FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Picture Stephen Gostkowski in a large, protective full-body suit as a Security Forces K-9 dog waits anxiously for the command to attack him.
The New England Patriots kicker has become familiar with the pressure that comes with attempting game-winning field goals as defenders rush in his direction, but this was something altogether different. He described it — part of the NFL-USO Tour in South Korea that he took part in from April 1-7 — as an “epic experience.”
“We found a giant Sumo suit that protects you from getting hurt, so they have you put it on, they[‘d] give him a command, we’d stick our arm out and they would bite our arm and wouldn’t let go until they gave another command,” Gostkowski explained. “They might have looked like the nicest dogs to their handlers, but to anyone else, it looks like they’re trying to kill you.”
And when Gostkowski was instructed to run away?
“The dog would run us down, jump at us, and bite us. His whole body took my legs out; it was like an open-field tackle,” he said. “I felt like it was maybe me. But then the same dog took out [Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker] Myles Jack, so I felt a lot better after that.”
Gostkowski, 35, chuckled while retelling that story from the NFL-USO Tour, a trip for which he was joined by Jack, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan and Chicago Bears quarterback Chase Daniel.
Players visited Camp Bonifas, Camp Casey, Camp Humphreys, Kunsan Air Force Base and Osan Air Force Base. The annual trip aims to strengthen America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country.
“I went in expecting it to be cool, and it was a lot of more fun and rewarding than I thought. It was very humbling that people care we come over there,” said Gostkowski, who was recruited by the Air Force Academy as a football and baseball player coming out of Mississippi’s Madison Central High School before deciding to attend the University of Memphis.
“We play a game for a living. It pales in comparison to what they are doing in real life, and the decisions and sacrifices they make. To give that thanks back to all servicemen and women out there, it was an honor for me. I probably got more out of it than anyone there, which is crazy to think.”
Gostkowski was motivated to take part in the unique opportunity this offseason. It was presented to him through Donna Spigarolo, the team’s director of community relations.
“I’ve been playing for 13 years, and we’ve already gotten to do a lot of cool things as far as Super Bowls, going to Pro Bowls, and stuff like that. But I never truly felt like I took advantage of a lot of other things offered,” he said. “I’m not going to play for 15 more years, and I wanted to try to take advantage of a lot of things presented as far as being a player in the NFL.
“Having [Naval officer and long-snapper Joe] Cardona on the team, and how into the military Coach [Bill] Belichick is, and how much the team always does to honor the military, I thought it would be a really cool idea to see how they live and what they actually do when they are deployed and on these bases.
“It’s a different culture shock from what we have as NFL players. It’s an eye-opening experience to see these men and women who serve our country and give such a sacrifice to allow us to do the things we do — like kick a ball for a living. My thought was that if I go over there and put a couple smiles on people’s faces, it was very rewarding for me personally to support the guys and girls that are out there doing a lot of the jobs that honestly not a lot of us would do.”
Among the parts of the experience that resonated with Gostkowski: the trip to Camp Bonifas and going on a tour of Panmunjom, which is a small village located in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
“You realize how lucky you are,” Gostkowski said. “Then we got to go down into the tunnel, where the North Koreans, during the Korean War, tried to dig out to gain access into South Korea. That got sniffed out by the South Koreans and they put up a big barricade. That tunnel had to be only 5-feet tall, so you pretty much had to walk almost a half mile with your back bent. That was probably the hardest workout I’ve had in a long time.”
During visits to each base, Gostkowski said players “did a lot of meet-and-greets” and he was struck by the volume of Patriots fans. Players rode in tanks and visited with Air Force pilots, which he said made him feel like “my 6-year-old does when we take him to go see fire trucks.”
“I was in awe of these fighter pilots that fly these F-16s and you see the bombs that get connected to them, see them take off, and what they go through,” he said. “They have a little locker room, like ours, and the camaraderie they have together — they all get together Friday night.
“It’s almost like a lot of teams within a team, which is like football — where you have offense, defense and special teams and you all come together for one goal. With the pilots, they had their maintenance crew. They had the people who ran the computers. There is so much that goes into it, how many different jobs there are; the leaders of the troops are like coaches, and they would talk about how it’s kind of like playing a sport and everyone is supposed to be part of a team.
“People look up to NFL players. But me, Cam, Chase and Myles were in awe of them — the stuff they go through, the sacrifices they make.”
The players also took note of how the NFL provides something for military members to rally around, giving them a connection to home.
“The countless number of stories I heard, ‘We wake up every Monday at 1 in the morning to watch the NFL games.’ Or, ‘We had a giant Super Bowl party’ and, ‘You don’t know how much joy the Patriots bring me every week.’ Just how much football means to people,” Gostkowski said.
“We go to training camp for a month. Theirs is a two-year training camp with not a lot of days off, and no family to see, and so far away from their normal life. They have to be ready at a moment’s notice to go to war. To give thanks to the troops who do so much for us, going over there coming off a Super Bowl win, it was a really cool experience. … It makes you reflect and be grateful for all the things you have.”