It was a overcast day on the afternoon my life was changed forever. I remember it like it was yesterday, although it was exactly 7 years ago on this very date, October 24th.
The location was Arrowhead Stadium in Independence, Missouri. Several times a year, it was routine for me to host sizable group of brave women and men from nearby Fort Leavenworth as I had a friendly and growing relationship with one of the nation’s most iconic and important bases located about an hour away from Kansas City. My contact, who has become over the course of time a brother of mine, Colonel Matt Yandura, had been in touch on a weekly basis after we met in early 2010. We would set up these “meet and greets” for lack of a better term, but what we were achieving was much greater. Following in the wake of COL Yandura's two decades of serving and educating in the United States Army, he and I would work hand in hand in continuing on his path. Some of the best and brightest in the United States Army would be immersed for 3-4 hours in understanding how companies in the private sector – in this case the National Football League – dealt with challenging situations, leadership training and overall day to day operations. Under Matt's guidance, the soldiers would gain valuable information from these field trips and ask questions behind closed doors that – in my peronal hopes – would sharpen their already exceptional skillsets. Furthermore, I envisioned them walking away with the ability to tackle their goals and be better service people while a small portion of that could be attributed to my work with the League and fellow peers.
On October 24th, 2012, this was my 4th or 5th visit from the good folks at Fort Leavenworth. I had visited the post on many occasions as well as many other bases across all 5 branches. The countless trips and connections, spawning back to when I first entered the League in the mid 90’s, were always met with excitement because it was not only a departure from my daily work flow and cadence but it felt like I was doing something meaningful and significant. I never believed that someone was taking note of this work…but somehow they were.
The “meet and greets” in Kansas City had a loose order to them. The group of soldiers would first arrive and check in and we would take a tour route that would lead us up to the 8th floor of the expansive stadium. On one side, the Arrowhead inner bowl was a glorious site through the windows of the exclusive club that we would settle in and make our classroom for the afternoon. Directly opposite of the bowl, large, etched-glass panes looked over Missouri and across to the Kansas Border where Overland Park emerged from an expansive tree line. It was in that exclusive club space that my guests and I would get to know each other and I would introduce myself, explain my duty for the Chiefs and take them through my journey as an NFL Employee. A few questions were answered and eventually we would leave the 8th floor and make our way through the labyrinth of the stadium hitting the normal highlights: Locker areas, the field, the Hall of Fame and then, eventually, returning to where we began… the 8th floor.
On this particular day, we headed upstairs and with COL Yandura by my side, I noticed the tour had outpaced us and arrived to the 8th floor seating area in very good time. Even more bizarre, the double doors that separated the elevators from the 8th floor lounge were abnormally closed. In haste, I began to hustle for the doors, fearing a little chaos might erupt with 100 soldiers (and football fans) being unchaperoned. It was at that time when Matt grabbed my arm and asked me the question that I can hear as clearly today as I did that day.
“What’s the third best day of your life?”
I had no immediate answer because, if you know Matt (and you will after this excerpt is over) you have to know that he is cerebral, funny, compassionate and simply loves to get to know people to their core. For COL Matt Yandura, this question wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it was at the time a bit jarring because I was more concerned about the second half of my meeting with the soldiers as opposed to a deep philosophical question at an inopportune moment.
“I…I don’t know… I’d have to think about that…” was my response (maybe not verbatim… but that is what I recall blurting out.)
Matt quickly corrected and led me a bit. “Knowing that marrying Lisa is the best day of your life… and having your 3 kids is the second best … what would be the third best day of your life?”
As I went to answer, he stopped me immediately. “Don’t answer,” he said. “It’s about to be that day.” As he kicked open the doors, dozens of soldiers stood in formation. Where there was no pageantry earlier, flags were posted, my family was present, coworkers lined the room and I knew then, my life was going to change.
Now let me explain… I don’t sweat and I' d like to believe that I am tough to rattle.
At this point, though, I could feel perspiration trickle under my arms, my brow was warmer than usual and I felt flush. With my heart beating faster than I can remember in recent times, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride mixed with unworthiness. I had always carried a guilt of not enlisting to serve the country that has treated me so well and that my father, uncles and many cousins have bravely served. I carried this weight with me and thus that was why I had always wanted to go that extra mile for any woman or man who has made the sacrifice that less than 1% of Americans make.
Matt knew this and acted over the course of year to make my dream a reality.
“You will now be a part of the family,” he told me, “And once you get that green stink on you, it doesn’t come off.” An enlistment ceremony ensued and I was given gifts that I could only accept in awe. A uniform, flags, gear, boots and of course, dog tags, which I wear proudly every single day.
Matt’s assessment couldn’t have been more correct. I have worked tirelessly, every day from that day to this to pay forward the honor of letting me be a part of something greater than myself, if even to help in the slightest way to further the mission and goals of our armed forces. And reflecting back on that day, I would trade nothing for it as it is priceless. It truly remains the top three greatest days of my life and because of that I give him all credit, and more importantly, I will never let him down as that would be the greatest dishonor.
That is why I must end by letting anyone who has read this far that if you are blessed to have a mentor in this world as I have been blessed with COL Yandura, then take a knee and give thanks. I am humbled not because he has allowed me to realize great purpose, be connected with phenomenal and passionate people, given me the privilege to serve, speak in front of and stand beside those who make this country what it is, but because he has invited me into his personal family. He is truly the finest man I know and that is something I don’t say or write lightly. There are a handful of people I would put in that elite category, but Matt Yandura is one in none.
Thanks for giving me the third greatest day of my life, COL, and continue to do the work that you were called to do and you have done so exceptionally. Thank you for your service, dedication, selflessness and thank you for allowing others to walk the path you blazed.