Commentary

Iraq War vet: 'Power of prayer works'

Originally Published: November 10, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Greg GadsonPhil Masturzo/Akron Beacon JournalAfter Lt. Col. Greg Gadson concluded his speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame last Saturday, Army veteran Bob Jones, a Purple Heart recipient, saluted him. "I was in absolute awe," Gadson says.
Perhaps the most moving and indelible image of the New York Giants' journey to Super Bowl XLII two years ago did not involve a professional football player.

When Lawrence Tynes' 47-yard field goal sliced through the uprights and gave the Giants a 23-20 overtime victory in the NFC Championship Game at wind-chilled Lambeau Field, Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, wearing a Giants jacket and hat, pumped his fists and beamed.

"When the ball went through, you could feel the elation on our sidelines, hear the stadium go quiet at the same time," Gadson, an honorary co-captain, said afterward. "It was like the air being let out of the whole state's soul. And the next thing I saw was my son jumping in the air and running on that field."

There was 13-year-old Jaelen leaping for joy and his father, a bilateral above-the-knee amputee war hero bound to a wheelchair, rejoicing vicariously through him.

Greg Gadson
AP Photo/ New York Giants/Jerry PinkusThe Giants and coach Tom Coughlin (right) rallied around Gadson during the 2007 season.
Gadson, a member of the Second Battalion and 32nd Field Artillery who had lost his legs eight months earlier to a roadside bomb in Baghdad, inspired the Giants along their difficult road to that final game. They did not lose when he was on the sideline, including the Giants' 17-14 victory over the Patriots in Glendale, Ariz.

"One minute you're driving along, getting ready to do the things you need to do, and a bomb blows up beneath you," Gadson said from his Virginia home on Monday. "You don't know if you're going to live. Then you lose limbs and you wonder what your life is going to be like.

"Eight months later, you're on the sidelines of the Super Bowl with your son. You don't dream of something like that."

For many fans that would be the highlight of a lifetime. Gadson, as you might have perceived by now, is not one of many. He is a singular man, one of a kind. Gadson has taken what looked like a hopeless situation and turned it into something hopelessly inspirational.

The Giants honored him as one of their own, bestowing him with a Super Bowl ring. He was named the 2008 Hero of the Year by Reader's Digest and will receive the NCAA's Inspiration Award next year.

"Yes, sir," Gadson said. "I'm actually busier -- of course, in a different way -- than before I got hurt. It hasn't ended. It's just been something that's continued to grow.

"At first, to open my life to others was cathartic, and was about helping myself as much as others. Now, it's flipped. I understand now that I may be helping others."

[+] EnlargeGreg Gadson
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireEli Manning greets Gadson after the Giants' NFC Championship Game victory two seasons ago in Green Bay.
This past Friday, Gadson was introduced by country singer Faith Hill at the Partnership for Military Medicine Symposium at the Institute of World Politics, where he is an Army Senior Fellow. On Saturday, he found himself standing behind a lectern at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, addressing several hundred veterans at a Veterans Day program. He asked for prayers for those killed and wounded two days earlier at Fort Hood in Texas.

"It's truly a tragedy," Gadson said. "I can attest that the power of prayer works. Please keep those families in your prayers."

The bottom line in all of our lives, the 43-year-old said, should be service.

"It is about what we put in," Gadson said, "not what we get out."

In April, Gadson was asked to help in the development of the latest Ossur Power Knee prosthetic device at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. With a group of reporters and cameramen watching, Gadson, using two canes, steadily navigated his way from the Military Advanced Training Center to Building No. 88. New artificial intelligence and sensor technology will allow above-the-knee amputees to operate under their own power when the prosthesis becomes available next year.

Although the media saw Gadson's grit and determination, they didn't see him fail repeatedly as he had a week earlier in his first few dozen steps with the device. Supported by a tether above, muscular Gadson was left swinging repeatedly when the high-tech knees buckled or he lost his balance. Through Gadson's perseverance and adjustments by engineers, the power knees became operational.

"For him to pick himself up and carry on has gotten us to this point," Michael Corcoran, his prosthetist, told reporters. "It's a testament to Col. Gadson that we're here."

The Giants felt the same way.

Gadson played outside linebacker at West Point. In the summer of 1985, he met Mike Sullivan, a defensive back. Fast-forward 22 years later to when Sullivan was the receivers coach for Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Sullivan had lost track of Gadson, who served in the Gulf War, the Balkans and Afghanistan, but heard about his injuries through former Army teammates. Sullivan visited Gadson at Walter Reed, bringing with him a Giants jersey with Gadson's name and the No. 98 he wore at Army. On departing, Sullivan asked whether there was anything else he could do.

[+] EnlargeGreg Gadson
AP Photo/Mike GrollEli Manning meets with Gadson during Giants training camp this season.
"Well," Gadson said, "when you guys come to town, I would love to see you play."

As it turned out, the 0-2 Giants needed Gadson more than he needed them. On the Saturday before the Sept. 23 game with the Washington Redskins, Gadson was invited by Coughlin to address the team.

"I just spoke from the heart, as a soldier and a former football player," Gadson explained. "I talked to them about appreciating the opportunities in their lives, how special and privileged they were."

The Giants trailed 17-3 at the half, and their season seemed over. But New York rallied to score three unanswered touchdowns in the second half and, with a rousing last-minute stop after the Redskins had a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, escaped with a 24-17 victory. It was the turning point of a championship season, and, as it unfolded, the Giants acknowledged their debt to the lieutenant colonel who inspired them.

Gadson has watched the Giants from the sideline twice this year, at the opener against the Redskins and Nov. 1 in Philadelphia.

"The Giants, obviously, have given me the stage, the public platform," Gadson said. "Why did it happen? How did it happen? The bond of my Army teammates and Mike Sullivan facilitated all of this."

On Veterans Day, Gadson will be in Detroit at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan. He will talk about how disabled people -- whether they are veterans or not -- must come together and support each other. It is worth noting that Gadson dislikes using the D-word. He prefers "challenged."

When he concluded his speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, standing tall in a dark suit, Gadson let the applause wash over him. Then an Army veteran, 65-year-old Bob Jones of Massillon, Ohio, walked to the front of the room and, standing right in front of Gadson, saluted him.

"I was in absolute awe," said Gadson, clearly moved by the memory of the moment. "Here's a guy who is more senior than me, he served in combat and won the Purple Heart, and he's looking up to me?

"It's overwhelming."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.