A 'day game' unlike any other


t was early in the morning on Oct. 4, 2012, when First Platoon Bravo Company 1-64 Armor Third Infantry Division resumed its mission in Afghanistan's Panjwai District. To that point, the mission in one of Kandahar's more dangerous areas had been successful. Despite taking on enemy fire for a couple of hours on the first day, nobody had been seriously injured and the group of 15 United States Army and 15 Afghan National Army soldiers had already discovered and taken care of some improvised explosive devices.

As the soldiers moved into the next village of mud huts and goat pens, they didn't know they were being watched. They were soon ambushed and a firefight broke out. Some soldiers took rounds to the back, but like the day before, nobody was seriously wounded.

A few hours later, the platoon was within about 200 meters of its rally point. There, the soldiers would regroup and reorganize. Now in a farm town, they were at a dirt-road intersection no wider than eight feet across. The area wasn't new to them; they had been there before. However, this time something was different.

"The place was a ghost town," United States Army Spc. Calvin Todd remembers.

Gone were the little kids running around. Adults were absent, too, as no signs of life could be seen within a compound that housed a mosque.

The group was divided in two, with the lead element advancing to clear the road. Todd, who was told to stay at the rear, remained at the intersection to check on security. As Todd turned back at the corner of the intersection to tell the others that things were secure, an explosive detonated 50 to 60 meters away.

The explosion was big; everything rattled, windows shook. Nobody made any noise up ahead as the dust cloud rolled through. Fearing something bad had happened, Todd, the platoon's medic, sprang into action.

"You kinda do the, 'Hey! Who's OK? Who's OK?' and then I just -- I took off running, trying to figure out who had got hit," he says.

Reaching the middle of the intersection, a place Todd had crossed three or four times already since arriving back in the farm town, he planted his foot and triggered a second roadside bomb to partially go off.

Todd went flying and slammed onto the ground. His ears rang and he couldn't talk because dust had blown into his mouth.

"You feel like Mike Tyson punched you 35 times in the head," Todd explains. "You don't know what happened."

Moments later, Todd was going into shock, but he began examining himself nonetheless. His arms were intact and his hands had all their fingers. Something wasn't right, though. While he could move his right leg, his left wouldn't budge.

About 30 seconds afterward, a member of his platoon appeared by Todd's side and helped drag him away from where he had landed. More platoon members finished applying the tourniquet that Todd had started putting on himself. The sound of Apache helicopters above meant help was on the way.

• • • • •

Around this time on the Washington, D.C., campus of American University, a 19-year-old was juggling his freshman year of college and the planning of his second Shootout for Soldiers.

The purpose of Tyler Steinhardt's grassroots event, which he thought up while a high school senior at Boys' Latin School of Maryland and is highlighted by a 24-hour lacrosse game broken into one-hour mini-games, was twofold: to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, and to bring the local civilian and veteran communities together. Steinhardt said the first Shootout for Soldiers shattered expectations that spring, but it also nearly ended before it was scheduled to start.

It was about 7 in the morning on Flag Day, June 14, 2012 -- just two hours before the start of the event -- and Steinhardt was worried. Concerned about whether or not people would actually show up to Boys' Latin, the then-18-year-old told his father that he thought the event might fall through.

"You have no idea what you're doing, honestly," Steinhardt remembers of all the difficulties he faced. "Everything you're doing is just stabbing at the dark, [you're] hoping it works out."

Thinking of a contingency plan, Steinhardt had directed 80 of his friends to show up at the school decked out in their lacrosse pads. They soon learned that their presence wasn't necessary.

Roughly 1,000 people ranging in age from 10 to over 40 made up the two teams. About 5,000 people in all attended to play, watch, chow down on some barbecue, buy event apparel, learn about the Wounded Warrior Project or donate money.

"You would think that people who I told their time slots were 3 a.m. would be not happy and, in the end, it ended up being more people were there -- 3 and 4 a.m. in the morning -- than 11 o'clock in the morning," Steinhardt says.

