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Warriors from two different battlefields

Courtesy: UTSA Athletics Communications
Release: 10/25/2010
Courtesy UTSA Athletics Communications
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by Ryan Brown, student assistant

SAN ANTONIO — Army Sergeant Joel Tavera, a North Carolina native and part of the Wounded Warriors Project, visited the UTSA Football scrimmage last Wednesday to meet with head coach Larry Coker and the Roadrunners.

As the players suited up to prepare for battle in their fourth intra-squad scrimmage, little did they know they would be greeted by a true warrior from another type of battlefield.

Sgt. Tavera's story of inspiration and teamwork was expressed to the players and staff after the workout and served as an example of unsurpassable spirit and perseverance.

The sounds of hard hitting and tough coaching brought back fond high school memories to the 23-year-old.

“It was nice to be back on a football field because I played linebacker in high school and loved it,” Tavera said. “I am a big fan of Coach Coker from his coaching days at Miami. He did a great job while he was there and I know he'll do great things here at UTSA.”

Sgt. Tavera’s road to San Antonio was anything but pleasant. He was deployed to Iraq in Fall 2007 and, a few months later, the Humvee he was in which he was patrolling was attacked by five rocket-propelled grenades that killed three men and left him with serious head trauma and the loss of his right leg, four fingers and sight in both eyes, as well as burns to 60 percent of his body. He was evacuated to Germany and later to the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) here in San Antonio.

After being treated in Miami for several months, Joel returned back to BAMC last spring for more skin grafts.

Army Captain Adrian Johnson, who also attended the scrimmage, described how Sgt. Tavera’s road to recovery demonstrates fighting through adversity and how it relates to a team whose athletes are in the same age bracket.

“We are all called to a greater purpose as a soldier and Joel set the example of what leadership is all about,” Capt. Johnson said. “Whether you're a sergeant or a football captain, you are called to press through and be the example to those around you because you never know who is watching you whenever you are performing.”

Air Force Captain Kevin Lombardo, one of the first responders that came to Sgt. Tavera’s rescue when the grenades hit his truck two-and-a-half years ago, brought his son to the scrimmage and shared some experience of leadership with the Roadrunners.

“I've been to Iraq four times in different capacities and, one time, I was in charge of 210 people,” Capt. Lombardo said. “When you’re a part of a team, you have to know who everyone is and how they fit into the giant scheme of things. It’s the same thing in the military. It doesn't matter whether it's three in the morning and you have unfortunate hostilities going on or when the fourth quarter comes. You're tired, but you still have to be ready to put up a fight.”

Both the Tavera family and Lombardo watched the young warrior fight back during the rehabilitation process for many months, a condition doctors told them was the second-worst of any surviving military member in Iraq.

Lombardo finally met the Tavera family when the sergeant was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Florida and, after years of an unbroken bond, he told the team never take life for granted.

“There's airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines that are the same age as some of these athletes that right now are in harm's way and can’t call a timeout,” Lombardo said. “To be able to play college football and go to college is something that these student-athletes should not take for granted.”

Sgt. Tavera plans to return home to North Carolina soon and to college next year.

As he made his way to the field and talked to the team, he told the players about the importance of perseverance and teamwork, as well as giving them inspiration that should provide motivation until the program’s first game a year from now.

“With most guys in the military, just like firefighters and policeman, it's all a brotherhood,” Sgt. Tavera said. “When you're on a team, you're a brotherhood and it’s about one team working together to get the mission done. As long as you don't give up, you can do it.”

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