TAMPA — Arthur Cardenas didn’t know many details of his father’s time fighting in World War II until he after joined the military himself.
Now the whole country will know the story of Odon S. Cardenas, a 100-year-old Army veteran who will be honored on the field during the pregame coin toss at Super Bowl 54 on Sunday evening in Miami Gardens.
Odon will be accompanied on the field at Hard Rock Stadium by Arthur, a retired master sergeant who spent 24 years in the Air Force — including eight years stationed at MacDill ― and remains a Tampa resident, and another son, Raul, an Army veteran of the first Gulf War.
The NFL invited Odon and three other 100-year-old veterans to participate in Sunday’s pregame coin toss to honor the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The NFL is also celebrating its 100th season.
“As we culminate the NFL’s 100th season, we’re extremely proud to honor four World War II veterans celebrating 100 years of life,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. “These four men deserve our gratitude for their tremendous contributions to the United States of America and we’re thrilled to recognize their service on the country’s largest stage.”
The coin toss will be broadcast on Fox.
Since Odon turned 100 in July, he has been receiving recognition locally in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas. Three weeks ago, he received a letter from Goodell inviting him to the Super Bowl.
Arthur will bring his daughter, Stephanie Remigio, son-in-law Jose Remigio and grandson David Remigio from Tampa to the Super Bowl to celebrate with his father, bringing together four generations of the family.
“We’re very humbled and honored that he’s getting that recognition,” said Arthur, who relocated to MacDill from Homestead Air Force Base following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and retired in 2000. “We’re happy to accompany him there, but I don’t think he will be fazed too much by it. He is a little excited about going. I think overall, no one can really measure the magnitude of something like that, but it won’t change him. He’s a very humble man.”
In the war, Odon was a sergeant and squad leader who served under General George S. Patton. He fought in the Ardennes campaign as Patton’s third army drove through France during the Battle of the Bulge and the Allied’s victory in the Rhineland campaign through Germany.
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While fighting in Germany, several men in his unit were killed, a blast knocked Odon unconscious and he was left for dead. Once he regained consciousness, he and a few others attempted escape but were captured and sent to German POW Camp 9B near the Rhine River for two weeks. The camp eventually was liberated by U.S. forces.
Odon still has a Nazi flag that he took down from the POW camp, something he calls his prized possession from the war.
“When I joined the military, I really didn’t know the extent of everything he did,” said Arthur, who served as his squadron’s superintendent of combat arms training. “He didn’t really talk about it. It wasn’t until I retired that he started telling all the details 24 years later. He’d tell stories to our commanding officers and the people above me. They’d ask me, ‘Did you know about that?’ and it would be the first time I heard about it. He never talked about it.”
Odon received an American Defense Medal, Good Conduct Medal and European African Middle Eastern Service Medal with three bronze stars. He was honorably discharged in October 1945, two months after the war ended. Odon, who enjoyed a post-military career as a barber, has 10 children, 18 grandchildren, 30 great grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.
He was an expert marksman — specializing in rifle and carbine weaponry —, and Arthur would go on to serve as an Air Force firearms training instructor for 20 years, training Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force personnel at MacDill.
Dolores Kotilaidze, Odon’s daughter and caretaker, said her father is excited about being recognized on such a huge stage as the Super Bowl, but is still soaking it in.
“He’s happy that he’s going,” she said. “I tell him he’s going to be on TV and he’s like, ‘What?’ He doesn’t believe it. He says, ‘Why?’ He’s always been a wonderful man, and now I’m just so happy that the rest of the world will know.”
Arthur said they have reason to believe that Odon is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, living Latino World War II veteran in the country. He was recently registered with the Friends of the World War II Memorial, which keeps track of veterans and was key in connecting the NFL with the family.
“He is a religious person,” Kotilaidze said "He prays every night. ... A lot of people ask him what’s your secret when they find out he’s 100, and he said he owes it all to the man upstairs.
"...And oatmeal. He's been eating oatmeal every day for breakfast since he was a child."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard