Ben Kotwica's military training has prepared him to take on everything that June and July have thrown at him so far.
For instance, right now the Jets' assistant special teams coach is in Afghanistan as part of the USO Coaches Tour arranged through the NFL. Such a trip could be a little intimidating for your average pro assistant — but Kotwica's background as a decorated second lieutenant and an attack helicopter platoon leader in support of the 82nd Airborne Division with service in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Korea and Iraq had him hardly batting an eye over this assignment.
"A couple of months ago the NFL reached out and asked, 'Would you be interested in this opportunity?' " Kotwica told newyorkjets.com from half a world away. "I talked it over with my wife, who has experience in the military as well. I wanted to make sure she was comfortable with it, and she was.
"So to me this was a no-brainer. We were going to make this happen. I was very grateful for the opportunity and felt this was a privilege I couldn't pass up. And it's been great so far. It's really been good."
The NFL and the USO have almost a half-century history of organizing overseas morale-building visits to the troops. A number of big-name players and commissioner Roger Goodell have traveled to locales such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Japan, Korea and Somalia. This is the third annual NFL-USO Coaches Tour, and accompanying Kotwica are former Jets head coach Eric Mangini, ex-Steelers skipper Bill Cowher and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier.
In fact, Mangini, who hired Kotwica out of the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School to join the Jets and assist Mike Westhoff with the special teams in 2007, placed the call Monday to North Jersey on his cellphone. Kotwica then took the phone and described the soldiers' welcome for this year's NFL-based traveling crew.
Tour Brings Back Memories
"The reception has been outstanding," said Coach K. "My experience here was in the Iraqi theater of operations in 2004 and early 2005, so the location is different. But the soldiers, I haven't seen any less moral dedication than I saw back then — it's pretty high.
"And I think they're thankful we're there and appreciate us coming out. I don't think it equals the level of appreciation we have for what the men and women in uniform do for us, the sacrifices they make on a daily basis. When you're away from it for a while, time makes those memories dissipate a little bit. But over the last 24 hours, the look in the soldiers' eyes brings back the passion and dedication and sacrifice that I saw in the soldiers I used to work with."
Kotwica said the first reception came when they landed in Kuwait, from military and civilian personnel who work together in that part of the country. The first stops on the tour enabled the coaches to meet with soldiers and some of the chain of command, as well as to visit a hospital to interact with wounded soldiers and the support staff there.
"It's just real neat to meet everyone," he said. "You sit back and think about the circumstances they're under, the very demanding, unforgiving environment — temperatures over 100 degrees, winds blowing over 25 miles an hour, the sand blowing, the rough terrain. Yet they attack their jobs with the enthusiasm and vigor of young kids."
Which in many cases is exactly what they are.
Speaking of which, we mentioned June as another test for Kotwica, but again his military training pulled him through with flying colors. That was for the five-week hitch as the Jets' special teams coordinator while Westhoff rehabbed from his 10th leg surgery and got himself closer to return to coaching at the Jets training camp in Cortland, N.Y., at the end of this month.
Different Kind of Coaching Experience
"First off, every day has been a learning laboratory for the past five years under Mike," he said, "not only X's-and-O's-wise but how you deal with players, how you handle the room. That experience, you can't replace that. I'm grateful for the foundation that Mike helped set in preparing for me to do that.
"Secondly, with Rex Ryan and the organization, it was a pretty seamless transition. When Mike went down with his injury, Rex and I talked for a short period of time. I was grateful Rex had the confidence in me to be able to handle that for that period of time, which ended up being just over a month, 12 OTAs, three minicamp practices."
The most daunting part could have been Kotwica, 37, starting his sixth year of NFL coaching, thinking about how he could replace the pigskin gravitas of Westhoff, 64, who has three decades of coaching special teams in the pros.
"When your in a defensive or offensive meeting, you might be there with 35 players but with six or seven other coaches," he said. "On special teams, it's just me and Mike, and when I went up there last month, there were no other assistants so it was me and 50 other guys all with their eyes on you. That's a little different.
"But I think my experience in the military commanding troops, being in combat environments, being in front of a group to present material and command a room, it's all something I'm familiar with and was able to do. So it went well. I don't feel we stepped back or stayed the same. I actually feel we got better. So it was a positive experience for me and I think we'll just build on that as we enter training camp and try to keep improving."
We'll visit one more time with Ben Kotwica in the Persian Gulf later this week, when we plan to get some of the highlights from his time on the 2012 NFL-USO Coaches Tour.