?The atmosphere was just breathtaking?: A Wounded Warrior?s night on the flag football field
You would think losing a limb limits a person’s mobility. In the case of Steve DuFrame of Merrill, Wis., as well as most amputees, it’s true that it does. So it’s more than ironic that the loss of his right leg moved DuFrame closer to one of his childhood pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
The Green Bay Packers teamed up with a Wounded Warrior amputees team for a flag football game at St. Norbert College’s Schneider Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 10, and DuFrame was given a chance to participate with Packers alumni including Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, Don Beebe, Ahman Green, Chris Jacke, Bill Schroeder, Harry Sydney and Randy Wright.
“To us guys that grew up watching the Packers, it was like a dream come true to play with the pros,” DuFrame said. “I dreamt of playing football – with the Packers, of course – since I was in kindergarten.”
The game was open not only to those injured in the line of duty, but members of the military who later suffered a debilitating injury outside of service. In DuFrame’s case, he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident long after returning from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, where he was stationed in the latter stages of the Vietnam War.
“The key thing was they totally respected the idea that we served our country,” DuFrame said. “Some of our accidents didn’t happen then, but they treated us the same. Another guy was a double amputee with his legs clipped off by a garbage truck. He had a pretty good arm on him. They accepted us all, as is.
“There were 16 to 20 of us and we immediately got together. The camaraderie in the military is pretty tight. Even though one may be from the Marine Corps and another from the Army or Navy, it doesn’t matter.”
Right from the start, DuFrame was impressed by the reception he and the other Wounded Warriors received from the invested crowd all night.
“It was a very big honor to be there and it meant a lot to us,” DuFrame said. “A lot of people asked us for an autograph. One lady said, ‘I love the Packers, but your autograph means a lot to us, too.’ I can’t stress enough that everyone was so nice to us. (The Packers players) are people, too, even though we look up to them.
“Before the game started, they played our Star Spangled Banner and it kind of gave me chills up and down my spine. When it was done, one guy hollered out, ‘Are you ready for some football?’ Knowing the whole crowd supports us, as well as those overseas, was awesome. The whole stands were filled. My guess is there must have been between two and four thousand fans there. The atmosphere was just breathtaking.”
Once the game started, the essence of the sport stirred up everyone’s competitive juices.
“All the guys I teamed up with, it was just awesome to be with them,” DuFrame said. “It was such a great atmosphere and so fun to do. I tagged behind because I can’t run too fast right now and they threw one my way. Austin (DuFrame’s 11-year-old son) saw me catch the pass and get the first down.
“I almost had an interception. I told them, ‘If I didn’t have this (prosthesis), I would have had that one.’ Although then I wouldn’t have been playing. But if I didn’t, I told Don Beebe I would give him a run for his money. I was a sprinter in high school and ran 9.8 seconds in the 100-yard dash. But he was one of the fastest guys in the NFL, so maybe not.”
Because of his injury, DuFrame adjusted how and where he played on the field in order to maximize his effectiveness.
“I played on the right side most of the time, because if I’m on the other side I can’t turn as quickly,” DuFrame said. “When a guy in a wheelchair would come around, we would all block for him. We were having so much fun we wanted to keep going. One guy said we’ll probably play until we start losing some more limbs. Some of the humor was pretty funny.”
DuFrame hopes an upcoming surgery can get him physically closer to where he once was. He is an above-the-knee amputee with a prosthetic right leg.
“I told them, ‘Wait until I get my new knee. I’ll be back and I’ll really fly,’” DuFrame said. “The below-the-knee amputees, like the guy in the Olympics (South African Oscar Pistorius), can run a lot faster than the above-the-knee amputees.”
Many of the Wounded Warriors, like DuFrame, have dealt with a mountain of pain and recovery.
“After my motorcycle accident, I wasn’t just missing a leg,” DuFrame said. “I was missing half my lat (muscle) and back. I’ve had 12 surgeries so I can relate to some of the other guys. One guy has had 30 surgeries and still has more to go yet.”
When thinking of the physical battles he’s facing, DuFrame draws perspective by thinking of his son, Austin.
“I don’t have any time to think about my disability,” he said. “I have to take care of him.”
Although the game was billed as former Packers versus the Wounded Warriors, the team lines blurred with fraternization as the night went on. Wide receiver Bill Schroeder starred for the Wounded Warriors from the start.
“Our first play was a bomb to Schroeder, so that was awesome,” DuFrame said. “Schroeder started for us and Beebe switched over later.”
The game was played sandlot-style with no huddle, somewhat limiting the opportunity for both groups to interact with their respective heroes. But they grabbed moments when they could.
“Bill (Schroeder) and I were talking when the boys (Austin and friend Latrelle Cooper) came up,” DuFrame said. “Austin said his goal is to someday play in the NFL and Bill told his son, ‘You know, you may be teammates someday.’”
DuFrame was able to pose for some photos and had the honor of sitting between Robinson, the recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee and Kramer, perhaps the most famous non-inductee.
“I had a conversation with Jerry Kramer,” DuFrame said. “I told him, ‘I watched the Ice Bowl, but I was just a kid.’ Then he said, ‘I was just a kid, too.’ Both Jerry Kramer and Dave Robinson were so gracious and nice.”
Along with meeting former Packers, the game offered DuFrame a chance reunion with an old friend.
“A childhood friend of mine (Mike Clark of Milwaukee) that I hadn’t seen since 1970 came up with his wife,” DuFrame said. “His brother, Warren, was in football with me and we were classmates, and we’ve kept in contact.”
Clark complemented DuFrame, who now heads up a non-profit gym on Merrill’s westside, Merrill Health and Fitness, noting the good shape he was in. DuFrame responded, “I could fix you right up.”
“I invited the other (Wounded Warrior) guys, if you’re ever in the (Merrill) area, you’re welcome to stop in for a workout,” DuFrame said. “We’re old school. I remember when (Merrill Foto News editor) Collin (Lueck) stopped in and mentioned that our weight room looked like one Rocky Balboa would feel comfortable in.”
The event is already embedded in DuFrame’s memory. And as a whole it was a big hit. There was a free autograph session along with a drawing for all-expenses-paid airfare and tickets to the Packers’ season-opener in San Francisco against the 49ers on Sept. 8. The stands stayed packed and cheered the entire night. All proceeds were given to the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team disability, advocacy and support group.
“We all said, ‘Next year,’” DuFrame said, he and his Wounded Warrior teammates making prospective plans for another night of football. “It turned out better than they expected. They said they want to make it an annual event. I told them I would do it as long as I can.”
Kelly O’Day is the sports editor for the Merrill Foto News.