Column

Plenty of thanks to go around as special bonds and purpose grow with MVP program uniting veterans and pro athletes

Their weekly meeting place is a West Hollywood gym, tucked above the Sunset Strip, where they gather every Thursday afternoon.

But their common ground? Immeasurable.

Most are combat veterans. Others are former professional athletes, many ex-NFL players. They have busted knees, rebuilt shoulders, sometimes amputations, and often emotional scars that run even deeper.

Each is searching for his or her place in the everyday world.

“The first time I came here, I thought I was coming in just to be an inspiration to the vets and talk,” said former quarterback Ryan Leaf, who uses the story of his addiction and failed football career as a motivational cautionary tale. “The NFL players still think we’re supposed to be the inspiration for these guys, when in fact they’re the inspiration for us.”

The charity program is called “Merging Vets & Players” or simply “MVP,” and it was started two years ago by Fox NFL reporter Jay Glazer and Green Beret Nate Boyer, who served six years and multiple tours for the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan before making it to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks as a long snapper.

Glazer has the NFL connections. Boyer is plugged into the world of veterans back from combat, struggling to assimilate back into society.

A hodgepodge collection of them gather at the gym, Unbreakable, at the same time every week — a group of 30 to 80 depending on the Thursday — and work out together for half an hour before removing their shoes, forming a circle on a large matted area, and putting their struggles into words during an hour-long “fireside chat.” It’s mostly men, but there are some women in the program as well.

“We have ex-athletes — football players, fighters, basketball, volleyball, whatever — with combat vets,” Glazer said. “If you put them together and get the burn going, it gets the endorphins pumping and you’re a little more vulnerable when you start talking. A lot of these guys have been blown up. We’ve had vets who can’t walk at all. We’ve had guys who are angry at their injuries. We put every elephant here, right in the room.

“When the roommates in your head are starting to talk, we’re here to quiet them down.”

Glazer and Boyer envision launching an MVP program in every NFL city.

The list of former and current NFL players who have participated is growing. Leaf was among the first, along with former Oakland Raiders fullback Oren O’Neal, and former New York Giants fullback and first-round pick Jarrod Bunch.

Among the current players who have stopped in to work out with the group during the offseason are Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth, Seattle Seahawks tackle Duane Brown, Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long, Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and Giants guard Justin Pugh. Celebrities who have participated or spoken to the group include actor Sylvester Stallone, and singers Demi Lovato, and Joe Jonas.

For professional athletes, letting go of that career and moving forward can be a difficult challenge.

“You’re wrapped up in this identity,” Leaf said. “You used to be a famous football player. You’re no longer that. A lot of times they just kind of forget about you. Or, if you were really good, you’re idolized for something you did that you no longer do, and you don’t really know who you are. I wish some of the guys would be more vulnerable about that.

“I feel a lot of sympathy for the super-great players who 20 years out are still kind of wrapped up in that and they never really got to be who they are. I feel kind of blessed to have kind of a failed career, because I’ve been able to move on and put that behind me.”

The gathering of combat veterans is robust, and variously includes Navy Seals, Army Special Forces, Marine recon, and Purple Heart recipients. There’s no charge for the charity program, but signups and donations are accepted at vetsandplayers.org.

“Nobody speaks the same language that these guys speak,” said legendary ultimate fighter Randy Couture, a former Army sergeant who runs the pro athlete training program at Unbreakable and serves on the MVP board. “They may drop F-bombs and all kinds of stuff, but they understand each other. There’s a lingo, a language, an understanding that people who have taken that oath get.

“Now, these guys are cast out and expected to walk back into civilian life, and it’s just not that easy.”

The mat sessions are intense, with both combat and football veterans baring their souls, and often revealing at the gym what they wouldn’t elsewhere. What started as a self-help group has morphed into a community of support and understanding.

“I think it gives [combat veterans] the opportunity to have what we have in our locker room and what they probably had in their barracks and areas where they were,” said Whitworth, whose childhood friend and college roommate, Lee Deal, was a Navy corpsman killed in action in Iraq.

“It’s that unity in the same room with people who are going through the same things and feeling the same way,” Whitworth added. “It gives them an opportunity to not only train together, which builds a bond, but also sit down together afterwards and just share in each other’s experiences, and to know that they’re not alone, that there’s somebody else that’s going through that struggle too, and maybe they can pull each other through it.”

Among the combat veterans is Denver Morris, who lost 31 of his fellow platoon-mates in battle and 34 more to suicide afterward.

“What this program has given me is hope and support,” Morris said. “What I’ve said to everybody is, 'I’m not allowed to be depressed anymore. If I’m depressed then somebody is going to kick me in my [butt] and tell me, ‘Get up, and let’s go.’ They can read me. … There are certain people who if I don’t text them three or four times during the week, they know something’s going on.”

Leaf is quick to point out MVP is by no means a panacea, but part of a larger recovery program.

“I try to make it very clear to guys who feel like they’ve found this piece, and yet they continue to struggle, ‘Hey, this is just a little piece of getting better; this can’t be the end-all, fix-all for you,’ ” he said. “That’s what the circle helps us with, talking about those things.”

And there’s more. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, MVP deployed a group of 20 combat veterans and athletes to the Houston area over a two-week period to help with the cleanup and humanitarian efforts. Glazer ended last week’s meeting by putting a woman on speakerphone who runs an assisted-living facility in Beaumont, Texas, who tearfully thanked the MVP members for delivering an SUV-load full of essential supplies.

“With veterans, no matter why we joined, the people that we’ve become are people of service,” Boyer said. “It’s ingrained in us now. If we don’t have that element of service to others moving forward once the uniform comes off, there’s a piece of us missing.

“Opportunities in times of crisis, when people might look to leadership and hope that someone might help them, we’re the ones looking for those opportunities to serve and help people.

“I’m not going to say we sit around and hope for tragedies to occur. But when they do happen, a light turns on in us, and we feel purposeful again.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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