Army 1st Lt. Brian Brennan has visited NFL teams before. He has met celebrities and had his inspirational story told to national television audiences.
But at Bucs practice Wednesday afternoon, Brennan experienced a first; he signed an autograph for a pro football player.
Brennan, a 25-year-old Riverview resident, lost both his legs and nearly died while serving in Afghanistan in May 2008, when a bomb exploded under a Humvee he was traveling in. He also suffered an acute brain injury, which put him in a coma for three weeks. Given little chance to live, Brennan recovered and now works at U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, where he helps the military learn from his experience.
On Wednesday, Veterans Day, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik introduced his special guest to the team at the end of practice, and players got to thank Brennan. Center Jeff Faine, who has had relatives serve in three wars, went even further. He pulled off his right knee brace, which has an American flag on it, and asked Brennan to sign it.
"I never thought I'd ever do anything like that," Brennan said. "It's a whole different world. It meant a great deal. That he really did appreciate it that much, and he really thinks about my story, to have me sign."
In conjunction with Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay — a nonprofit group that improves living conditions for people in need — the Bucs will help with the cost of renovating Brennan's home (about $12,000 market value) to make it more accessible and flexible to his needs, including enlarging the bathroom. Brennan has learned to walk on two prosthetic legs.
Dominik told the players after practice, "Here's a guy who knows a lot about the C-word, courage."
Brennan grew up in New Jersey and always thought about joining the military. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, sealed the deal. He applied to just one school, the Citadel, which he attended before getting sent to Afghanistan in March 2008. Brennan joined the 101st Airborne, the division immortalized in the television miniseries Band of Brothers.
Brennan said he remembers everything leading up to the explosion but nothing from the three months that followed. Brennan had a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung and a shattered femur in his leg. Both legs had to be amputated. But Brennan said the fact that three others died that day "is the hardest thing I have to deal with."
He was in a coma at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and had to have several surgeries to avoid infection. He showed his first significant movement in June 2008, when Gen. David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, visited and uttered the division's motto "Currahee," a Cherokee word meaning "we stand alone."
"It snapped me back into it," Brennan said. "I was always a big military guy. That was the main focus in my life, and it still is."
Brennan said he plans to teach ROTC at the Citadel and continue to serve as long as he can. "To me, I don't feel like I've given enough," he said. "I can always give more. I want to be a soldier the rest of my life."
The Bucs players appeared visibly moved by Brennan's visit, and all signed a ball for him. A Notre Dame fan, Brennan was thrilled when former Irish receiver Maurice Stovall gave him his jersey the day before on a visit to his home.
For Dominik, whose brother and father served in the Navy, the visit hit home.
"Today is a chance to think about all the freedoms we've been granted," Dominik said. "You don't understand the fact that less than 1 percent of our country actually volunteers for our country, yet 99 percent of us sometimes take for granted what they've done. Today is one of those days where we need to say, 'Thank you.' "