Army Col. Gregory D. Gadson was catastrophically wounded in an improvised explosive device attack in Iraq in May 2007. Just four months later he was called upon to deliver a motivational speech to the New York Giants as they faltered early in the football season. The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl that season.
Gadson, drawing upon his military leadership skills, went on to become a motivational speaker, actor, and business entrepreneur. He credits his accomplishments first, to God, and to his family, but also to the team and confidence-building guidance he first received at the U.S. Military Academy and throughout his Army career.
His amazing story is told in a new book, Finding Waypoints: A Warrior’s Journey Towards Peace and Purpose, co-authored by Terese Schlachter and Gadson (Schaffner Press). Schlachter is an Emmy Award-winning television producer who met Gadson during his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
LTC Greg Gadson was still recovering, but at home one Monday morning when his cell phone rang. Greg recognized his former West Point football teammate, Mike Sullivan’s number. “Sully!” Greg shouted into the phone. In the years since graduation, Sullivan had completed his military commitment and gone on to become a coach for the New York Giants. Sully had visited him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center not long after Greg was wounded in an IED explosion. “Hey Greg—how are you doing?” Sully sounded tentative. “Good! I’ve been watching—you really had some bad breaks in the last two games.” The Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers had left the Giants 0-2.
“Yeah, we’re struggling,” Sully understated. The team was dragging, physically and emotionally.
“So,” Sully hesitated, “I wanted to ask you a favor.”
“Sure, Sully, what is it . . .” . . . that I could do for you in my condition? Greg finished the sentence in his head.
“I want you to talk to the team.” “To the Giants? About what?” he asked. He looked down at his stubs. It had only been four months…
“I just want you to tell them your story,” Sully said.
Greg went silent for a minute. He had not counted on being anyone’s spiritual role model, especially for a whole team of people, especially one that played in the NFL. He was barely holding himself together, some days.
“I’ll do it, Sully, yeah, of course.” The confidence in his own voice surprised him.
He was a college player. Former college player. Former college player with no legs. What was he going to say to a room full of professionals?
Typically, it was Coach Tom Coughlin who addressed the team the night before game day. But on the evening before the Giants were to take on the Washington Redskins, Sully took the podium.
“I’ve brought a friend of mine along tonight,” Sully began, “and I’d like him to say a few words to you guys. His name is Greg Gadson. Lieutenant Colonel Greg Gadson. He played for West Point, and has had an impressive career in the Army. Last spring, he was injured by an explosive device in Iraq. He lost both of his legs. I think now is a good time for you all to hear his story.”
Greg wheeled himself to the front of the room. He glanced at the index card he’d brought along to make notes. It was blank.
“Like Sully just said, I was an outside linebacker for Army. When you play for Army— it’s different from playing for other colleges. You wouldn’t spend much time worrying about going pro—because you’re going in the Army.”
He heard a few chuckles.
“My unit and I deployed from Fort Riley to Baghdad last February. When you have a command—meaning I was in charge of a couple of hundred soldiers over there—you have a security team, and I was with them, on our way back from a memorial service for two guys who’d paid the ultimate price . . . " He stopped, as he always did when remembering the fallen. “And that’s when our vehicle struck an IED. So, one minute, I’m driving along a paved road in Iraq, thinking about my job, my mission, what I’m going to have for dinner and the next minute, I’m at Walter Reed and—and nearly half my body is gone.”
“That’s how fast your life can change,” Greg plowed forward, feeling his words press the air. “In an instant, everything as you now know it could be over. You could have a career-ending injury and lose your job. Then what happens to your family? It’s over in a second.” No one spoke. They did not even look at each other. Every Giant stared straight ahead at Gadson.
“That’s why you need to use every opportunity you have.” He glanced at Sully. “That’s how you need to play tomorrow. It’s easy to get caught up in other things—the media, the attention. But none of that matters. The only thing that matters is what’s in this room: your teammates. You can do nothing without the guy next to you. Nothing. On May 7, I would have died without the guy next to me. By the time they found me—I’d been thrown a ways from the vehicle—I was barely breathing and I’d lost a lot of blood. First Sergeant Fredrick Johnson started breathing his own breath into me. You know, Johnson is this big fast-talking southern guy—you can barely understand him when he speaks but he is a great man. He saved my life. Because he knew what to do in the heat of battle. He knew that in that moment nothing mattered but his teammate. Johnson and another guy, Eric Brown. Brown was just a kid. Private First Class Brown was our unit’s medic. I’m alive because of their training and their teamwork.
They had to secure the perimeter, to make sure nothing else happened. They had to control that chaos. And they had to save my life. And that’s what they did. They confronted all that adversity with teamwork. They came together. And they were successful.” Greg paused and looked around the room.
“That group of soldiers, out there in the desert, started out having no idea what they were capable of,” Greg continued. “They didn’t know if they could survive the heat, or an enemy attack, or some crazy disease. They didn’t know how to fight in an urban desert. But they learned. They became each other’s lifelines. In the end they saved my life, and formed that important chain, forged those bonds that got them through that night. And they all made it back to base, back to safety. That was their victory.”
Greg stopped talking. The room went silent. Then there was a clap. Then another. Every player rose from his seat, smashing huge hands together, the sound echoing through the room like firecrackers.
