Alaska, although a beautiful place, can scare many away with its sub-zero temperatures and threatening wind chills. But D'Brickashaw Ferguson, the New York Jets starting left tackle, jumped at the opportunity to visit Fort Wainwright with five other NFL players.
The group included four Packers - T Kevin Barry, RB Noah Herron, K Dave Rayner & OL Josh Bourke – and Texans TE Ben Steele. Ferguson met Barry in Seattle and they flew together to Fairbanks, Alaska.
"As soon as we stepped off the plane in Alaska, it was 20-30 degrees below zero. That was a shock to the system," Ferguson said. "I had my hat and my gloves, but I might as well have been wearing nothing. It was even hard to breathe."
After catching his breath, Ferguson met up with the other players and moved to Fort Wainwright. The 23-year-old Ferguson, a Freeport, Long Island native, spoke to a number of soldiers who had just returned from the war in Iraq.
"Some people went deeper than others about the war, but nobody really went into grave detail. I guess you have to leave that back there and separate it because these soldiers still have families and children," he said. "Before this experience, you watch television and listen to the media talk about the war in Iraq. Then you go out there and meet the people who are actually fighting there and it gives you a different perspective."
There are similarities between life at the base and life in the outside world. But Ferguson says the standard is different.
"It is a community not too unlike what you would see in civilian life. You have families, you have churches, you have stores, you have gyms… there are hospitals," he said in a recent interview with newyorkjets.com. "It is just a very structured community run by rules and regulations and a different standard. There are rules and protocol for everything you do."
The NFL contingent taught some of their rules and techniques to the children on the base. Ferguson, who was the fourth overall selection in the 2006 NFL Draft out of Virginia, started every game for the Jets in '06.
"We held a football clinic geared more towards the younger kids. We broke it up with offensive linemen, tight ends, running backs and kickers," he said. "We tried to run them in the ground and work on some technique."
It was Ferguson who was run into the ground when he participated in PT – Physical Training – with the soldiers. In fact, most of the professional athletes didn't breeze through the various exercises.
"We ran like 3-4 miles, and I think I got crushed on the third mile. They split us all up, so different companies did different things," Ferguson said. "One player had a 30-70 pound pack strapped to his body and had to walk/hike for four or five miles. He got crushed. Other dudes did different repetitions of push-ups and sit-ups and they got crushed. The majority of us got crushed."
But a pack of animals did most of the work when Ferguson went dog-sledding. Two women, who participated in the Iditarod, used 10 pups to pull the Jets' 6'6", 312-pound lineman.
"Dog-sledding was sweet. The trail was like two miles, but it seemed longer because you go down and come back," Ferguson said. "We had about 10 dogs strapped up and two sleds. I was in the front sled and the leader – the person who gave the commands -was in the back. It's not like you stand there and they pull you. When you turn, you have to steer."
Ferguson didn't steer clear of new experiences. He ate moose for the first time, spotted reindeer, posed for photos with 10-foot bears, and even jumped in a Black Hawk simulator.
"Although we couldn't do the complete motion, the simulator was very capable. It was almost like 100 percent what a real helicopter could do," Ferguson said. "Our instructor said I did pretty well. I landed it and didn't crash. When I was growing up, before sports, I really wanted to be an air force pilot and then I wanted to be astronaut. But I got too tall and things changed."
Despite the many enjoyable moments during the trip, Ferguson also thought about the life and death consequences of war.
"Something stood out for me while I was there. As cool as I thought some of the weapons were like the trucks and helicopters, it was almost like the child playing with the GI Joe toy but accelerated 20 years," he said. "From a soldier's perspective, these were weapons used to secure land and kill. If I don't put myself in their shoes, then I'm fine. But when I put myself in their shoes, I don't have any joy. People die in war."
There are mixed emotions at Fort Wainwright. Soldiers are happy to be back safely with their loved ones, but they still mourn the people lost overseas.
"I would say there is a feeling of relief from the troops I met. They come home and no longer are in war. They get to spend time with their families and friends," Ferguson said. "There is also a real element of sadness because of all the people they have lost. When we had a chance to go to the Chaplain services, there were moments of silence for those who were lost. This was not seeing a name on television. This is like I am talking to you now, but you go to war and don't come back. This is not television. This is real."
Ferguson, a member of a playoff unit last season, says the military is the ultimate team.
"I am amazed by everything. As hard as they train and the friendships they develop, they know somebody might lose their life. Despite all of it, they still go there," he said. "People lose limbs. There is nothing more real than war. As many jobs and as many positions there are in the army, it's all to help one cause. All jobs help because everything relates to another person. It is all a team effort."