TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Under a comfortable bout of balmy, Bay Area breezes, 70 Airmen from Travis AFB descended on Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium July 30 to spend a pre-season training day with the San Francisco 49ers.
The day, billed as a “Salute to Service,” was a way for Travis Airmen and other service members to meet some of the National Football League’s top stars, as well as give players a chance to rub elbows with military men and women from the U.S.’s five military branches.
Among the Airmen present was Senior Airman Curtis Covington, 60th Security Forces Squadron installation patrolman and California native, who had the opportunity to get up-close and personal with the storied sports franchise he’d spent his childhood idolizing.
“I grew up about an hour north of this stadium in Walnut Creek,” Covington said. “I have over a decade of memories seeing this team on TV and going to games. I even remember watching the 49ers play at Candlestick Park back when it was still standing. It’s just crazy carrying around that history and then, out of the blue, getting the call to go see them as a member of the Air Force.”
Covington joked that upon being invited to the training camp, he took the request to be a hoax rather than a concrete opportunity.
“When my leadership called me asking me to come, I initially thought I was being pranked,” he laughed. “Like, ‘There has to be a catch, right?’ But no. It was legitimately a really fun experience to get to see that story come full circle and see all these players who I would’ve been cheering on and looking up to back when I was a kid to now getting to meet them and shake their hands on equal footing. It makes it all worth it.”
But Covington wasn’t the only one feeling star-struck. 49ers offensive guard Ben Garland, himself a captain in the Colorado Air National Guard, was likewise getting the hero vibe from the service members in attendance.
“As a football team, the military is the organization we look to for inspiration,” Garland said. “To see the military’s hard work and dedication—how they come together as a team to be the best in the world—there’s no better organization to try to draw ideas from. Inviting them out was the least we could do to thank them for all the heroism and sacrifice they give us every day.”
Showing appreciation for those in the armed forces is not only important to the 49ers, but to the entire NFL, Garland said. It’s something he hopes the day’s events were able to convey to all the military who came out to see the practice.
“It’s my favorite thing getting to have the military come out and spend time talking and taking photos with them,” Garland said. “But it’s two-fold, too. If there’s one thing I hope our service members walk away with, it’s that even though they might’ve seen today as their chance to meet us, we also saw today as our chance to meet them.”
The feeling of the proverbial shoe being on the other foot in regard to one’s childhood heroes is pretty surreal, Covington said, but it’s also a feeling that makes those days lugging around 60 pounds of gear in triple-digit heat a little easier.
At least for now, Covington is simply content with the bliss of it all.
“It’s just been a really great experience,” he said. “I’d have to invent a completely new language to accurately communicate what the day has me feeling like, but what I can say right now is how thankful I am for what this day’s given me, not just as an Airman, but also as a lifelong 49ers fan.”