KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The NFL recognizes the armed forces throughout November with an annual “Salute to Service” campaign.
The celebrations aren’t limited to the field, as players attend military-related functions or visit installations to gain an appreciation of what men and women in uniform experience on a daily basis.
“I think it’s awesome,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You see the support that’s going on throughout the league. I’m proud of the National Football League for caring so much. You look around and we’re wearing camouflage out there – guys have towels and coaches have hats and the green gear that we’re wearing.”
The Chiefs pay tribute to the military Sunday as part of the NFL’s month-long campaign before hosting the Seattle Seahawks at Arrowhead Stadium.
Pregame ceremonies will include a field-length U.S. flag held by 100 representatives from each branch of service and the Air Force Singing Sergeant Quartet performing the national anthem.
While the military experiences could be new to some Chiefs players, rookie cornerback Phillip Gaines has a heartfelt fondness of the nation’s uniformed members.
Veterans Day and the NFL’s commitment to recognizing the men and women in uniform prompt a deep reflection for the 23-year-old Gaines.
“We can sometimes forget all that is going on overseas,” Gaines said. “That’s a time to really reflect on service, to really be thankful for all veterans.”
Gaines’ appreciation of the armed forces isn’t based on observations from afar.
Like Reid, whose father served in the Navy during World War II, Gaines personally knows the military lifestyle.
The Chiefs rookie was raised as the son of U.S. Air Force active duty members.
Gaines was born on Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., to Master Sgt. (retired) Bill Gaines and Senior Master Sgt. (retired) Susan McFarland. His older brother, William, currently lives in Arizona.
The family’s time in uniform took them from Massachusetts to Aviano Air Base in Italy, and then Randolph Air Base in San Antonio. The moves come with the territory of a nomadic military culture.
Still, the experiences left a lasting impression on a young Gaines that he carries today.
“I thought the coolest thing about being around the military was getting to travel and see different places,” Gaines said. “I was born on the East coast, moved to Italy, and then moved to Texas. I got to see a lot before some people got to move out their state.”
Gaines’ time on military installations, the majority spent in San Antonio starting as a 6-year-old through his teenaged years before departing for college at Rice University, also helped shape him.
And a little taste of a different culture certainly didn’t hurt.
“Phillip’s whole focus his entire life growing up was sports and just who he is today,” said McFarland, who retired from active duty in 2002 following 24 years of service. “When we were in Italy, we put him in an Italian school, which was an experience in itself.”
Bill Gaines said his son wasn’t exactly thrilled about attending the school, but quickly warmed and adjusted to the surroundings.
“The thing was he took to the school very well,” the elder Gaines said. “This kid was speaking better Italian six months in than either of us was, and I was taking Italian courses.”
Being overseas provided Gaines’ parents an initial look at their youngest son’s athletic side, which his father, who retired from active duty in 1993 after 21 years of service, helped develop as a tee-ball coach when Gaines was 4.
While Gaines participated in other sports growing up, there was one sport where he truly thrived, even against older kids.
McFarland said the age limit to play flag football in Italy started between ages 5-6, but her son’s talent proved hard to ignore.
“Phillip was so fast, lightning fast, from the time he was a tiny little kid that they allowed him to play football,” she said. “He just tore them up in flag football. He chased people down from behind. He was competitive from that age on.”
Gaines also had a goal in mind from those playing days, and he made sure his mother knew it.
“I laugh about this and I say this,” McFarland said, “but I remember when he was little he’d say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to go in the NFL someday.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, honey!’ It’s the little kid thing that happens. He was serious.”
Gaines was focused on achieving his dream by the time his parents moved to San Antonio from overseas.
But he also needed to possess the required self-control as he matured to reach the next level.
Being around military-minded parents, both of whom lived work ethic and discipline in uniform, provided the perfect role models on a daily basis.
“I think just Bill and me,” McFarland said, “our experiencing the military, ‘Got to get up. You can’t just call out sick. You got to work. You got to pick up and move your family.’ And being able to handle that definitely instilled that into Phillip.”
Playing any competitive sport, especially college football, requires a high level of discipline.
And the aspiring young football player applied what he learned from his parents to the playing field in practice and live games.
“I think Phillip, simply because of the sport, a lot of it comes from the character of military kids,” Bill Gaines said. “They do pick up some of the things that their parents try to instill in them.”
