INDIANAPOLIS – They had video games in the house. His older brother played. His brother’s buddy, a nice kid named Matt. They played Call of Duty. They were soldiers, firing machine guns.
The kid, the younger brother, he watched their war games. And then one day he watched when his brother’s buddy, that nice kid named Matt, enlisted in the actual U.S. Army. Matt went off to Afghanistan.
Matt came home sooner than planned. He was discharged early and returned to Plum, Penn., with a souvenir from the Middle East: shrapnel in his right leg. Doctors removed what they could, but the whole leg was shot up. Metal in there from knee to hip. When the weather turned in Plum, well, Matt was in pain.
The teenager was staggered by the concept of war becoming a reality. Americans were going overseas to fire real weapons, and to be fired at in return. Americans like Matt, they were coming back injured. Some weren’t coming back at all.
The teenager, a kicker with a pretty strong leg on the Plum High football team, remembers thinking: Life isn’t a video game.
Pat McAfee was 16.
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Erich Orrick is considering my question. While he thinks about it, meet Erich: He’s the vice president of Wish For Our Heroes, a nonprofit answering the wishes of U.S. military members in need. What I asked Orrick: How many of your organization’s wishes has Pat McAfee personally answered?
And now he’s ready to answer.
“Well, Pat is literally the biggest volunteer in the state of Indiana,” Orrick says. “I’d say … maybe 100?”
Orrick delivers his answer in question form because he’s not sure. McAfee has become such a supporter, he streamlined the process by giving Orrick the electronic access code to his home. Because there are days when McAfee wants to meet a veteran’s wish, but he’s out of town. He plays for the Indianapolis Colts, you know, and they travel quite a bit. So Orrick will go into McAfee’s garage to get whatever donation McAfee put in there.
“Well, now I don’t know,” Orrick says, revisiting the topic of wishes personally handled by McAfee. “I’d say maybe 150 wishes? Gosh, it’s hard to … I guess 200 wishes, maybe?”
Whatever the number, Orrick is referring only to the individual wishes: A home makeover for a disabled veteran. A mortgage payment. A new air-conditioner for a severely burned veteran trying to support his wife, kids and parents on his disability check.
That doesn’t count an event such as the one Friday at the Biltwell Event Center, where McAfee will host Holiday For Our Heroes, a fundraiser to assist the families of 100 Indiana veterans. The 600 general admission tickets for the event, where McAfee will perform standup comedy, are $50. Half the tickets had been sold when McAfee told Orrick he wanted to buy the other 300.
“Pat said, ‘Let’s bring my people in,’” Orrick says. “And his people are military people. So he just put up $15,000 of his money to get ‘his people’ into the show. He does that sort of thing all the time.”
McAfee is a one-man force of nature for U.S. veterans, and he’s the Colts nominee for the NFL’s 2016 Salute to Service Award, given to a player for his support of U.S. service members. McAfee was a finalist in 2015, when the award went to Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson.
If McAfee doesn’t win this year, God bless America. What a country we live in, if there are professional athletes — if there is anybody — doing more for veterans than Pat McAfee.
The other day I asked McAfee why he does it. He told me about his brother’s friend from Plum, the nice kid named Matt. He told me about his friend here in Indianapolis, Orrick, a disabled veteran who spent 21 years in the U.S. Army and retired with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. McAfee met Orrick four years ago at an Indianapolis Indians game. McAfee was there to punt footballs to children of veterans. Orrick was there to tell the story of Wish For Our Heroes. First, he told it to McAfee.
“I want to help you guys out,” McAfee told Orrick years ago. “If you run into a situation where someone’s in need and money can help, just give me a call and I’ll be that person.”
This is what McAfee told me the other day:
“These are actual superheroes signing up to take on the world’s enemies,” he said. “When you see one of your friends put himself in the line of fire just because he wants to help our country, it opened my eyes. These people are selfless and heroic.
“Like, Erich. He’s just a bad-ass dude. Talk about a real (expletive) hero. He’d be in a war right now if he could be, fighting for our country. And what am I doing? I’m kicking balls.”
He’s doing a little bit more than that.
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There was the lunch at Buca di Beppo in Greenwood, when 10 military families were given the chance to eat with the Colts punter. When it was over, McAfee paid the check and gave a surprise tip — $1,000 to each family.
You never heard that story. Orrick told me that one.
There was the active military member with a wife and seven children whose house burned down. McAfee gave them a $10,000 shopping spree at Greenwood Park Mall for clothes, stuffed animals, whatever they needed. Then he put them into a hotel.
You never heard that story. Orrick told me.
There was the tour of Indianapolis, Orrick and McAfee driving to the homes of 12 military families to give each a check for $2,000. Just because. One man, this older veteran, came out of his house in anger. He didn’t ask for help, and he didn’t need anyone’s help. McAfee pulled him aside, whispered some words to him, and soon the big man was crying. And hugging McAfee. And accepting the $2,000, because as it turns out he was close to being evicted.
You never heard that story, either.
So many stories. No room to get to them, and I’m being serious here. I have 10 more stories like those. No, 20 more stories. Now I’m being like Erich Orrick, arguing with myself about the impact of Pat McAfee. Because it’s so big.
Orrick figures McAfee has donated at least $250,000 to Wish For Our Heroes, and raised at least that much by putting on comedy shows and other fundraisers and starting a GoFundMe page and asking Colts fans on Twitter try to match his donation of $50,000 to the Indianapolis Veterans Affairs Domiciliary for homeless veterans.
Alll of that is separate from the Pat McAfee Foundation, which he founded in 2012 to give scholarships to the children of U.S. military. In four years the foundation has provided $250,000 in scholarships. And then there’s Shirts For America, which raises money for military families. McAfee created that company in May to sponsor Conor Daly in the 2016 Indianapolis 500.
It’s symbolic stuff, too, like the cleats he wore for the 2016 season-opener on Sept. 11. They were custom-painted — including an American flag and 9-11 and never forget — by Nick McNulty of Ink Therapy Tattoo in Plainfield. And next time you attend a Colts game, watch the national anthem, when veterans hold the giant U.S. flag covering the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. McAfee chases down as many veterans as he can afterward, just to smack them on the rear end and bark a word of thanks.
Why, Pat? That’s what I kept asking him. Why do you do so much?
“The people who sign up for the military, and their families, are so selfless,” he said. “They step up for their country when others shy away. Like me — I’m not tough. I’m just not tough enough to do it. But they do it, and it hits you, as a human with a heart.”
Tell me about that older guy, Pat. The veteran who was so proud he didn’t want anybody’s help. He changed his mind after you talked to him. What did you tell him?
“Ah, man,” McAfee says. “I just explained, ‘Listen man, everything you’ve done for our country, this is the least we can do. Please. Please.’ He got tears in his eyes and accepted, and that was the moment. That’s fulfillment. That’s why you’re in the NFL. Look, I’m doing what anyone would do. I just have the ability to help a few more people.”
Heroes. They come in different forms.