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Special night awaits UMD football team

Minnesota Duluth football player Tavaughn Blair (left) receives a UMD football challenge coin on Friday from U.S. Army Special Forces veteran Jack Nevils, who is a part of the Bulldogs’ Military Appreciation Night. (Clint Austin /

About seven years ago, Jack Nevils received a call from his friend, American Special Forces and CIA legend Billy Waugh.

Waugh asked about Jack’s 3-year-old son, David, who was recently diagnosed with autism.

“I told Billy that we were getting a hyperbaric chamber for him, and he was like, ‘Man, that sounds really expensive,’” Jack Nevils said. “And I was like, ‘Well, it’s about 21 grand, but my wife and I are saving up money for a car. No big deal. You do what you got to do to take care of your family.’ ”

Waugh told Nevils to hold on while he made some phone calls. The next week, a check for $21,000 arrived in Nevils’ mail.

“I’ll never forget it,” Nevils said. “It just said, ‘Thanks for your service, here’s some money for your son and Godspeed.’ My wife and I were blown away. For people to demonstrate love like who didn’t even know us, it was pretty awesome.”

That’s Operation One Voice, a program that raises funds and helps support the needs of families of wounded and fallen Special Operation Forces.

Nevils, himself a decorated Special Forces veteran, is Minnesota Duluth’s special guest this weekend as part of Military Appreciation Night, when the Bulldogs play Winona State in an NSIC football game at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Malosky Stadium. Nevils spoke with the team Friday night.

“I’m going to talk to them about teamwork and being the best that they can be,” Nevils said beforehand. “I’m going to encourage them to pursue their passions and goals in life, about what it means to live a life of meaning and purpose. There are no elite units. There are only elite people. Elite people are those who pursue that passion, that desire, that thing they would do if time and money and fear were no option in their life, that’s what they would do.”

For UMD, this week hits close to home. Bulldogs junior defensive back Tyler Morris of Pasco, Wash., is an Air Force cadet and plays primarily on special teams, while former UMD players John Economos and Scott Hanna serve on the Operation One Voice’s advisory board, taking wounded vets on big-game hunting trips to Colorado. UMD’s relationship with this group is a special one, something that football coach Curt Wiese embraces.

“I talked to our team about this (Tuesday) night,” Wiese said. “This game is not about us wearing different helmet decals or uniforms, it’s about us taking a week to truly appreciate our veterans and current members of the military. This is an opportunity to thank them and give back to a great cause in Operation One Voice.”

This is the third straight season UMD is partnering with local military organizations, including the 148th Fighter Wing, to raise money and awareness for Operation One Voice. Tickets to the game are free to all current and former members of the military, and just $5 for military spouses and children. Players are slated to wear special camouflage pants. UMD also has a number of tributes planned throughout the game for military personnel and will conduct a free football clinic for youth in grades 3-8 from 3-4:30 p.m. at the UMD recreation fields.

“Coach Wiese talked about how special this opportunity and game is, not only for us, but for other people as well,” UMD senior captain Beau Bofferding said. “I also spoke about how much of an honor it is to do what we do, to play for UMD, and to play football, the game we all love. At the same time we have to understand why we get to do that, and it’s because of the men and women serving our country every single day.”

Nevils, 46, is an American hero, though you will never hear him say that.

The Georgia native joined the military when he 17. He spent 25 years in active military service ― two years with the U.S. Army Rangers and 23 years with the Green Berets ― serving in a variety of assignments, including with the JFK Special Warfare Center and Schools. He retired in 2013 as Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Army. He has served in Central and South America, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He and his wife of 26 years, Maria, live in Dallas with their two children, David, now 10, and Savannah, 8.

Nevils said he knew what he wanted to do since he was 3, often going in the woods in his camo pants, scouting out the “enemy.” Nevils continues traveling to the Middle East to rescue and resettle families persecuted by terrorist organizations, keeping with the Special Forces motto “De Oppresso Liber” (Free the Oppressed).

“In my experience, with the guys I worked with on my teams, we were all there for that reason,” Nevils said. “We didn’t do it for any other reason than we loved the job and that’s what we felt called to do, since we were kids, we all had the same story.”

Nevils has stayed connected with Operation One Voice since they helped him with his son. The group helped soldiers of his who needed help.

By its very structure, Operation One Voice has less red tape than some other organizations.

“I think close to 95 percent of the money that they raise goes directly to the end user, as opposed to other organizations that have a whole lot of overhead,” Nevils said. “These folks are very, very lean. It’s because they don’t do this as a job. They all have other jobs. They do this as part of their love, part of their passion. This is just something they do just because it’s the right thing to do.

“They’re just great people, great Americans. I don’t have enough good things to say about them.”

Typical of the Special Forces, they thank Operation One Voice, when it’s Operation One Voice trying to thank them.

Nevils was asked if he missed the Special Forces, and he said, “Of course, I’d go back tomorrow, if I could.”

Nevils said there is a bond that comes through combat that is unmatched in civilian life. He talked about the adjustments solders have to make being in combat one day, to flying home the next, then standing in line at Walmart.

“It makes you see the world different,” he said.

That is something Nevils tries to relate with his message about sacrifice and courage.

“It was the absolute honor of my life to be able to work with the men that I worked with and see their self-sacrifice,” Nevils said. “In the Bible it talks about there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friend. When you see that every single night where guys are volunteering, saying ‘Hey, I’ll be the first guy in the hole. I’ll be the first guy through the door.’ And you see that over and over. We were all like that. It’s humbling to be in that circle of men and have that bond with people. It’s hard to replicate.”

College football

Winona State (1-0) at Minn. Duluth (0-1)

What: UMD’s home opener; Military Appreciation Night

When: 6:05 p.m. Saturday

Where: Malosky Stadium

Forecast: Morning clouds will give way to sunshine and a high of 71

TV: My9

Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1