by Rob Moseley
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Katie Mitcheltree was with her husband, Army veteran Wade Mitcheltree, when she saw a notice that some football players would be visiting the facility where he and other wounded warriors receive rehabilitation.
To Katie, a native of Gresham, Ore., they weren't just any football players.
"My team is coming to see me!" Mitcheltree exclaimed upon realizing several Oregon Ducks would visit Brooke Army Medical Center's Center for the Intrepid on Thursday, four days before the Ducks face Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Monday (3:45 p.m. PT, ESPN).
Come Thursday afternoon, Katie, Wade and their two kids were waiting in the lobby when nine Ducks arrived to tour the rehabilitation center and meet several of the veterans recovering there. The Mitcheltrees shook hands with the players and received a jersey, gloves and stickers from Oregon's recent spring game tributes to the military.
The contingent of Oregon players was supposed to number seven, but quarterback Marcus Mariota and receiver Keanon Lowe saw teammates leaving for the tour and wanted to come along. The others were center Hroniss Grasu, defensive lineman Taylor Hart, punter Alejandro Maldonado, safety Ben Butterfield, receiver Chad Delaney, receiver Daryle Hawkins and long snapper Drew Howell, with strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe on hand as well.
Players expected to encounter a group of veterans struggling with their circumstances, in need of some encouragement. Instead, the tables were turned.
"I've never experienced anything like that, never experienced that much positive energy in one spot," Lowe said.
The Ducks first met the Mitcheltrees, including their oldest son, Joseph, 12, whose bedroom is decked out in Oregon gear right down to the bedsheets, according to his mother. Players then began to tour the facility, only to have veteran Jason Walker track them down for photos with his family of Oregonians.
The tour included three floors of the four-story, 65,000-square-foot facility. The Center for the Intrepid opened eight years ago to "provide service members with severe extremity injuries and amputations the opportunity to maximize their ability to live and work productively."
The center included the expected rehab equipment, such as weights and a pool. It also housed a model of an apartment, and the cab of a pickup truck, so veterans can encounter any difficulties that arise in those situations before being discharged.
And there was more high-tech equipment, including the CAREN (computer assisted rehabilitation environment), a 21-foot dome housing a 300-degree projection screen and adjustable floor. It's used to simulate various environments and terrain patients can expect to encounter out in the world, including those returning to combat zones.
But for all of that high-tech equipment, the most memorable part of the visit was the last 15 or 20 minutes. That's when players mingled with and signed autographs for the handful of veterans who dropped by the outpatient facility on the day after Christmas.
"They're so focused, they're locked in, they're positive," Delaney said. "We see injuries all the time in football, but they handled it much better than I see my teammates handle it. They were so positive, had such a good vibe about it."
Before the players left Oregon's practice facility for the rehab center, they were handed boxes of jerseys, gloves and stickers by an equipment manager who told them, "don't bring any of it back." They handed out about a dozen of the 15 jerseys they brought, and left the rest to be distributed by Center for the Intrepid staff when other patients drop in.
Not lost on the Ducks was the fact the average age of the facility's patients was 22 to 25, not much older than the players themselves.
Mark Phillips, who works in logistics at Brooke Army Medical Center, is the father and father-in-law to Oregon journalism school graduates. He got a sweatshirt signed by players, and spoke to the impact their visit could have on the wounded veterans.
"For them to see somebody like this group come in, it's uplifting for them," Phillips said.
Turns out, though, he could have just as easily been talking about the players, too.