Among the late-night crowd was a handful of college lacrosse's royalty. Fresh off winning the NCAA Division I championship almost three weeks prior, a car full of players from the Loyola Greyhounds drove by the prep school around 3 a.m. Seeing lights on at the school was an oddity because Boys' Latin didn't have lights for its lacrosse field, so the players stopped to check out what was going on. They wound up staying for a while and hopped into one of the mini-games.

Also in attendance at one point was Major League Lacrosse and National Lacrosse League star Paul Rabil, who ended up coaching a group of 11-year-olds who initially didn't have anybody to work their sideline.

Rabil and Steinhardt were introduced before the event through one of the Shootout's sponsors, Jay Dyer, a strength and conditioning coach in the Baltimore area who works with the Johns Hopkins lacrosse team as well as with Rabil. The event was something special for the professional lacrosse player; his best friend growing up had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2008 and since leaving West Point has spent two years on duty in Afghanistan.

"He's made a significant sacrifice for all of us on a daily basis," Rabil says, "and to have the opportunity to give back ... [it] feels like something so small compared to what our troops do overseas."

By 9 a.m. the following day, when the event concluded, Steinhardt and his group of volunteers handed the Wounded Warrior Project a check for $105,000, an amount that exceeded the group's goal by $95,000.

• • • • •

Within a week of the explosion, Calvin Todd's left leg was amputated five inches below the knee during one of several surgeries in Afghanistan and Germany. His final stop for additional surgeries and eventual rehabilitation was Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

The experience was daunting for Todd and provided him a whirlwind of emotions during his first few weeks at Walter Reed.

Up late one night in his one-person hospital room, things took a turn for the worse emotionally when something on TV hit close to home. The music video of Jason Aldean's country song "Tattoos On This Town" came on. The song tells a story that takes place in a small town where a romance blossoms into marriage. Before long, the young man deploys for a tour of duty and is killed in action. Back home, his wife is left to grieve as well as deliver and raise the sweethearts' son.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Todd recalls.

About 2½ weeks before he was wounded, his wife, Alice, had given birth to their son, Angus.

"It just kinda hit me, like, I may never run again or I may never be able to hold my kid," says Todd, 25. "The realization that I could be dead right now -- I could have stepped two inches to the left and triggered the whole bomb -- you're so thankful for being alive. But at the same time, you're so pissed you're not whole ... you're not 100 percent of what you were."

Although he was suffering on the inside, Todd refused to let his wife, mother and brother -- who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan -- know what was going on. Todd wanted to be there for them and not have them wonder how he was handling things himself.

With his father, it was a different story. The two had been through a lot together and Todd knew his father was someone he could turn to.

"When I was feeling down, he was always there," Todd says.

As time went on, Todd was given hospital privileges and the chance to head to Walter Reed's rehabilitation center to start physical therapy. Finally being able to leave his hospital room and interact with others outside his family helped Todd begin to turn the corner emotionally.

One of the first veterans he met at Walter Reed was Army Sgt. Travis Mills. Mills is a quadruple amputee and, according to Todd, one of the funniest guys around.

When the two met, Mills told Todd, "Aw, you're fine. You know? You're going to be OK."

With physical therapy underway, Todd set what he thought were baby goals. First up was being able to walk again by Thanksgiving.

A blast injury like Todd's isn't easy to come back from. It's painful and results in swelling, nerve damage and bone trauma. Then there was the actual process of learning to walk without his left foot and lower part of his leg.

Todd didn't let the challenge get the best of him. Slowly but surely, he inched toward accomplishing the feat as the self-imposed Thanksgiving deadline neared. Two days before the benchmark, he did it. He walked.

"It was like, 'Hey, I'm me again,'" Todd says about his painful first steps.

Next, Todd wanted to lose his cane and gave himself until Christmas to be able to walk without it. By about mid-December, he crossed that task off his to-do list, as well.

That same month, Todd received an email from a teammate from a high school select lacrosse team. Todd -- a goalie who went on to play in college, turning down opportunities to play at schools like Providence and Hofstra in favor of playing Division III lacrosse in Ohio at The College of Wooster -- was invited to the select team's alumni event.

Todd called the sender of the email to explain that he couldn't come. The sender was shocked to hear that Todd had lost a leg in Afghanistan and was at Walter Reed.

"Yeah, but don't worry, I'll play again," Todd told him.

