Greg Cote

Greg Cote: The real America’s Team comes to town

A player on the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football Team gets ready to play a game in 2014.
A player on the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football Team gets ready to play a game in 2014. WWAFT

An exhibition flag-football game is taking place on Tuesday evening at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines.

One team will consist of famous former NFL stars — distinguished Dolphins alumni including Super Bowl champions, Heisman Trophy winners and Hall of Famers.

They won’t be the most impressive players on that field.

The other team’s players will be.

You don’t know any of their names, but maybe you should.

B.J. Ganem, from Madison, Wisconsin, was a Marine in Iraq when an improvised explosive device blew up his truck and cost Ganem his lower left leg.

Kelly Smith, who lives in Orlando, was a Navy Corpsman (medical specialist) aiding wounded soldiers in a small village in northern Iraq when a hand grenade tossed into the house blew off her left arm.

Brian Taylor Urruela, from Tampa, was in an Army vehicle struck by two roadside bombs in Baghdad. His commander was killed. Urruela lost his right leg below the knee.

These are three of the players on the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football Team (WWAFT), a collection of military veterans who lost one or more limbs in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan but who refuse to let their catastrophic injuries define or defeat them.

The team formed in 2012 and has a 12-0 record on tour against local NFL alumni teams, with the game Tuesday — the day before Veterans Day — their first time playing in South Florida.

If you go, prepare to be inspired, feel grateful and perhaps be moved to tears.

These war veterans prove you can lose an arm but still salute, and lose a leg but still stand. The team’s credo: “The loss of a limb or limbs does not mean the end of an athletic career.” Most compete wearing prosthetic arms or legs.

We hear the word “veterans” and sometime think first of guys who’ve played in the NFL a long while. But these are the real veterans.

We think of a football game as battle. But the Wounded Warriors know what that is.

Lyle Blackwood, the 1980s Dolphins safety, will compete against the WWAFT on Tuesday for the third time.

“I used to go out on the field with a sprained ankle or a cracked rib or broken nose, but these guys get out on the field with prosthetics, in some cases on both of their legs,” Blackwood, now 64, said by phone from near his Dallas home. “It’s fun to see the life in these guys. It’s so inspirational. It just takes you aback and really humbles you. Makes you appreciate what you have and what they’ve gone through for us as a country.”

WWAFT players who fly in soon enough will be guests of the Miami Dolphins on Monday at the team’s Davie training camp, including lunch with coach Dan Campbell.

Around 40 Miami-chapter NFL alumni are expected to play including former Dolphins stars Mercury Morris, Ricky Williams, Dwight Stephenson, Larry Little, Jim Kiick, Dick Anderson, Kim Bokamper, Tony Nathan, Mark Duper and more. Former Hurricanes great Gino Torretta and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne are expected to quarterback the alumni team.

As players, a lot of these guys were seen as heroes.

On Tuesday, they’ll be on the field playing against men (and at least one woman) who really are.

That lone female, Smith, the Navy Corspman, lost her arm in 2008. She learned of the WWAFT from her local Veterans Affairs office last year. Like all the players, Smith, 45, speaks of the team as therapeutic.

“In the beginning [after the amputation], it was very, very tough. I didn’t do much, get up much or go out,” she said. “Last year when I met the team it showed me that I could do something, that it was time to live my life again. The camaraderie is amazing, being around people that understand. You see all these people focused on living again, on what you can do, not on what you can’t.”

Several local veterans have been invited to play with the WWAFT on Tuesday.

One is Brian Mast, a double-amputee who lost both legs to a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010, and who is now running for Congress in Palm Beach.

Another is Henry Diaz Sr., 61, of Hollywood, who lost a left leg above the knee related to a grenade-fragments injury in Vietnam.

Diaz was asked whether he’s excited to meet so many former Dolphins stars Tuesday night.

“I’ll be more excited to meet the Wounded Warriors players,” he said. “When you introduce a veteran who has lost a limb to things he could do or hasn’t done before, it’s the best medicine you can get.”

Ganem, the Marine who lost his left leg, joined the Wounded Warriors team in 2013 and is now a co-captain. He appeared on Late Show with David Letterman before a game during Super Bowl week in New York. He has helped victims of the Boston Marathon bombing with their rehabilitation — mental as much as physical.

Ganem said it feels good for the veterans to feel the love from crowds they play in front of. To feel appreciated.

“Even though we’re not on the front page of the newspaper or leading the news, there are a lot of issues a lot of us are still trying to work through,” he said. “The games are a good, fun way to remind people of the sacrifices being made, and to show people we’re coping, we’re doing it, and we’re thriving. That can be easily forgotten.”

WWAFT games can be emotional, as patriotic fans show their appreciation.

“It’s the coolest thing,” Ganem said, “when kids are running up to me and asking me for my autograph, and I’m standing next to an NFL rushing leader or a Heisman Trophy winner!”

The Dallas Cowboys claim the title, but it might be time they gave it up.

You see the Wounded Warriors compete on a football field, and it is easy to believe you are watching the real America’s Team.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com

If you go

What: Wounded Warriors Amputee Football Team vs. NFL Alumni of South Florida in a Veterans Day tribute and flag-football challenge.

When: 6-8 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Flanagan High, 12800 Taft St., Pembroke Pines.

Admission: Free to military, students and children; $10 all others, with proceeds benefiting WWAFT and disabled-veteran initiatives in South Florida.

More information: WWAFT.org.

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