LB Adam Hayward (left) begins the construction of a sundae for one of the hospital's residents
Jason Hayward, a young Army soldier deployed in Iraq, has the type of duty that brings home the gravity of the situation simply by its description. Hayward, you see, recovers tanks that are stuck in hot spots due to mechanical problems induced by combat.
Jason Hayward's older brother, Adam, is a rookie linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the afternoon of Tuesday, November 13, the elder Hayward and several of his Buccaneer teammates visited the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa to commemorate Veteran's Day with an ice cream social. As fun and light-hearted as the event was, it was also at times deeply emotional for the Buccaneer linebacker.
Most difficult for Hayward was a trip through the polytrauma unit, which was mostly populated by injured soldiers between the ages of 18 and 25. The Haley Veteran's Hospital is the nation's top treatment center for veterans with brain trauma, so the majority of soldiers who suffer brain injuries in Iraq are sent to Tampa.
Understandably, Hayward's mind was on his brother as he visited with the brave soldiers in the trauma unit.
"The thing that was going through my mind was my little brother, because he's over there [Iraq] now," said Hayward, alternately struggling to hold back tears. "He's been over there for a while now. Too see all of them, it gets to me, because that's how old he is. I don't talk to him or see him that much. Just thinking that anything can happen and seeing it brought tears to my eyes. It got to me. I see how strong they are in recovery. They have high spirits and are getting through it, and their families are supporting them. It's just kind of scary to think that your family member, somebody that close to you, could be in that same position."
By virtue of his position with the Buccaneers, Adam is the more well-known of the Hayward brothers. Still, all it takes is a trip like Tuesday's to the veteran's hospital to reaffirm the notion that the young men and women serving in the military are the nation's true heroes. That point was evident to Buccaneer long-snapper Andrew Economos as he visited the injured veterans in the trauma unit.
"It really hits home because those soldiers are our age," said Economos. "We kind of grew up through a real easy period in this country. Our parents always talked about wars, but you never really know what it's like. Now we're starting to see our generation coming home with these types of injuries. It's tough, so it's really not too much to ask for us to go in there and act like they're normal people…because they are. They're absolute heroes."
The players' emotions were imminently understandable, but there were plenty of laughs and smiles on Tuesday afternoon, too, some of them even at Hayward's expense. As one of three Tampa Bay players – along with Economos and linebacker Barrett Ruud – who served up an assembly line of ice cream sundaes to the hospital's long-term veteran residents, he took a bit of heat for his scooping techniques.
"I ended up breaking the ice cream container," Hayward admitted with a laugh. "I don't know how. It just fell apart on me. I think it was rigged from the beginning."
Collapsing ice-cream buckets aside, Economos, Hayward and Ruud fashioned sundaes for the hospital's residents for a solid hour, piling on chocolate syrup, sprinkles and whipped cream upon request. They also handed out autographs and posed for pictures.
Veteran Mostin Williams, a sergeant in the Army National Guard who has been at the Haley Hospital for the better part of two years spoke for many of the soldiers who appreciated the Buccaneers' visit.
"It was real nice that they could take the time to spend time with the veterans," said Sgt. Williams, who is originally from the Virgin Islands. "I really appreciate it. I got here a year and a half ago and said, 'The Buccaneers will be my team.' I'm definitely going to stick with the Buccaneers now!"
The visiting Buccaneers appreciated the fan feedback, even if they felt like they should be the ones cheering. After the social, Ruud admitted that the commemoration of Veterans Day probably meant more to the visitors than it did to the hospital residents.
"It's cool, because they're very positive and happy to see you," said Ruud. "That means a lot. People say that it's supposed to be an unselfish act to do something like this, but it's sort of selfish because it makes you feel good to do it."
As for Hayward, the visit was good for his soul even if his ice cream-serving skills were demeaned and, more importantly, even if he had to contemplate the danger his younger brother faces on a daily basis.
"Truthfully, it made me feel good inside," he said. "They see us and it brings a smile to their face. It's kind of funny because when we see them it brings a smile to our faces knowing what they've done and what they've gone through to support everybody else in this country."