LB Shelton Quarles will help bring the NFL's good will to troops in the Persian Gulf
During his 10-year career as an NFL player, Tampa Bay Buccaneers middle linebacker Shelton Quarles has accomplished a great many things.
Blessed with exceptional athletic ability and possessing a work ethic to match, Quarles has climbed his way up the proverbial NFL ladder, from undrafted free agent to starting middle linebacker for one of the league's best defenses. Along the way, he's positioned himself among the Bucs' all-time leaders in games played and career tackles. He's been named to a Pro Bowl, and he's even tasted ultimate football glory, helping Tampa Bay capture it's first-ever Super Bowl championship during the 2002 season.
Still, there's one thing that has seemingly dodged the veteran linebacker over the years: a chance to personally express his appreciation to U.S. troops who are stationed overseas.
That will all change Sunday when Quarles embarks on an NFL-USO-sponsored overseas venture in which he'll visit U.S. troops at military bases throughout the Persian Gulf. The USO (United Service Organizations) is a private, nonprofit organization that provides morale-boosting and recreational services to members of the U.S. military worldwide.
"They've asked me over the past two or three seasons if I would be able and willing to go over, and every year I've had a conflict," Quarles said. "I actually had a conflict this year. My wife and I were supposed to take a trip with a couple of other guys from the team over to London for a Man[chester] U[nited] game. We pretty much had it just about set up except for the flights. I told her I didn't know how many more opportunities I would have to take this trip and how much they have wanted me to go in the past. So we decided to go ahead and make it happen."
Joined by three other NFL players – Atlanta tight end Alge Crumpler, Kansas City guard Will Shields and New England tight end Benjamin Watson – Quarles will continue a more than 40-year-old tradition of NFL players visiting U.S. troops stationed overseas to thank them for all that they do.
"It's just showing how much we appreciate what they do for us and just to let them know how valued they are as a member of our society," Quarles said. "We wouldn't enjoy the freedoms that we do if they weren't doing what they do for us. This is just to show them that we are appreciative of that."
It's a longstanding and worthy tradition between the NFL and USO that began way back in 1966. That was the year Willie Davis, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and Johnny Unitas – all standouts at the time and today NFL Hall-of-Fame members – made the trip to Vietnam as part of the first NFL-USO goodwill effort.
Their trip was the brainchild of then-league commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was seeking ways to demonstrate the league's support for America's fighting forces. And it made the NFL the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam and other parts of Asia. Over the years, the NFL has sent such prominent figures as Don Meredith, Terry Bradshaw, Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus to various locales, including Somalia, Bosnia, Japan, Iraq and South Korea.
"They've had a number of players go over from time to time to visit our troops wherever they have been," Quarles said. "I'm glad to be one of the participants and have the opportunity to go over and enjoy that experience.
"Growing up, I always had an appreciation for the military. I understand how organized they have to be and how understanding they have to be of the different cultures and different environments to which they go in."
The first leg of Quarles' trip will start Sunday when he travels to Frankfurt, Germany. There he will meet Crumpler, Shields and Watson; the four NFL athletes will then be briefed by military personnel on the finer details of the trip – everything from geography of the region to specific safety procedures. The group will then depart to Kuwait, the final stop before heading to an undisclosed location to meet up with U.S. troops.
"They just told us to say the Persian Gulf," Quarles said when asked about his specific whereabouts once overseas. "They don't want to tip off the enemy as to our exact location. I just know that I'm flying out Sunday evening, flying up to D.C. and then from D.C. over to Frankfurt and then from Frankfurt to Kuwait. From that point on, I'm pretty sure we're in cargo planes."
Though the trip has been a long time in the making for Quarles, its service aspect is something with which he is more than familiar. An active supporter in community endeavors, Quarles started the Shelton Quarles IMPACT Foundation in 2003 to help at-risk families. That commitment to helping those in need is something Quarles said permeates the Bucs' locker room, particularly the linebacker corps.
"It all started for me in '97 when I first got here," Quarles said. "Seeing what Hardy [Nickerson] did with his Hardy's Huddles and also going back to what Derrick [Brooks] did with his program, being able to take people around the world and around the country. I think it started with that. By modeling myself after those guys who came before me, it was easy for me to go into that line and follow the tradition of what we do around here – especially at the linebacker position."
It's a Bucs tradition that Quarles is eager to continue.
"I'm really looking forward to getting over there and learning a little bit more," Quarles said. "I'm always interested in our military.
"I think [this trip] will definitely make me pay more attention and try to understand not only what's going on over there but in our own society and how I can put forth my best efforts to improve that."