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Originally published Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 6:12 PM

Steve Kelley

Trip to Iraq humbles, impresses Jim Mora

Former Seahawks coach meets several American troops, says top question was whether NFL would return this season

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes As a former servicemember in a previous war, I consider what you have done with the USO... Read more
quotes So here I am in Iraq. We all appreciated the visit by the Mora's, Whisenhunt,and Kubiak... Read more
quotes How much time have you spent with Mora, Huskiefan? Read more

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BELLEVUE — Everywhere Jim Mora went, from north to south, from Kirkuk to Baghdad to Basra, the first question always was the same question.

"Are we going to have football this year?"

As the NFL lockout crawls to a conclusion, let's hope the owners and players take a moment to remember their audience. Let's hope they consider the medicinal benefits of escapism. Let's remind them that their influence stretches far beyond the stadiums.

"Guys told us, 'We have to have an NFL season.' They said the NFL season is what they look forward to over there," said Mora, who visited Iraq earlier this month. "It's so important to these guys. It's such a great distraction. I wish every athlete and every coach could feel what we felt.

"I just thought that if the negotiators, the decision-makers, would just go over there and listen to these soldiers who are over there serving our country, they would all say, "Jiminy Christmas, what are we arguing about? Let's get over ourselves.' "

Mora learned that in Iraq, the NFL was the great escape.

"Here we are, 7,000 miles away from home in this God-awful place," he said. "It's 120 degrees. There's dust storms. It's nasty, ugly, awful. These guys haven't seen their families in months. They're doing these thankless jobs in this horrible environment, and doing them with smiles on their faces.

"But their biggest concern was not, are we going to take on indirect fire tonight. It was, are we going to have a season? They were really worried about that. The games give them something to talk about all week. That's the galvanizing power of the NFL."

Along with his father, Jim; Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt; and Houston coach Gary Kubiak, Mora, the former Seahawks coach, went to Iraq as part of a USO tour.

He called the trip humbling.

"Initially, there was this allure of going to this exotic, foreign place," Mora said. "But then the trip became something I felt I had to do, almost like it was my duty to do it. It started out as something I thought would be fun, but it became something more solemn that needed to be done."

Mora said he didn't know what to expect from the troops. He wondered about their morale, wondered if some believed the U.S. had forgotten about them.

"I wasn't sure if they were going to be down in the dumps, second-guessing why they were there, what they were doing there," he said. "But I was just absolutely amazed. I can sincerely say that of the thousands of soldiers we met, I didn't hear one person with a negative attitude, with a complaint. They were all upbeat about their jobs and about their mission."

Mora, who will be an analyst for CBS and a studio guest on the NFL Network this season, covered the entire country during the five-day trip. He flew in planes that made dangerous combat landings and takeoffs, and flew from base to base in Black Hawk helicopters.

He met soldiers who had yet to see their recently born children. He spent time with special ops forces and saw similarities between their personalities and those of some of the elite players he has coached.

"There was a confidence in the eyes of the special ops guys that you see in elite athletes," Mora said. "These guys were the elite of the elite. They were putting their lives on the line on a daily basis, but they had this way about them."

One night after spending about four hours with these special ops forces, Mora told his father he felt very safe knowing those guys were on duty.

"They had this unity and camaraderie that reminded me of the San Francisco 49ers when I was coaching there," Mora said. "There was this real peer-to-peer accountability because their lives depended on each other. And they competed in everything they did.

"That's how the great football teams and great football players are. They have this amazing mental toughness, a hardness. They blew me away. You could walk up to these guys and tell they were different. You have to be careful about comparing football to war, but they had a look that reminded me of Ronnie Lott or Brett Favre, but just in a completely different realm."

The star of their USO show, as it turned out, was Mora's former Marine father who was a head coach in Indianapolis and New Orleans.

Wherever they went, soldiers asked Mora's father to re-enact his famous postgame "Playoffs?!" meltdown/speech. Dad always obliged.

"It was such a cool experience," Mora said. "I was so impressed by the professionalism of the people in the military, whether they were 18-year-olds or 40-year-olds. Their selflessness, their level of commitment, that was very revealing for me."

For all the reasons Jim Mora mentions, these guys deserve some football.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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