Alumni supporting Wounded Warrior athletic pursuits

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They've supported a countless number of causes over the years, but the Bills Alumni Association found a very meaningful one for them a few years ago. In 2011 they made Wounded Warriors, through a local chapter of Disabled Sports USA, their major recipient of funds raised.

"We understand the difficulty that these American servicemen and servicewomen have when they return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and we want to do our part to demonstrate to these heroes how much we value and support what they have done for us and our country," said Alumni President Booker Edgerson.

For a lot of Buffalo's retired players military causes are held especially close. With many of them having played during the Vietnam era, they were exposed to the ravages of war on a daily basis on the nightly news. Several of them were also in the National Guard during their playing careers.

"We had been in the National Guard during the Vietnam war," said Edgerson. "I spent six years in the National Guard and I'm quite sure that was the same amount of time that everyone spent in it too. Will Fowler became a Captain in the National Guard. He was in for 12 to 15 years. There was an association to the military for us. I always said we were drugstore soldiers. We were never in a war, but that was our connection."

Fellow Bills alumnus Ed Rutkowski, who was in the Air Force ROTC program while in college, was the first to make contact with the local Western New York chapter of Disabled Sports USA in Rochester back in 2005 when that office had just opened.

"Right away we had 14 wounded warriors that wanted to come up to Rochester for the Outrigger Canoe sprint races," said Jan Whitaker, President of the Cape Ability Outrigger Ohana chapter. "Most of them were from Walter Reed and we had no funds in our treasury as of yet and their travel party numbered 28. So we were in need of funding right away."

When wounded warriors are looking for sports opportunities they come to Disabled Sports USA chapters as reputable organizations capable of providing quality programs for them.

The Bills alumni helped to provide funding for the Rochester canoeing event and every year since to help disabled veterans return to athletic pursuits and rebuild their lives through sports.

In addition to providing funding for the competitions the Bills alumni took it a step further.

"Not only did we want to make sure they had the proper means to prepare for that event, we arranged for them to come to Niagara Falls and ride on all the attractions. We also hosted a dinner for them at Niagara Falls State Park."

Interacting with former professional athletes like the Bills alumni goes a long way with the vets each and every year.

"Many of them were athletic before their injuries," said Whitaker. "When you experience devastating physical injuries that causes disfigurement to your body it's very meaningful for the wounded warriors to be recognized by the Bills alumni as fellow athletes. Yes, it's a different sports medium, but they want to be recognized as athletes. To have the Bills alumni recognize them as such really boosts their morale."

The Bills alumni had been trying to cap the weekend with an invitation to the Bills home opener, but the date of their athletic events in Rochester never lined up with the Bills schedule until 2009.

"We had them come in and they participated in the tailgate party before the Bills game," Rutkowski said. "We also took them down on the field before the game. There were about eight of them it was very moving because while we were down there the fans in the stands recognized them in their dress blues and they stood up and applauded and cheered. Then during the game in the fourth quarter they were introduced on the scoreboard and they got a rousing ovation. To a person they said that was the most memorable weekend of their lifetime. They said they've never been treated the way they were treated in Buffalo."

With the outrigger canoeing competition in Rochester scheduled for Sept. 17, the wounded warriors that are participating will again be invited by Bills alumni for their annual dinner in Niagara Falls along with an invitation to the Bills home opener against Oakland.

"Hopefully it can all come to fruition again," said Whitaker. "And the veterans can have another memorable weekend."

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