Twin Cities this week leading up to Super Bowl LII, Smith said it was an easy decision to be involved with the flag football game.
"You get embarrassed sometimes, hearing yourself referred to as a 'hero' when you're well-aware that people are serving our country, being wounded serving our country and losing their lives for our country," Smith said. "I just think it's important for all of us, no matter who we are, to have perspective in our lives and to understand that there are a lot of people who pray for the things that we take for granted. It's important to be grateful to people that have served us and to not get caught up in the little things in your life."
Smith also enjoyed reconnecting with former teammates and other NFL alumni.
"It's always fun to see the guys and to get out on the field and share stories about how old we are," Smith said with a laugh. "And how easily we get hurt shoveling snow or doing yoga. It's great."
On the final play of Wednesday's game, Smith hauled in a deep touchdown pass from former Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels.
Rosenfels said after the event that he was proud to support military veterans and the WWAFT and also appreciated the opportunity to connect with old friends while backing a worthy cause.
"You have a chance to meet guys from different generations," Rosenfels said. "You know, Rich Gannon and I never played together, but I feel like I've gotten to know him so well over the years. [And getting to] throw the ball to guys I didn't throw to, or throwing balls to guys like Ben Leber, who were always trying to intercept my passes in practice."
In addition to the Vikings alumni, a number of recognizable names took the field Wednesday, including former QB-turned-ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, former NFL QB Ryan Leaf, ESPN's Kenny Mayne, Jen Welter and four-time Super Bowl Champion and Army war veteran Rocky Bleier.
"For me personally, and I'm pretty sure I speak for most of the guys, it's a very humbling experience to be able to come out here with our [childhood] heroes and even the younger players who are coming in," Cain said. "It's absolutely an honor and a privilege for us to be out here and be able to play football against them."
All proceeds from Wednesday's game will benefit WWAFT.org, Sierra Delta, Service Dog Network for Veterans and local Minnesota Disabled Veterans initiatives.