Military trip resonates with Gators

ABOARD THE USS BATAAN -- Erik Murphy sat with his Florida basketball teammates in a hotel meeting room last Thursday night and listened to one of the most horrifying and uplifting stories he had ever heard.

Army veteran Andrew Coughlan described surviving a mortar attack in Iraq because another soldier jumped on top of him to shield him from the explosion. The other soldier, Coughlan’s best friend in the unit, didn’t survive.

Coughlan talked about his grief over his friend’s death and the loss of other friends in the Iraq war. He was wracked with guilt over having survived when others didn’t. He described what it was like to come home and live with that memory. And finally, he talked about accepting what happened and deciding to live for the soldiers who didn’t come back.

"His story was just ... it’s so like ... I really don’t know how to explain it," Murphy said. "It was unreal. It was an unreal story sitting in the room listening to it. You can hear how it affected him, how it changed his life, and how it first affected him negatively and then he took that and changed it to a positive. He’s telling the story just to help other people. It’s something special."

That was the most powerful moment the Gators experienced during a two-day span that culminated with the Navy-Marine Corps Classic aboard the USS Bataan at Naval Station Mayport on Friday night. But there were plenty of others that affected UF’s players.

In touring the Bataan on Thursday, the Gators met various members of the military. Some were officers and some were enlisted men and women. Some were older, but some were their age -- or even younger. Even though the players know there are thousands of men and women just a few years out of high school serving in the military, it didn’t really sink in until they met some of them.

"Meeting these people that do this that are the same age is even better, even more convicting just to hear that and to meet them in person," Patric Young said. "It really does resonate with you."

There were the two former Navy basketball players that participated in the team’s Thursday shoot-around at coach Billy Donovan’s invitation. There was a re-enlistment ceremony during a break in play in the first half. Though the Gators were huddling, they all stopped, stood and applauded.

Then there were the countless thank-yous the players received when they left the court after the game was called off just before the second half because of condensation on the court.

"That’s crazy," Murphy said while shaking his head. "They’re all thanking us. I told every one of them that said that to me, 'No, we need to be thanking you. You don’t need to thank us. We’re just playing a game.' "

Donovan said he hopes his players were affected by the experiences, especially by what they heard from Coughlan. He had enlisted after 9/11 and was 19 years old when he experienced the mortar attack and lost several friends.

"That’s my biggest thing for our players is that sometimes it’s a lot easier to take a real incredible message when it’s your peers that are involved," Donovan said. "One of the most impactful things he said is, 'After all this happens and I lost five people from my unit of which were all personal, close friends, I was expected to get up the next morning and go back out into war and do my job and take on my mission. Didn’t have any time to mourn. Didn’t have any time to do anything. I needed to do that for the guys that were still alive, that were out there still fighting. I had to come focused and ready.'

"Can you, playing the game of basketball, deal with a tough shooting night, it not going well, some bad calls, and still be able to move on to the next thing as this guy talked about? Because he was certainly talking about something a lot more drastic than missing shots."

That was the main thing Donovan wanted his players to get from the two-day event. It was important to beat Georgetown, but it was just as important they be humbled and understand that sometimes the things they are bothered by -- a sore knee, a bad grade on a test, girlfriend issues -- aren’t as devastating as they believe.

"I think there’s so many parallels between the military and athletics and teams and sports," Donovan said. "Obviously we’re not putting our life on the line like they are so I’m not saying what we do is important. What I am saying is there is unity, there’s commitment, there’s discipline, there’s focus, there’s unselfishness. Those are things that we’re trying to preach in our team. And I think for our guys to be around people like this and hear them talk about those things is very powerful."