BETHLEHEM, Pa. - There's a point in every training camp when everything turns into a repetitive grind. From the players and coaches to the reporters and merchandise staff, each day runs together. But all of that is thrown out the window the moment that the members of the United States military begins to file onto the sidelines of the practice field and the throngs of fans in the bleachers begin giving the defenders of the nation an overwhelming standing ovation.
Today was Military Appreciation Day at Eagles training camp, an event that is coordinated each year by the Eagles through the United Service Organizations. There were 300 guests representing all branches of the United States Armed Forces in attendance that arrived prior to the morning practice and watched practice from the bleachers. They were all then led onto the sideline to the sound of a rousing standing ovation, and then, at the conclusion of practice, the members of the military joined the Eagles in their final huddle.
"It's absolutely amazing," said Technical Sergeant Jason Leokum of the United States Air Force. "Your skin starts to crawl and tingle when you walk out there and everybody started to applaud. It's a great, great feeling."
After the huddle was broken, the players stuck around the field signing various items for the men and women of the military, posing for pictures, and just conversing.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to be here and meet these guys," said Sergeant Kevin Cooney of the United States Navy, "And how hospitable they are to have us here in the huddle, sticking around after practice to sign signatures for us. It was just amazing and it's something that I'm always going to remember.
"I won't come off this field until every one of them gets an autograph," said Eagles wide receiver Hank Baskett. "Because if it wasn't for them, we truly wouldn't be doing what we're doing. We're out here playing a game, this is our job, and their job is putting their life on the line for us."
Baskett has an extra kinship with the servicemen and servicewomen because he grew up on Canon Air Force base in Clovis, New Mexico where his father was a member of the Air Force.
"It's good to be able to talk about some things, you get that added bond from it," Baskett said. "That's one thing I do love about the guys on this team, you see everyone out here signing autographs, and it just shows how much appreciation we do have for the military."
"This is an amazing feeling," said Sean Rouvre of the United States Army. "We're like a bunch of little kids out here. Every one of the (players has said) 'thank you for your service.'"
Baskett also knows the effect that the Eagles can have on those serving their country abroad.
"I always take it back to my rookie year when one of my best friends growing up was in Iraq," Baskett said. "He said that staying up late and watching our game was the only thing that could take his mind off of what was going on around him. That puts a whole lot of things in perspective and makes you realize that it's just a game and if you can get someone who's somewhere getting shot at; if you can take their mind of it for just a little bit, it truly is worth it."
"It's something special to be a part of," said Technical Sergeant Leokum of the camaraderie that comes from watching Eagles games at 3 a.m. He said there are so many fans that are willing to suffer the next day without sleep in order to watch the game, and then spend the next several days just talking about the game.
"It's overwhelming and I appreciate everything you all do for us," said Sergeant James Norris of the United States Army, "You all keep giving these soldiers good memories and keeping their minds off the sorrow."
Sergeant Norris is such a die-hard Eagles fan that when he was taken to Baltimore Ravens training camp while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he confessed his Eagle fandom to the Ravens players and was subsequently mobbed by the Ravens players who jokingly chided him. But today, Sergeant Norris got to spend some time with his favorite team.
"There are some things I want to forget," said Sergeant Norris, who said he has been bombed 11 times. But this is something I'll never, never forget."
Another player who had a bond with the various soldiers, sailors, and airmen was fullback Kyle Eckel, who graduated from the United States Naval Academy.
"It's a special day for them, at least to give them a break from their everyday routine," Eckel said. "It has to be stressful, and it's certainly harder than anything we go through on the football field."
Eckel was given a National Guard patch by one of the visitors that he said he will keep for inspiration.
He also made sure to underline the "Navy" part of the training camp program for some of the Army men and women he was signing autographs for.
"It was fun joking around with them and seeing the smiles on their faces because what they do is so serious," Eckel said. "To put yourself second, there's nothing more honorable than that."
"You think training camp is tough until you realize what they go through with their lives," said linebacker Omar Gaither." It puts everything in perspective. I wish we could do it more often to be honest with you."
"It means a lot," said linebacker Joe Mays. "These guys, they go out and fight for our country. They're heroes. So, just coming out and getting the support from them and also being able to thank them for the things they're doing, it's a pretty big deal for us; for the players, for the community, and for the fans that are out here."
But the die-hard Eagles fans among the military men and women had one extra favor to ask of the Eagles players.
"They're looking forward to seeing good things out of us," said Mays. "But I heard a couple guys say 'beat the Cowboys,' so we have to take care of business."