It all started in the winter of 2014 as a conversation over tattoos led to a unique friendship between a pair of people who have overcome incredible adversity in their lives.
As #MizzouMade wide receiver L’Damian Washington was training for the 2014 NFL Draft in Pensacola, Fla., the presence of a large, tattooed man going through a rigorous rehabilitation workout caught his attention. Washington struck a conversation with the man and immediately there was a connection, a connection molded by the heartbreaking hardships that each man had endured.
But it wasn’t until Washington offered the man a ride home that he truly learned who this man was – Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of the failed Operation Red Wing and the central figure behind the New York Times bestseller and major motion picture Lone Survivor.
“I was asking him about his tattoos and he told me the stories that they tell and represent and we picked up conversation,” Washington said. “I wound up giving him a ride home.”
“I got jammed up and I couldn’t get home and we live right by each other. So I asked him for a ride and that was it,” Luttrell said. “After that, I’d find him in there after workouts and we’d hang out and have conversations about life.”
During their ride home that evening in Pensacola, Washington told his story of overcoming the tragic death of both his parents. His father was shot and killed when he was five and his mother passed away 10 years later. That left him homeless and tasked with raising his brothers in Shreveport, La., while trying to earn a Division I football scholarship. Washington’s incredible story of perseverance and resolve led to him earning his degree from Mizzou while helping the team to a 12-2 season in 2013. It also led to the respect of Luttrell, who shared with L’Damian his stories of survival, specifically the story of which Lone Survivor is based when Luttrell survived a failed counter-insurgent, four-man mission to eliminate Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. After that ride, the two were forever bonded together. That bond led Luttrell to Mizzou last Wednesday.
Repaying a Favor
Football is often compared to war and combat. While no one pretends that football players endure the suffering and hardship that soldiers do while protecting our country, both foster and incredible sense of brotherhood. Washington, who was ‘owed a favor’ by Luttrell, asked him to repay that favor and talk to the 2015 Mizzou Football team about that sense of brotherhood he had as a member of the Navy SEALS.
“I was surprised,” senior LB Clarence Green said when he found out Luttrell would be speaking to the team. “He was a great guy, great motivator and an inspiring speaker, so when I saw him in the room I was like: ‘wow he’s really in this room at Mizzou.'”
With every member of the Mizzou Football team, coaching staff and support staff packed into the Onoforio Room, Luttrell met with the Mizzou Football team last Wednesday.
“I try and tell them that look: ‘there is nothing I can tell you that you haven’t already heard. You’ve been playing this game and you’re going to hear every quip and anything to get you fired up.’ What I can do is put a perspective on how far you can take being a team and that’s life or death,” Luttrell said.
Brotherhood was a common theme for Luttrell in the 25 minutes that he spoke with the team. He related the sense of brotherhood that he felt with his peers in the SEALS to the football field.
“The only thing that matters is your ability to stand right here beside me. That’s the truest form of life. Nothing else matters. That’s why I talked to them today,” Luttrell said. “You walk through hell with somebody long enough man, you can’t pull them apart … You throw that jersey on and that helmet comes on, that individuality is gone. You have now blessed everyone on the team with what you got. That’s your part.”
The message of brotherhood resonated with the entire team, especially for Green, a senior LB on one of the nation’s most elite defenses.
“I was just hearing all the adversity that he was talking about that when things hit the fan in the Navy, you have to look at your partner to your left and look at him to the right like ‘come on, get your head up’ and that’s what we needed to hear,” Green said. “Sometimes you have to apply it to football. We need to look at each other and say ‘let’s get it up and go back to the Mizzou way.'”
The message was not lost on the younger Mizzou players either, especially for freshman Cam Hilton, who sought Luttrell for a picture and words of encouragement following his speech.
“It makes you realize that we’re all we have,” Hilton said. “The person next to you; that’s your brother so do what you have to do for them. Don’t do it for yourself, do it for your brother.”
For nearly half an hour, Luttrell’s stories of perseverance and brotherhood inspired Mizzou Football. And while not one player in the room could directly relate to some of the suffering that Luttrell had been through, each was undoubtedly touched by his message.
“When I talk to them, I try and tell them that this isn’t going to be built overnight,” Luttrell said. “All you guys have great skill sets but you come from all over the country. You can’t pay people enough money to be a team. That’s not how that works. It’s out there on the gridiron. The beauty of playing Division I athletics is that it gives you a great perspective on life. You learn to deal with everybody. You learn to deal with hard problems and pain. The only thing that matters is your ability to stand right here beside me. That’s the truest form of life. Nothing else matters. That’s why I talk to them.”