JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (WDRB) – Ask any University of Louisville football player – or any college football player, for that matter – what comes to mind when they hear the phrase, “Call of Duty,” and most would tell you a video game.

That’s why it was a neat thing on Thursday when the Cardinals, in Jacksonville for the TaxSlayer Bowl, visited Naval Station Mayport, just outside of Jacksonville along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet. It is the third-largest concentration of Naval surface vessels in the U.S.

The men and women U of L’s players met aboard the destroyer USS Farragut and amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima represent those who have heeded the real call of duty.

I don’t know what the players expected. They arrived on the base joking around, like college kids do. They kidded with each other as they boarded the vessels. But somewhere in the midst of the tour of the Farragut, guys began to show a real interest in what they were looking at, and the sailors who operate these vast machines.

At one point on the mess deck, wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick started asking questions about the weapons systems on board the Farragut, a guided missile destroyer that has seen active engagements as part of a counter-piracy task force in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

As you might expect, the players enjoyed a hands-on session with some of the weaponry on board the destroyer. But they also left with a greater appreciation for life on a warship, the steep ladder climbs (and descents), the narrow doors and hatches, barely bigger than some offensive linemen.

Meanwhile, over on the Iwo Jima, players had a similar experience. In the hull of that ship is the Medal of Honor Citation of Marine Corps private first class Jack Lucas. He was 17 years old when, in a close fight between himself and three other Marines with 11 Japanese soldiers across two trenches in Iwo Jima, he saw two hand grenades thrown into his trench and instantly, with no hesitation, threw himself on one grenade while scrambling to pull the other under his body. The grenade he landed on did not explode. The other did, wounding him severely. He saved the lives of the three Marines who were fighting alongside. And he was made the youngest serviceman in World War II to win the Medal of Honor. Last year, the Department of Defense announced that a new destroyer would bear his name.

It was a different time. When they laid the keel for this vessel, Lucas was there, in 1997, to place his Citation in the keel personally.

The Iwo Jima has a long record of engagement, including in Operation Enduring Freedom and various humanitarian efforts, including as the flagship for President George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina Joint Task Force.

Those who serve aboard the amphibious assault ship adopt the motto, “Uncommon Valor.”  

For these college football players, many of whom have never set foot on a Naval ship or even considered the role of such things in the grand scheme of this nation, trips like this are more than just a photo op. If, even for a minute, while putting on firefighting gear in a lower deck or imagining long months of living in such cramped quarters, they can consider how vast an enterprise our freedom is, the exercise is very much worthwhile.

Devante Peete is a 6-foot-6 wide receiver who found himself hunched over for a good bit of the tour. He also found himself with a new appreciation for the work being done by the sailors and officers he encountered. Some are no older than the Cardinals’ players, but are performing jobs that can have life-and-death consequences.

“I’m a ‘Call of Duty’ freak,” Peete said. “But I’ve never been a part of anything like this. It’s impressive to see.”

There were some impressed people on the other side of things, too. While the Cardinals were having their meal, Jaymes Waite, logistics specialist first class and Independence, Ky., native, wandered in to meet Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“I’m a Kentucky basketball fan,” Waite admitted, “but I love watching Louisville football and Lamar Jackson. I was proud of him winning the Heisman, and appreciated getting to meet him today.”

Jackson shook his hand and thanked him for his service, wrapped his arm around him to pose for a picture, signed a page in Waite’s notebook.

Just another bowl-week activity, sure. But more than a theme park visit or driving go-carts or hitting golf balls, this is the kind of experience that won’t be forgotten when the next new venture comes along. And it shouldn’t.

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