• • • • •

After getting the OK from his physical therapist, Todd set his sights on returning to the sport he loved. He made this summer his target date.

As he continued his rehabilitation into the spring, a friend came across something on Facebook and told Todd to take a look. It was a page for Steinhardt's second annual Shootout for Soldiers. Interested, Todd marked on his calendar when the event would start accepting online registration.

Shortly after registering, Todd reached out to Steinhardt to thank him for putting on the event and to introduce himself as well as explain his situation.

"It's cool to see that people of his age care and they want to be that involved and it's important to them in their eyes," Todd says.

Todd's name wasn't new to Steinhardt when the teenager saw the veteran's email in his inbox. Steinhardt had seen a video about Todd online, but he didn't know much of the backstory as to how the Army specialist was wounded.

Soon, that one email turned into something bigger.

The two started talking on the phone and often text each other. Steinhardt has even made a couple of trips to Walter Reed to visit Todd -- who is living with his wife and 9-month-old son in a two-bedroom apartment on the medical center's campus -- and watch the veteran wield his goalie stick while playing catch with other wounded soldiers.

"I can't be more thankful that I met him this year," Steinhardt says.

Steinhardt and Todd became fast friends; however, for Steinhardt, the relationship is more than just an everyday friendship.

"I don't think I've ever met anyone in such a short amount of time who's had such a profound impact on how I view things in the world," he says.

Prior to meeting Todd, Steinhardt never could have imagined what it'd be like to grow up having a disability or experience a life-changing event like Todd's. By meeting Todd, Steinhardt says he's more cognizant of and thankful for his blessings.

Says Steinhardt: "It's truly powerful -- the stuff that he's overcome and [keeping] that positive spirit, it's pretty amazing."

• • • • •

On Tuesday, June 11, Steinhardt kicked off the second Shootout for Soldiers with something new -- a reception dinner for 40 that included veterans and the event's organizers.

At 8:30 a.m. two days later, the event started. Following an opening ceremony that included appearances by Team USA lacrosse coach Richie Meade and U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Shootout's first veterans game took place. Manning the cage for one of the teams was Todd.

"It means a lot because, in a sense, it kind of encompasses where I was eight months ago to where I am now," Todd says of playing his first game since being wounded.

"I've had the ability to reach my goal ultimately and to play and compete, but at the same time, it feels good to know that you're taking part in something that's going to bring awareness to … other hurt guys."

The event's venue was also new, moving about 20 minutes west of The Boys' Latin School in Baltimore to McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md. Part of the reason for the move was that McDonogh is a more spacious setting, something Steinhardt capitalized on by upping the number of tents used for registration, a silent auction, apparel and food sales, the Wounded Warrior Project and other things.

The number of tents wasn't the only increase Steinhardt and his team of volunteers witnessed. The total of participants roughly doubled from the previous year, going from 1,000 to about 2,000 thanks in part to the additions of a 24-hour women's game on an adjacent field that featured Maryland freshman Taylor Cummings, a first-team All-American, and a one-hour MLL mini-game at 7 p.m. captained by Rabil and Brendan Mundorf.

Twice, thunderstorms chased the event indoors. That didn't dampen the festivities, though, as games and a fastest-shot competition were held at McDonogh's Rollins-Luetkemeyer Center.

Before daybreak on Friday, the Shootout also hosted a hot dog-eating competition, proving just like last year that the event isn't just for those who know how to stick and body check, cradle or work inverted from the X.

When all was said and done at 9 a.m. on Flag Day, June 14, the Stars had beaten the Stripes 349-336 and Steinhardt presented the Wounded Warrior Project with a check for $126,000. Though the total was $21,000 greater than the previous year's donation, it wasn't what Steinhardt was focused on.

"The one thing that I stress to my team is, [at] the end of the day, the number that we fund-raise is great, but the main goal without a doubt is just to get more guys involved who have served this country and to make more of a connection on that," he says.

"A simple connection with a guy who served our country -- having a conversation, buying him some food, whatever it is -- talking to these guys and getting to know them will have a ripple effect and will create the sense of just true support that will last so much longer."

Mission accomplished.

Devon Heinen is a production assistant at ESPN.