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Merril Hoge played eight seasons as an NFL running back and learned to push his body to its physical limits. He dealt with the series of concussions that ended his playing career and persevered in putting his life back together. He beat cancer. But it was when Hoge took part in the NFL's USO Tour to the Persian Gulf that he came to a greater understanding of what sacrifice, courage and heroism really mean.
After all, Hoge literally was entering a war zone, a place where sacrifice is made at the ultimate level, where heroism can be found in the truest of forms. The former Steelers running back has been through a lot during his 46 years, but none of that prepared him for what he experienced while visiting American troops stationed in Qatar and Afghanistan as part of an NFL contingent that included Matt Millen and Anthony Munoz.
"Once we were on the military base it was a different world," said Hoge. "You knew you were entering into, for lack of better term, a 'war zone.' You can really sense the reality of the war there. You could tell everyone was on a mission and alert. We would start at the base and then go to the FOBs (forward operating bases). The closer it got to the areas where the battle zones were, the smaller the FOBs were. The one FOB we wert to, they were right up against the enemy. You could see the video they had from the night before watching an attack being planned against them. It was crazy.
"On one of the visits to an FOB we came up over one hill and there was nothing there. There were two people working in the farm. There was nothing but mud huts. There are no stores, no gas stations. Nothing as far as the eye can see, for hundreds of miles. When I came up over that ridge, if not being in the helicopter I would have thought I was somewhere in 1800 B.C."
While it was an eye-opening experience for the group to see what the troops go through, for those in the military it's the reality they deal with on a daily basis. And that was the reason for the USO-sponsored trip, to give the soldiers a break from reality, to allow them to let their guard down a little and have some fun while meeting some NFL greats and losing themselves in stories about their favorite sport and their favorite teams. Hoge in particular was just amazed at how many Steelers fans he came across.
"Steelers fans were just everywhere," said Hoge. "They only get so much room and things to pack, and they still brought Steelers stuff with them. One guy had a Steelers quilt. I saw so many Terrible Towels. The first guy we met who is in charge of all air support was a Steelers fan. He was talking to me and pulled a Terrible Towel out of his cargo pocket. One of the commanding officers in one of the areas we went to, when we met with him he was the same way. He was a big Steelers fan.
"I was blown away. There were so many people, and they all were so appreciative and grateful. For those few moments we brought something to them, we took some of the pressure off them.
There was even a bit of a "who is the biggest fan contest" that went on at one of the bases between two soldiers – Staff Sergeant Lonnie Boyd and Specialist Isiah Phillips. And Hoge was called in to settle the friendly banter.
"They both had interesting passions and complete commitments to the Steelers," said Hoge. "I had to rule it a tie."
And while the visit was a definite morale boost for the troops, it did even more for Hoge.
"I have had things that have impacted me," said Hoge. "Cancer has given me a great perspective, but there isn't a day that goes by that I am not thankful for the life I get and freedoms I enjoy. I know now what those soldiers are doing so I can have that freedom, and I am grateful. To go overseas and thank them for that service and what they do for all of us meant the most to me. To look them in the eye, shake their hand and thank them one-by-one gave me great pleasure.
"I am proud to be an American."