Gaines’ parents didn’t have to worry if their son heeded their word as he moved from high school sports to Rice where he starred at cornerback.
“Take care of your business,” Gaines said his parents advised him. “If you do that, everything else will follow suit. They weren’t real strict or anything like that, but they taught me if you do what you’re supposed to do, then it’s all good.”
That approach served Gaines well at Rice where he became a star as a two-time All-CUSA selection and he established a school career-record 38 pass breakups.
The 6-0, 193-pound Gaines had the physical skills in college, and the speed he displayed on the flag football fields as a young child developed into a 4.38 40-yard dash time.
But for all of Gaines’ athletic ability, an area that left an indelible mark on Rice defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Chris Thurmond surrounded how Gaines approached the game.
“Obviously, when you are raised in a military family, discipline is going to be present and it becomes important to you,” Thurmond said. “Being on time and in the right place, the little details matter and that was the way he played. He always knew how to take care of his business, how to practice and how to play the game. He made time to have fun, but when it was time to work, there was no wavering in his attitude or his approach.”
An attribute typically found among uniformed personnel is the ability to lead.
And the leadership trait was passed from parents, both of whom were Air Force senior noncommissioned officers, to the children of the Gaines household.
McFarland describes her youngest son as quiet and unassuming, and it is an accurate description from personal observations and interactions with Gaines in the Chiefs locker room.
“He is one of the most humble kids you’ll ever meet regardless of all the things he’s done in his life as far as accomplishments in sports,” McFarland said. “He’s just a smart kid. He’s just really quiet and humble.”
But there is also a confidence about him, and that has allowed Gaines to develop into quite the leader himself.
“The fact that he captained in high school and the Rice team for two years kind of speaks to the fact that whatever he picked up in that vein,” Gaines’ father said, “he was able to understand it, display it and put it to good use because he understands leadership and the effect it has on other people.”
Gaines also took it upon himself to perform one of the basic tenants of leadership during his college career as a Rice Owl.
He wasn’t a leader by words alone.
Instead, Gaines led by example on the playing field to establish a standard for teammates to emulate, and the Rice coaching staff noticed.
“He was always prepared at a high level and I am sure that desire to do so was the result of the things that were stressed to him when he was younger,” Thurmond said. “And I think it allowed him naturally to assume a leadership role. Whatever he did, it was not an act. It was genuine and his teammates recognized it.”
Gaines’ father appreciates what his son has become not only as a leader, but as a man.
“There’s a fire there that’s special to watch,” Bill Gaines said. “The kid, he picks things up, he perfects the technique.”
There was a time when Gaines said he considered walking in the boots of his parents because he respected their service to the country.
“They told me all the benefits you could get from going in the military,” Gaines said. “If football didn’t work out, that definitely would’ve been a career path I would have taken.”
Gaines went on to grab the attention of NFL scouts during his career at Rice, boosting his stock for the NFL Draft as his college career came to a close.
That effectively placed the prospect of joining the Air Force on the backburner, but Gaines didn’t lose pride of the armed forces whenever Rice recognized the military.
“Rice University is big when it comes to celebrating veterans,” Bill Gaines said. “You could tell in talking to Phillip and watching him dress out for the game he was proud to wear red, white and blue on the days they did that.”
Kansas City made Gaines’ dream of playing professional football a reality when the Chiefs selected him as a third-round pick (87th overall) of the 2014 NFL draft.
He has appeared in all nine regular-season games with two starts, recording six solo tackles on defense, a pass defensed and three special teams tackles.
While he won’t serve in the Air Force any time soon, Gaines will always have a taste of the military whenever he visits his mother or father in Texas.
Susan McFarland works as a recruiter for the Department of the Air Force at Randolph Air Base, and Bill Gaines currently serves as the Chief of Civic Outreach for the Office of Public Affairs at Fort Sam Houston.
In the meantime, Sunday offers Gaines an initial look at how the Chiefs honor the armed forces as part of the NFL’s initiative.
But given his background, there is little doubt what he’ll be thinking as Gaines observes the military-related pregame ceremonies from the sidelines.
The meaning of the U.S. flag and those who willingly wear the uniform to defend it, like his parents once did, forever carries special meaning to the Chiefs rookie cornerback.
“It’s unbelievable because you always realize they’re away from their families fighting for us,” Gaines said. “We get to do what we do because they’re doing what they’re doing. You always have to take a step back and give thanks to them because they’re protecting us over there right now.”