It’s fourth down and goal at the one-yard line. Spectators on the sideline watch intently as Odessa Turner, 1990 Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, draws up a play on his whiteboard inside his team’s huddle. Turner sprints to the sideline as his team breaks the huddle and lines up against the defense. The quarterback takes the snap, looks left, then right, and throws it up into the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown! The entire field erupts in cheers and high-fives…
…including the defense?
While it might seem strange that the defense is celebrating the opposition scoring against them, in this case they aren’t really facing an opponent. In reality, this is one of two exhibition games being played at the Newburgh Armory Center as part of non-profit organization Play For Your Freedom.
Before a friendly exhibition game of football between his buddies, a shocking revelation was made to David Lionheart to which he had not been previously aware; one of his longtime friends who had served in the military had been affected by injuries that were not visible to the human eye.
From that moment on, Lionheart made it his new mission in life to help veterans like his friend who were carrying the anchors of these ailments. Three years later, his organization “Play For Your Freedom” has helped the efforts of local VA hospitals in rehabilitating over 600 veterans suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues.
“Freedom” is an organization that channels positive energy for veterans through physical activity, in particular through exhibition football games. Every month since January 2016, the organization holds private, closed-to-the-public workshops meant to give the veterans a chance to get out of the hospital and have some light-hearted fun.
“These workshops are fitness based programs that use peer to peer support,” said Lionheart. “We work out, we provide a healthy meal, and we have live music for the veterans afterwards. We try to create a positive experience that’s wrapped around healthy lifestyle choices.”
The goal that the program has for every participating veteran is a graduation through the three phases of recovery. The first phase involves a fellowship-based program in which the organization visits the hospital and makes connections with the individuals. The second phase is involvement in the actual physical fitness program, slowly but surely easing the veterans back into society. The final phase is the individual’s full transition back into society with the hope that they pay it forward for others in need. At this month’s workshop, Lionheart proudly announced that this transition had been accomplished for the first time, as a former member of the program by the name of Tyler returned as a volunteer.
“We’re going to be sticking with the original foundation to help local veterans, and as that’s been growing and developing we’ve been getting more support and we’ve been able to reach more veterans with these new programs,” said Lionheart.
Adding an additional element to the organization is the participation of former NFL players as coaches for the exhibitions. On hand this month was Odessa Turner, seven-year NFL pro and former Super Bowl champion with the 1990 New York Giants. Lionheart believes that the efforts of professionals such as Turner to help at the program makes a big difference in boosting overall morale and enthusiasm.
“It may help bring a couple extra people out of their beds if they are football fans,” said Lionheart.
“[Play For Your Freedom] keeps me involved with the game,” said Turner. “After football, we’re always looking for that next avenue of what to do, and I’ve always wanted the have the gratification of knowing that I’m giving to people that provide the liberties that we enjoy today.”
In the past few months, “Play For Your Freedom” has seen word-of-mouth spread throughout the community about their cause, attracting volunteers from government, commerce, and sports. Never content to watch chances to improve the program go by, Lionheart has a clear goal for what the future should hold.
“Growth to me would be most valuable not with necessarily meeting with more hospitals, but taking the people that we currently work with,” said Lionheart. “If can inspire someone every thirty days, what we can do with someone every week would probably change their lives moreso then what we’re currently doing.”
For more information on “Play For Your Freedom” and how you can get involved, visit http://www.playforyourfreedom.org.