- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

It was just an appropriate coincidence that a New England Patriot was the NFL player who dedicated a USO Center in Afghanistan on Saturday in memory of former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman, who was killed while serving there a year ago this month.

The nine-day trip to Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq by Larry Izzo and Atlanta running back Warrick Dunn, named the 2004 NFL Man of the Year for his community service, was no luxury tour. Izzo and Dunn flew in Blackhawk helicopters, C-130 transport planes — along with the coffins of four American soldiers — and spent some nights in barracks. Their visit was the latest in a long line of such trips dating back to a mission to Vietnam in 1966 by eventual Pro Football Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Sam Huff and Frank Gifford.

“It has been quite an experience to come over here and see these troops on the front lines and experience what they go through on a daily basis,” Izzo said via conference call before flying home Wednesday. “A lot of people get to say “thank you” when they get home, but who gets to go over there as they are risking their lives?”

Izzo’s family history contributed to his decision to make the trip. His late father earned a Purple Heart while serving with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam, and his brother served four years in Bosnia.

“You think about traveling 14 hours on a plane like that, but once we got there and started interacting with these guys, we kind of just fed off them,” Izzo said. “You see these guys’ faces light up when you see them and they are just so happy to meet you. …

“It was important that the NFL was here [for the opening of the relatively plush Tillman Center] because he was basically part of our family.”

The troops were especially impressed with Izzo’s Super Bowl rings, one of which he nearly lost in Afghanistan.

“I’m throwing these balls 40 yards to the back of the courtyard where all the soldiers are,” Izzo said. “I looked down to my left hand and my ring was gone. The next thing I knew, a soldier comes up and said, ‘Do you want to trade?’ He had my ring in his hand and I had a football, so we swapped. Apparently it had flown off when I was throwing and hit him in the shoulder. Luckily, it didn’t do any damage to him or the ring.”

Broncos seeing Brown(s) — AFC contender Denver needed just four weeks to acquire an entire defensive line from ne’er-do-well Cleveland. The Broncos also imported Andre Patterson, the position coach of a Browns group that played a large part in the NFL’s worst run defense of 2004. Denver’s less famous unit was fourth against the run.

Cleveland wound up with quarterback Trent Dilfer by sending the draft pick it obtained from Denver for tackle Gerard Warren to Seattle. The Browns also received No. 1 running back Reuben Droughns for end Ebenezer Ekuban and tackle Michael Myers. The Broncos signed end Courtney Brown after he was cut by the Browns.

“Obviously, the media’s thinking that I’m Tarzan, standing up on a table, beating my chest for these guys,” Patterson said on selling the Broncos on Myers and first-round underachievers Brown, Warren and Ekuban. “It’s nothing like that at all. [Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and GM Ted Sundquist] did their homework.”

Ready to rumble — The bitter Baltimore-Tennessee rivalry, which faded after the 2002 realignment put them in different divisions, is on again thanks to receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle signing with the Ravens after being cut by the Titans.

“The fans at Tennessee are probably shocked because of the hatred they have towards Baltimore, but I have to do what I have to do,” said Rolle, whose Ravens visit Nashville this season.

Titans tight end Erron Kinney wasn’t subtle about the moves.

“It’ll be disgusting to see 85 with Mason on the back and [22] with Rolle on the back in those ugly Ravens uniforms,” Kinney said. “It just won’t sit right in my stomach. It’ll probably make me vomit.”

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