NEW YORK (Dec. 21, 2016) – Dan Webb and Mike Koziak had both been to New York City before, but never for an event like the one they were attending. They came this time as honored guests – of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) and of the University of Michigan Wolverines basketball team. Both warriors were named honorary captains of the team and recognized in front of thousands of cheering fans at the 2016 2K Classic, a basketball game that benefits WWP. They spent about a week in the players’ shoes, and their final destination was center court at Madison Square Garden.
Mike, a Marine Corps veteran of six years, came from a big family that is passionate about football. His brother coaches the local high school team, where Mike helps with color commentary at the games.
“Even though we’re a football family, I still watch a lot of college basketball. That’s what I love about college – it’s pure competition,” Mike said. “I never played college sports, so having a chance to see how it worked behind the scenes and be immersed in that world was a great opportunity. It’s easy to forget that they’re students too, with how rigorous their schedules can be.”
Dan, who served in the Army for eight years, is an avid Michigan fan and has great respect for the team’s coach.
“I bleed Michigan Blue,” Dan explained. “John Beilein has done amazing things at that school, and I always thought it would be pretty cool to meet him.”
After WWP staff gave Mike and Dan confirmation that they had been chosen to participate in this year’s 2K Classic, the two warriors were off to Ann Arbor. The mood that greeted them was an unexpected one.
“We arrived and met with the coaches, assistant coaches, and other complex staff,” Dan said. “Then up comes Coach Beilein. Keep in mind, this is an hour before the first exhibition game, and he’s got 100 things to do and get ready for. He took 30 minutes to chat with us, despite how busy he was. He asked us all the questions; we couldn’t get one in edge-wise. He was so interested in who we were.”
It’s a sentiment that greatly impressed Mike, who echoed Dan’s comments.
“What blew me away was his hands-on nature,” Mike said. “I expected us to be flies on the wall – we would stay out of the way, stay quiet, and get to observe what we saw. He came up right away, and said ‘you’re the Marine right? Semper Fi!’ He knew who we were, and he was expecting us. Coaching at a high school is hard; I can’t imagine how much time he has to spare in a day, but he took the time to get to know us and chat.”
For over a week, Dan and Mike were engrossed in the world of the Wolverines – watching film with the teams, attending practices, and getting glimpses into their world. Upon meeting the players, the two warriors received a similar greeting as they did with the coaching staff – a friendliness and eagerness to interact that caught them both off guard.
“We had a chance to meet the parents of the players as well, and several teared up as they greeted us,” Dan said. “One guy jumped over rows of people to be the first to shake our hands. I didn’t feel like an outsider at all; the team got us involved in everything.”
Although the team, their families, and the warriors enjoyed getting to know one another, the professional athletes and students had games to be won and work to be done.
“The intensity of it is amazing,” Dan said. “They strategize over every move and play and dig into what the players can do better. The coach will chew out anyone who doesn’t do his job. This is a well-oiled machine, and as a life-long Michigan fan, getting to see what goes on there was just awesome.”
Mike and Dan flew with the team on “their decked-out Michigan private plane,” getting more opportunities to talk with the players and coaching staff.
“The players wanted us next to them, and we chatted the entire time,” Mike said. “The coaches didn’t tell them to do anything – they just did it. That blew me away.”
The night before the tournament, the team had meetings and a curfew – but Mike and Dan did not. Sleep didn’t come easy – due to excitement and environmental factors.
“I felt like my internal clock was messed up,” Mike joked. “It was so bright outside the hotel window. Even looking down at the streets, I could see people filing in and out of restaurants past midnight. So we took a walk down the block to Times Square to enjoy a bit of the night. ”
“I had been to NYC before when I was a kid – but I didn’t remember much,” Dan said. “What impressed me most was that at one in the morning, the town was still so alive. People saw me wearing a Michigan sweater, and people from Michigan in the city would stop and talk to us. That was really cool – the college sports world is such a community.”
“I found some NYPD officers and took pictures with them,” Dan explained. “I knew when I got there, I wanted to do that because of 9/11. Those same cops pointed us toward some landmarks like Broadway and Ground Zero. One of the two cops was basically like a professional tour guide; he knew everything about everything. He spent almost 30 minutes talking to me about the history of one building in Times Square.”
After another hour walking around Manhattan, the warriors called it a night and headed back to their hotel where the team was already fast asleep. The tournament was going to be a big moment for the team – and for Dan and Mike.
“As we walked into the dressing room with the team, you could just feel that energy,” Dan said. “It was electric.”
Outside the dressing room, another game was already underway, with the crowd roars muffled by the walls and levels surrounding them.
“One by one the coaches all started to speak,” Mike said. “Each coach took time to talk, but the head coach’s talk really amped it up at the end. I looked at Dan and said ‘I want to go play now!’ The Marine in me was like, ‘I want to get out there, and it’s game time!’”
