Matt Black has been recognized before for possessing the qualities of a Canadian veteran, but the CFL player says he’s humbled by the real-life sacrifices many in the military make.
The Toronto Argonauts defensive back is among a group of league players and personnel visiting Canadian troops in Lviv, Ukraine and Marseilles, France. The main objective of the trip is to boost morale, but Black said it’s armed forces officials who are providing inspiration.
“My wife giving birth to our daughter, winning a Grey Cup in 2012 and this trip are three of the most influential things in my life,” Black said in a telephone interview. “Words can’t describe the sacrifices the brave men and women of our military make . . . this is something I’ll never forget.
“I wish every Canadian had this experience because their appreciation of what our military goes through would change forever.”
The visit is especially significant to Black. He received the 2016 Jake Gaudaur Veterans’ Award, given annually to the CFL player best demonstrating the qualities of Canada’s veterans.
“I do what I do because I’m one of the fortunate guys who gets to play in the community he grew up in,” said Black. “But when you meet the men and women who willingly step into harm’s way for the betterment of me and my family, who they’ve never met, and our country as a whole, personally I just feel like everything I’ve done is so insignificant in comparison.
“They have families and yet they’re stationed halfway across the world and it just puts everything into perspective and gives you a real understanding of what their reality is. They’re just like every other CFL player but the difference is when we leave on a Friday to play, we’re back home by Monday whereas some of these people are gone for months and don’t have the opportunities to communicate with their families that we do.”
A point not lost upon B.C. Lions long-snapper Mike Benson.
“I’m from Winnipeg and play in Vancouver and it’s hard to be away from family for six months but at least I get to see them,” he said. “We play in Winnipeg twice and my girlfriend flies out three, four times a season.
“But many military people also have significant others in (armed forces) and they told us stories where they’re walking through the airport and high-five their wife or husband and keep walking the other way and don’t see each other for another six months except for two weeks off. I don’t know how they do it because, honestly, I couldn’t.”
Last year, CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge along with some CFL players and NHL alumni visited Canadian troops in Ukraine, Kuwait and France. Country artist Dallas Smith and comedian John Sheehan accompanied the players on this trip, which began Friday and concludes Wednesday.
CFL players have not only met with military personnel but also conducted football clinics and posed for photos with the Grey Cup. Benson says the experience has been surreal.
“It’s amazing to realize we’re able to make a difference and help boost morale and give them a break from every day life because Ukraine is a pretty grey area,” he said. “I wish I could it more often.”
Canadians in Lviv are teaching Ukrainian troops the basics of soldiering, such as how to use their weapons and move as a unit. They’re also providing more advanced skills like bomb disposal and medical training to recruits slated to serve in country’s armed conflict with Russian-backed separatists.
“I’ll admit I was pretty ignorant about what’s going on in Ukraine,” Benson said. “There’s an actual war going on and it’s serious and I had no idea to how detailed it is.
“It’s pretty amazing the selfless effort and patience the Canadian troops are giving to train these people. It was eye-opening.”
Benson said the trip has changed his perspective.
“It’s extremely humbling for all of us to come out to what we saw in Ukraine,” he said. “I definitely don’t take anything for granted anymore in comparison to what we’ve been through and seen.
“It’s a privilege and honour to do this.”
Black has gained a new appreciation of the life he has in Canada.
“We need to understand we’re a very lucky country,” he said. “And for those brave men and women who put their lives on hold to serve their country, we owe them a great debt of gratitude, we really truly do.”
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press