In the dining room Coughlin looked around for Gadson. He had presented a tremendously important message about lack of self, and immersion in team. And just when he thought he could not be any more impressed, he caught an image that set him back for a moment. There was Gadson chatting it up with his hardest nut to crack. Coughlin would not call Plaxico Burress impossible, but he was hard to handle. And the coach had sure handled some tough ones. Burress was an all “I” guy. Not the sort who would warm naturally to an “outsider.” The coach may have wondered if the lieutenant colonel would next offer up two fish to feed thousands.
Some were calling it the Miracle at the Meadowlands. Beginning with the Redskins game, the New York Giants had nearly whiplashed themselves with a turnaround season. Sully knew it was, at least in part, the words of Greg Gadson that had flipped their odds. The week after the Redskins game the Giants easily handled the Philadelphia Eagles 16-3. Then followed nearly weekly victories. The New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and the Buffalo Bills all fell to the team that had nearly gone bust in September. Then the Giants, unbelievably, headed to the playoffs, where they would beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on their home turf. In Dallas, the Giants walked away with a 21-17 victory against the Cowboys. And in one of the coldest games on record in the NFL, they defeated Green Bay Packers in Wisconsin, confirming their invitation to the Super Bowl.
On February 2, 2008, the night before the championship game, Greg wheeled himself, once again, to the front of a hotel conference room without having put a whole lot of thought into exactly what he wanted to say. But he did have a clear message in mind. This team, now on the very brink, needed only to understand its own power and to believe in it. Belief, Greg thought, eliminates all other possibilities.
It had been eight months since he’d been blown up, that much he was sure of. He had been told he’d nearly died. He’d nearly died more than once. But in all the struggle, it never occurred to him that he really could have died. He believed Private Brown, who first applied the tourniquets in the field, and First Sergeant Fredrick Johnson, who initially resuscitated him, would not let it happen. Nor would Dr. Brad Woods, the surgeon in Baghdad. Even as he was rushed back into surgery by Dr. Donald Gajewski at Walter Reed, putrid fluid oozing from his collapsing artery, he somehow knew death was never on the table. It was not that he knew he would live. He believed he would live.
Tomorrow, there could be nothing on the table for this team but belief. Greg put on his soldier face—the look of a commander. This was his unit. They were going into battle.
It was a very different atmosphere on this Super Bowl eve from the one he had wheeled into in September. The men were different. They had grown together, they had learned to watch each other’s backs. They were stronger and more focused. There was a mighty cocoon that encapsulated them now. They were no longer individuals. He hoped he had imparted some of that spirit. He knew he had become part of it.
Greg had also evolved. He had worked hard physically, just as they had. And he had seen some dark days over the past several months, just as they had. Like soldiers in trenches, they had fought their greatest enemies together. Something close to relief swept the room when he began to speak this time. They saw a man who had for sure been straight up on the edge of death but had grabbed onto life and stuffed it back into his soul. His spirit was not only intact, it was flourishing. Gadson was learning how to turn hardship not only into a lesson, but into success.
“If I could be anywhere right now,” Greg began, “I’d be in Iraq with my unit, because that’s where I belong. I know that’s not going to happen. But I’m proud and immensely thankful to be here with you all tonight. I’ve come to know you as a group and I can honestly say you have what it takes now to be champions.”
Greg continued, “I’m going to talk to you about three words I learned in the Army: pride, poise and team. You have pride. You are proud members of the New York Giants, an organization with a lot of history and you are one game away. You’re poised to create an even deeper history of victory tomorrow. You know how you gain poise? You gain poise with practice and training. Poise means you are ready to make that difficult play, catch that impossible pass because you have gone through that motion so many times, you instinctively know what to do. It’s automatic. It’s rote. In the Army, we couldn’t step onto the battlefield knowing what lies ahead without the unwavering confidence that comes with hard core training and repetition, hammering through those drills every day—that’s poise. And team. You already know about team. I told you in September, there will only be one 2007 New York Giants team and gentlemen, this is it. This is the team that will sustain you for the rest of your lives. This is a team that I’d take back to Iraq with me—every one of you if I could—that’s how strongly I believe in you and your commitment, your bond, to each other. I trust you because you trust each other.”
A few players looked at each other, cementing that bond in their glances, nodding in slow motion at his words.
“Now there’s one more word I’m adding, and that’s belief. Most importantly, you have to believe. Believing is better than knowing. It’s that powerful. When I was lying down in the desert, weak, bleeding, unable to call out, wondering when my soldiers would come, even then I believed I would live. Dying wasn’t an option. And here I am talking to you right now. Because I believed.”
From “Finding Waypoints: A Warrior’s Journey Towards Peace and Purpose” by Terese Schlachter and Col. Gregory D. Gadson, (Ret.). Copyright ©2023 and reprinted by permission of Schaffner Press, Inc.
Terese Schlachter is a Washington-D.C. based writer and producer of videos and documentaries (NBC News, Dept of Defense) who first met Col. Gadson when covering the new veterans facility at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007.
Col. Gregory D. Gadson retired from the Army and is an independent government contractor. He serves on several boards (among them the Gary Sinise Foundation, Hope for Warriors, and World Team Sports), and travels the country giving inspirational talks to corporate groups, non-profits, people with disabilities, teams, and other organizations.
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