Dan saw an element he hadn’t seen since his time in the Army – a call to battle.
“It was a total ‘get ready for a fight’ speech,” Dan said. “Mike and I were pumped up, and we weren’t even playing that night.”
While they didn’t join the team on the court, they did join them on the sidelines, watching the game from the best seats in the house and cheering on the players. Finally, it was their turn to get out onto the court so they could be recognized in front of a crowd of cheering basketball fans.
“Everyone and their mother was out there,” Dan said. “Walking onto the court, all I could think was ‘don’t trip.’ It was overwhelming, seeing all those people cheering.”
As he stood out at center court among the cheering crowd, Dan’s thoughts drifted to his fellow service members – and specifically, the warriors he served with.
“My mentor got blown up in Afghanistan and lost an eye,” Dan said. “Still has shrapnel in his head. He was one of the people I was thinking about out there. I wondered, ‘do I deserve this? I just have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and hearing loss. I’m not a Medal of Honor recipient. I’m not a hero. There are other service members out there who had it worse than me.’ At the same time, I was glad I was there – it was a tremendous honor and experience.”
When it came time for Mike to be honored at center court, his mind wandered to a similar place.
“It’s hard to feel like you deserve it,” Mike said. “It’s a very emotional thing. Getting out there at center court, seeing pictures of me overseas, seeing my family on that giant scoreboard screen; it’s so special, how do I put it into words? I feel like I won the lottery – not many guys get to do this, so I felt lucky. I kind of teared up a bit, to be honest. I thought about the guys I went overseas with; I lost a couple of friends over there. I hoped they were smiling down on me. Even though I felt like I didn’t deserve that recognition, I felt like they would want me to do it. If one of my friends had the chance, I would want them to do this too. There’s not a moment of my day that I don’t think about certain guys I went overseas with.”
The emotions would continue to rise for the two warriors as the night went on; Michigan beat out Southern Methodist University, sending the Garden into a frenzy. The rest of the night became a blur, as Mike and Dan went from center court, back to the locker rooms, and to the airport again.
“The team was very relaxed after the game; on the plane ride home and the bus ride back, they were chatting with us,” Dan said. “They each signed a game ball for me and Mike. Everyone was so cool about it – they really wanted to sign it for us. They told us that they wanted us to come to every game going forward. I guess they thought we were lucky!”
As the plane rolled to a stop back in Michigan, Dan found something among his belongings that he wanted to share with the Wolverines.
“I found an extra Wounded Warrior Project challenge coin,” he explained. “I turned to Mike, and I asked him if he could come up with a quick speech for the coach and present this coin to the team.”
“I remember a bit of what I said,” Mike laughed. “Dan says ‘you’re a better talker than me.’ I remember it was late, and everyone was tired, so I tried to keep it brief. I told the team what a challenge coin was, and how it represented a specific achievement you’ve accomplished. I said I wanted to present that to the coach and the team. Dan and I struggle on a daily basis with pretty normal things, but their hospitality let us forget that for a few days. I wanted to hand them a literal token of our appreciation. They really embraced us, and I thanked them for that.”
“I presented the coach with the coin – he almost cried,” Dan said. “A fun fact about the coach – the ‘Saving Private Ryan’ story is based on his uncles. He’s a huge supporter of veterans and the military. I think us giving him the challenge coin meant a lot to him, but I think it meant a lot to the team as well.”
The University of Michigan coach told the warriors he would put it in the locker room, so the team will always see it before they go out to the games.
Dan and Mike still think about the game, even weeks after it ended. Beyond the signed game balls, Michigan t-shirts, and memories, they also gained a new friendship from their time with the Wolverines.
“Mike and I talk almost every day now,” Dan said. “I didn’t expect to meet another veteran from my area as part of this trip. It was an unforgettable experience.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with group therapy,” Mike said. “But I do find a lot of comfort with Wounded Warrior Project connection events. Being around other warriors, taking part in summits, and going to things like this – that’s my therapy – it’s just me and some guys, shooting the breeze, swapping stories, and talking about things without judgment.”
WWP offers a variety of programs and services that assist injured veterans with mental health, physical health and wellness, career and benefits counseling, and connecting with other warriors and their communities.
To learn more about how WWP’s programs and services are making an impact on the lives of wounded warriors, visit http://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org/. To find photos from this event, click on multimedia, then images.
Contact: Mattison Brooks – Public Relations Specialist
About Wounded Warrior Project
We Connect, Serve, and Empower
The mission of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors. WWP connects wounded warriors and their families to valuable resources and one another, serves them through a variety of free programs and services, and empowers them to live life on their own terms. WWP is a national, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. To get involved and learn more, visit woundedwarriorproject.org.