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Former Browns/Former Buckeyes visit Troops Overseas


Never Forget 31-0

<TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR><TD class=yspsctnhdln>Ex-Browns players visit troops overseas</TD></TR><TR><TD height=7><SPACER type="block" width="1" height="1"></TD></TR></TBODY></TABLE><TABLE cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width="100%" border=0><TBODY><TR><TD>By Marla Ridenour, Beacon Journal staff writer

When they got off the plane in Pristina, Kosovo, and were greeted by an escort of Humvees and soldiers toting rifles, the former Browns known as "Top Dawg" and "Mighty Minni" no longer felt invincible.

Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield were fearless on the football field for nine seasons with the Browns, including six years together at cornerback.

But a trip to the former Yugoslavian province to entertain troops and watch the Super Bowl with American peace-keepers changed all that.

"I was a little scared, as hard as that is to admit," Dixon said last week. "You know there's some reason to be concerned when anywhere you go, you've got escorts and bodyguards."

Minnifield said he was "a little afraid" about the trip and his wife was concerned, but when he and Dixon arrived, security was at the highest level.

"Anytime we traveled from base to base we had Humvees on both sides, armed guards," he said. "Everyone keeps a gun with them at all times. It's like the Wild West, no law and order."

Dixon and Minnifield spent three days on the ground in Kosovo participating in an Armed Forces Entertainment program that also included former Cincinnati Bengals fullback Ickey Woods, ex-Philadelphia Eagles and Ohio State running back Keith Byars and former Washington Redskins and Browns quarterback Mark Rypien.

Former Denver Broncos and Ohio State linebacker Randy Gradishar headed a similar trip to Afghanistan, returning Feb. 13 after spending 12 days on the ground. It was the second meet-and-greet mission for the Warren native, who went to Iraq and Kuwait in March 2004, an excursion that included a stop at the palace of ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Visits with fans

Dixon and Minnifield's trip was coordinated so the NFL alums could visit fans of their former teams. After a nine-hour flight from New York to Vienna, Rypien and Byars headed off to bases where units from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., were stationed. Except for Super Bowl Sunday, Dixon, Minnifield and Woods stuck together to meet Ohioans, including a general from Wooster.

"The lion's share were Dawg Pound kids who were 10 or 12 when me and Hanford played," Minnifield said. "They were real receptive. I'm sure almost everyone got an autograph on a special commemorative flier that had pictures of us playing."

Dixon and Minnifield watched the Super Bowl at Camp Bondsteel, the headquarters of U.S. forces in Kosovo. The game began at 12:30 a.m. and wasn't over until 4. They struggled to stay awake.

"Probably about 200 people came and went," Minnifield said. "There was no beer, but they did have the fake stuff. They complained about that. They tried to make the best of a bad situation."

Dixon said they shot pool with the soldiers and told stories from the old days about locker room pranks they used to pull.

They traveled to three bases over three days, and Woods performed his trademark "Ickey Shuffle" a couple times.

"He can't get his leg up as high now," Dixon said of Woods. "We had one guy from Cleveland who did the Ickey Shuffle and ended it with a Randy Moss moon. We died laughing."

Woods now coaches a women's football team, the Cincinnati Sizzle. He'd been a part of Armed Forces Entertainment before, watching the Super Bowl two years ago on the USS George Washington, at sea off the coast of Virginia. Obviously that wasn't nearly as dangerous as Kosovo.

"I wouldn't want to live there," Woods said. "But I wasn't too scared. It wasn't anywhere near Iraq or Iran. I knew we pretty much had Kosovo under control."

Conditions in Kosovo

What they saw at the bases couldn't compare with the conditions the people of Kosovo endure.

"It basically changed my whole perspective on life," Minnifield said. "To be in a place that doesn't have a government... the United Nations runs the country. But it's not concerned about basic needs, it's more concerned about keeping the peace.

"Having a sanitary sewer, that's a big deal. The U.S. bombed the area for 60 days and 60 nights. Some of the schools are nothing but a shell. All the factories, nothing's being produced."

Minnifield said he was touched by seeing native children.

"To see the kids breaks your heart," he said. "You think, `How much future do they have?' They're living from day to day. Even if you're a gifted person, how much opportunity you have is reduced. Here in Kentucky you hear about people in Appalachia who live in old school buses and trailers. Those people are living like kings and queens compared to Kosovo."

Minnifield said every night the temperature dropped to 6 below zero. Dixon said the first night he slept in all his clothes, including a hood.

"Those little towns only have electricity four hours a day," Dixon said. "The general was telling me that they have 24-hour patrols. I can't imagine those poor guys."

Gradishar's group

Gradishar had seven former players with him, including ex-Bengals Ron Pritchard and Lyle Blackwood. They visited Manas Air Force Base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Bagram in Afghanistan and Al Udeid in Qatar. Gradishar took along Ohio State T-shirts and key chains donated by football coach Jim Tressel.

"You felt like you were in National Geographic," Gradishar said. "Our troops are helping the people get fresh water, electricity, heat, trying to get education started, helping free women, even deworming the animals. There's 20 (million) to 40 million land mines left in Afghanistan by the Russians, and all the fences have signs that say, `Mines. Mines. Mines.'

"I saw an airplane they said was Osama bin Laden's plane, the one he was going to use to get out before our troops took over. A year ago I was signing autographs in the palace of Saddam Hussein."

His group watched the Super Bowl at Bagram with a crowd that varied from 300 to 500.

"Someone had donated 500 steaks, so they had a big barbecue, a big-screen TV," Gradishar said. "During the Super Bowl they showed troops in Iraq, then troops at Bagram and I'm here. It's patriotic. It's American."

Gradishar said he found the soldiers enthusiastic about what they're doing and the natives appreciative of the assistance.

"Whenever we were around the Afghan people, they gave us a thumbs-up, a smile (or) a wave," he said.

`Life-changing' trip

Gradishar, 53, now lives in Littleton, Colo., and works in the automobile business for the Phil Long Dealership Group. He said he gained perspective on what his father went through serving in World War II. He looked in the faces of 20-year-old soldiers, the same age as his youngest son.

"It is a life-changing experience because you get a better perspective on what is war, what is the sacrifice, what is the cost," Gradishar said.

Dixon, who sells real estate in Cleveland, said he would visit the troops again if asked.

"I enjoyed being with the guys," Dixon said. "I admire what they're going through for us."

Minnifield, who lives in Lexington, Ky., and is moving into the manufacturing business, feels differently. He's fascinated with Nazi Germany and loved the sense of history in Vienna and the old Yugoslavia, but doesn't want to go back to Kosovo.

But he'll always remember.

"It will forever change my perspective on what's important," Minnifield said. "I'm sure I'll get back to my American greedy way in a hurry. But I will always have this experience to ground me." Messages can be left for Marla Ridenour at 330-996-3818 or [email protected]