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Packers Huddle for Heroes one veteran at a time

Eight Packers players meet with veterans for questions, letter writing, games

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November 14, 2023

GREEN BAY – In the shadows of Lambeau Field, eight Green Bay Packers – Elgton Jenkins, Rasul Douglas, Kristian Welch, Sean Ryhan, Jon Runyan, Romeo Doubs, Lukas Van Ness and Aaron Jones – took time out of their busy schedules to meet with 56 veterans at The Turn in Green Bay late last month.

The event, “Huddle for Heroes,” allowed players to share a bit about their military experiences growing up before moving into a Q&A session hosted by Ryan Fencl, the Packers Football Outreach Manager.

Following the session, players and veterans wrote letters to active-duty military members.

Attending veterans then had the opportunity to mingle with players through interactive sports games before ending the afternoon with a tour of Lambeau Field.

“This event shows our appreciation for the men and women who serve our country,” Fencl said. “It’s important to our players to get out in the community to show their support.”

The event was a part of the larger Salute to Service initiative, hosted by the Packers and Fleet Farm throughout November to honor and appreciate veterans and military members.

“This is one of five events the Packers (hosted) in November,” Fencl said. “To have our players interact with the veterans is huge. Many people only see the players on TV, but in circumstances like this where we host special events, it’s extremely worthwhile.”

Strong military families
Perhaps nobody on the Packers roster has a more personal connection with the military than running back Aaron Jones – who grew up in a military family. 

Playing his college ball at UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso), Jones was drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

“Both of my parents (Vurgess and Alvin Jones Sr.) served in the military, serving 56 years combined,” Jones, a seven-year pro with the Packers, said. “I had a lot of structure growing up – more structure than strictness. I had to have my homework done and make sure my room was clean before I went outside and played. My parents would have hauled me off any field before a coach would have if I didn’t have a good report card.”

From left, linebacker Kristian Welch, offensive lineman Jon Runyan and linebacker Lukas Van Ness work on their letters. Rich Palzewic Photo

Jones said he feels grateful to have grown up like he did and not only had an understanding of military service but an appreciation for it as well.

“I was around great people every day,” he said. “They were trying to make this world a better place to live in, giving their all when they didn’t have to, just to protect us. It’s shaped who I am today, and I’m not sure where I’d be without that structure. There’s a lot of ‘yes, ma’am, no sir, no ma’am, yes sir’ coming out of my mouth.”

Jones said he grew up on Fort Bliss, a military base in El Paso.

“Fort Bliss maybe sheltered me a little bit – my first job was working at the commissary as a bagger, working for tips,” Jones laughed. “The best time was when I saw my parents walking in and knowing I’d get the biggest tip.”

Though, Jones said the good times also came with a fair share of the hard times.

“It was tough seeing my parents leave when they got deployed,” he said. “They both got deployed at the same time when I was in the second grade – it forced me to grow up a little quicker. When one person in a family – or in my case, two people – serves, everyone serves. Everyone feels those hardships.”

Jones said he currently has an older brother serving in the Air Force.

Van Ness, who played at the University of Iowa and was drafted in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft, said he is also familiar with the structure military service provides – with his grandpa serving in the Reserves.

“He served 27 years as a lieutenant colonel in the Reserve,” he said. “My dad grew up with a lot of structure and passed that down to me.”

Welch, a native of Iola who came to the Packers in late August, said when he came to Green Bay, it was important to him to get involved in anything military-related, a passion that also stems from a personal service connection.

“I’ve always had a ton of respect for the military because my grandpa served,” he said. “Whenever I hear the national anthem and see an American flag, I think about the freedoms we are afforded by people who have sacrificed. Anytime I can show support, I’m down for that.”

Veteran advice
The event wasn’t all focused on the professional football players – the veterans had their own words of wisdom.

Former Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas – who was traded to the Buffalo Bills a few hours after the Huddle for Heroes event concluded – took his turn to seek advice from the 56 veterans attending. 

A veteran chats with offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins and former Packers player Rasul Douglas. Rich Palzewic Photo

“My whole life, I’ve been considered a leader,” Douglas, who came to the Packers in October 2021 from the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad, said. “This season, I feel I’ve finally gotten the role to lead, but humbly, I think I’m struggling as a leader because my way (to lead) is by example. Some people follow it, others don’t. Coach told me maybe I need to find another way to lead.”

One veteran in attendance gave some simple, yet pointed, advice.

“I joined the military 20 years ago,” the veteran said. “When I first joined, it was, ‘you do as I say, and this is how it’s going to be.’ Everything has changed since I’ve joined. With leadership, it’s finding the ways that work for each person. The person to your right might be different from the person to your left. You have to find a way to teach and mentor each person individually. That guy might take you yelling at him more so than another guy – each person is different.”

The Salute to Service initiative also included:
A Fleet Farm-sponsored fundraiser benefiting H.O.O.A.H. Wisconsin – a nonprofit that aims to eliminate suicide by proactively addressing the overall wellness of service members, veterans and their support systems. Shoppers had an opportunity to round up their purchases at Wisconsin Fleet Farm stores to benefit H.O.O.A.H. WI.50 For the Fallen event – a 50-mile ruck over 18 hours aimed at raising awareness and funds that began at the Brown County Veterans Memorial and covered 50 miles around Green Bay before ending at halftime of the Packers-Rams game Nov. 5.The Packers’ Salute to Service game held Nov. 5 included special Salute to Service equipment for the players, camo-ribbon decals, goal post wraps, pylon decals and in-game video features of those serving and recognition of veterans. Game attendees received a Salute to Service paracord bracelet.Special discounts and promotions for veterans and military members at Lambeau Field Atrium businesses through Nov. 11.A Salute to Service Flag Football Tournament at Titletown Nov. 3, which featured teams representing each branch of the military.The Packers also hosted a three-day seminar for veterans who are participating in a 12-month intensive program through Mark Divine’s Courage Foundation.

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