When the St. Louis Rams silenced the Seattle Seahawks for their second victory of the season, the team overcame various challenges and climbed its way out of an early hole in order to seal the win. For Head Coach Jeff Fisher, the win was made a little more special due to a group of visitors with whom he has shared and overcome a different set of challenges.
In May 2011, Fisher was part of a team that climbed more than 19,000 feet to reach the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Joining Fisher on the journey were four members of the Wounded Warrior Project: Specialist Bryan Wagner, Marine Reservist Nancy Schiliro, Sergeant Mike Wilson and Jonathan Sullivan, Wounded Warrior Project executive vice president of economic empowerment and education. In addition, Chad Lewis, a former Rams tight end and member of the 1999 Super Bowl Championship team, and former New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi also made the trek.
Sullivan said the goal of the climb was to use the celebrity power of the NFL to draw attention to Wounded Warrior Project and the organization’s mission to honor and empower wounded warriors.
“There were some league issues we had to work around, mainly not being able to involve current players,” he said. “So the league office sent out an email to former players and coaches, and within minutes of sending it out, Coach Fisher responded and said he was in.”
From there, a group of warriors were selected who accurately represented those served by the Wounded Warriors Project. Wagner had his right leg amputated below the knee after getting caught in an explosion; Schiliro lost her right eye after contracting an infection as the result of a mortar round going off; and Wilson, a Purple Heart recipient, suffered a traumatic brain injury after the truck in which he was traveling was hit with an improvised explosive device. The Wounded Warrior Project has supported the members, and helped them cope with their various injuries. But the opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro served as an exclamation point, and was meant to provide inspiration to others.
“It was good for our fellow warriors who had been hurt to see us doing that climb” Wilson said. “Maybe it would give them a little bit of drive to overcome their own obstacles.”
The team called themselves Team Hard Target due to the fact that the warriors had been injured in battle but escaped a graver fate. In addition, they decided to dedicate their climb to those soldiers killed in action. So Team Hard Target adopted a slogan: “19K for the KIA.”
In the months leading up to the climb, the group trained at IMG Academy, the location where many college football players train for the NFL Combine. In addition, they hiked Quandary Peak, a mountain just over 14,000 feet, located outside of Breckenridge, Colo. Due to other engagements, Fisher trained on his own. He also traveled to Colorado, where he engaged in hiking, biking and other training methods.
Besides conference calls, the group had not met Fisher until they departed New York for Tanzania. The team members were not quite sure at first how to approach Fisher. But he quickly made them feel at ease.
"When we first got there, I went up and said ‘Hey Coach’ and introduced myself,” Sullivan said. “And he stopped me right there and said, ‘Out here it’s just Jeff."
Wilson said that Fisher stayed fairly quiet the first few days of the trip.
“My first impression was that he’s a really quiet guy, but everything he says, you make sure you pay close attention to,” Wilson said. “He’s not a man of extended words, but the words he does give, you listen.”
The group planned the climb so it would take them five days to reach the summit and then they would descend the mountain in two days. On the fourth day of the hike up, morale was running low. That is when Sullivan said Fisher stepped into his familiar role as coach and motivator.
“We were at 15,000 feet, on rocky terrain, it was raining and we were all miserable. We just learned that one of the warriors was not going to be able to continue the climb,” Sullivan said. “That’s when Coach Fisher delivered an inspirational speech to the group. At the conclusion of the talk, he handed out luggage tags with 19K written on them and said, ‘Let this be your ticket to our reunion every year.’ It was a really powerful moment for all of us.”
“It was one of those talks that help you have the momentum and drive to get up the mountain,” Wilson said.
According to Sullivan, that talk was just one of the moments in which Fisher stepped up and assumed the coach’s role. On the final day of the ascent, Schiliro’s socks were soaked, making it a torturous trek to the summit. But there was Fisher, offering an extra pair of socks to his team member.
“Nancy was having a tough time and kept being stubborn when Jeff offered her an extra pair of socks,” Sullivan said. “Finally Bruschi ordered her to sit, like you’d expect a middle linebacker to do, and he and Coach removed her boots , and Coach gave her the extra pair of socks. We didn’t hear another complaint out of her the whole way up.”
Team Hard Target reached the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro shortly thereafter, and journeyed to the top together. That sense of camaraderie has continued even today.
Wilson said the team members still exchange emails and keep in touch regularly. But this past weekend was the first time they had been reunited since shortly after the climb. On Saturday, the group ventured to Busch Stadium to take in the Cardinals game. Following the game Fisher hosted a private reception for the group. And on Sunday, the warriors were Fisher’s guests at the Rams game, and were honored during the game.
“It was great because it brings recognition to a great organization that supports a lot of wounded guys and gals coming back that need the help, not only with amputations but with things you can’t see – mental health, traumatic brain injuries,” Wilson said. “There are thousands of people coming back with those. So to get the recognition out there and make people aware was great. And the fact that (Coach Fisher) facilitated it was awesome.”
During an inspirational journey, Fisher made a profound impact on a group of individuals working to overcome their own obstacles.
“He’s a straight shooter – constant motivator and constantly pushing up that mountain,” Wilson said. “He’s just one of those solid dudes who’s going to get you through tough times.”
For more information on how you can support Wounded Warrior Project, please visit www.WoundedWarriorProject.org