Jason Kyle's stomach hadn’t settled down completely as he spoke on the phone from his San Diego hotel last Thursday night. His mind, though, had calmed down a few hours earlier and already was expanding.
The long-snapper for the New Orleans Saints has several business ventures on the side. He is the Chief Executive Officer of his own start-up company, which sets up pro athletes with endorsement and speaking opportunities, and used to be very active in the NFL Players Association. Kyle is one of the smartest players in the league, and he made an astute observation last week.
“You know, I’d never thought about it in these terms until today,’’ said Kyle, 38 and a veteran of 17 NFL seasons. “We’re professional athletes, and people think we’re great and want our autographs and treat us like kings. But we’re not heroes. We’re just guys that are blessed to be able to run fast or shoot a basketball or whatever, and some of us work at it very hard. But that doesn’t make us heroes. Those people are the real heroes.’’
“Those people’’ are the Blue Angels and the rest of the military personnel Kyle met at Naval Air Facility El Centro last week. It’s funny how flying at speeds of more than 700 miles per hour and going up, down and sideways will shake up your stomach and your thoughts. That’s what happened to Kyle as he went up for an 80-minute flight over the California desert with the Navy’s flight demonstration unit.
“Twenty minutes into the flight, I was in as much of a sweat as I’ve been in my whole life,’’ Kyle said. “I’ve always prided myself on working very hard to stay in shape. I’m not in the kind of shape those pilots are. They prepped me for it and told me what I’d have to do to keep myself from blacking out. You’re constantly tightening your legs and your stomach to keep the blood going to your head, so you don’t black out and you know which way is up and down. Those guys have to be able to do that all the time.
“Think about what they do, and think about what we do. There’s really no comparison. Those guys are incredibly good at something that’s incredibly difficult, and they work so hard at it and the stakes are a little different than playing football. I couldn’t imagine having to land one of those planes on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the night. But I am very glad and proud that we do have exceptional people that can do that.’’
Kyle got the invitation because he’s a close friend of former New Orleans kicker John Carney, who lives in the San Diego area and has flown with the Blue Angels before.
“John didn’t go up this time,’’ Kyle said. “He talked me into it and said it would be like riding a roller coaster. It wasn’t like any roller coaster I’ve ever been on. John came along to watch it from the ground. I think I saw him taking pictures and laughing at me as I stumbled off the plane at the end of the flight.’’
Kyle, who spent eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers before joining the Saints in 2009, was able to laugh after the flight, but definitely not during it or even before it.
Pilots briefed Kyle on what to expect prior to the flight, and that’s when he began to worry a bit. They told him he would experience G-forces as high as 7.5 and that he might black out if he didn’t keep blood rushing to his head. They told about different maneuvers that were planned, and that parts of the flight would be upside down.
There were also mentions of how there would be some low-terrain flying, where the plane would be lower than some nearby mountains. They also made sure he knew that there was an air-sickness bag close to his left hand and another close to his right.
“I had two goals,’’ Kyle said. “Not blacking out and not throwing up. I was one out of two.’’
Kyle didn’t black out.
“An 80-minute flight, I’d guess I spent 30 minutes of it getting sick,’’ Kyle said.
Still, as he reflected on his flight, Kyle didn’t spend much time dwelling on the negatives. I've covered Kyle in his Carolina days and New Orleans days, and he went to the Super Bowl with the Panthers and the Saints. I never heard him sound so excited or animated.
He ticked off some highlights.
“When we hit 7.5 Gs, I felt like my head was in a vice,’’ Kyle said. “That wasn’t fun, but feeling the pressure go away as we eased up was pretty cool. We did some barrel rolls that were crazy, but they were also pretty fun. I can’t say it got any easier as we went along, but there were a few light minutes between turns that I really enjoyed.
“But the best thing I can say about it and the biggest compliment I can give is, that as crazy as it felt at times and as sick as I was, I never once felt really scared. That’s because I knew I was safe. I knew I was in the hands of people that are the absolute best in the world in doing what they do.’’
Kyle kissed the ground when he got out of the plane. He needed a little private time in the pilot’s locker room to start getting his body back. Then, he went out and mingled with the troops, took some pictures and signed some autographs.
But, like Kyle said at the top of this story, he didn’t feel like the celebrity. He felt like the guy hanging out with the real heroes.
There’s one last twist to this story. Although the experience was harrowing at times, the Blue Angels asked Kyle if he’d like to fly with them again. He accepted the offer.
But he’s going to wait a month or so.
“I need some recovery time,’’ Kyle said. “But I also want to really work on my legs and abdominals, and some of the pilots gave me some advice on how they do it. I’m going to try it and try to prepare like the Blue Angels and all the military pilots.’’
Prepare like the real heroes.