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Letters give Ohio State players new appreciation of Independence Day

As part of the Patriot Week sessions at Ohio State recently, players wrote letters to families of soldiers with Ohio ties who died while serving their country. Those letters left a lasting mark on the players and coaches. Courtesy of Ohio State

Urban Meyer's quest to equip his players with life lessons and instill patriotic pride in late May was fast approaching. He had organized so many enriching sessions as part of his self-created "Patriot Week" program, but with players set to soak up knowledge for themselves, Meyer, Ohio State's fifth-year football coach, began to wonder what more could be done to effect change for others.

"And then we said, 'Wait a minute, let's tie it right into Memorial Day and honor the men and women who have protected our country for so many years,'" Meyer told ESPN.com by phone this week. "We wanted to take it one step further and reach out to some of the families who lost their loved ones. I was blown away with the letters I read."

What followed was a letter-writing assignment conducted by every player on Ohio State's football team. One morning early in the "Patriot Week" sessions, players sat in a team meeting room and listened to the life story of a Navy SEAL, who spoke of enduring the pain of his best friend being killed while on duty. Afterward, each player found pages of information on a deceased soldier at his desk, coupled with the address for that serviceperson's family. The charge from Meyer: Handwrite a letter on program letterhead to that family by the end of the week and mail it out before the Memorial Day weekend.

"I could tell when we had the Navy SEAL come in and speak to our team, you could hear a pin drop about the sacrifices made, the sacrifice he made," Meyer said. "In this day and age, there's so much negativity in college sports. That grabs all the headlines instead of some of the great things.

"We have some incredible people on our team, as most places have, and I don't think you realize the depth until you ask for this kind of assignment. They opened their heart to something as serious as this, and I was blown away."

Stacy Rastauskas, Ohio State's vice president of government relations, helped compile a list of deceased military veterans with ties to Ohio. Buckeyes director of player development Ryan Stamper then matched up players with military service men and women by hometown -- another way to make the letter-writing process feel more personal.

Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard, a redshirt freshman from Cincinnati, was paired up with the family of Staff Sergeant Mark A. Wojciechowski, who grew up within 20 miles of Hilliard. Defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle, a native of Elyria, Ohio, was matched with Daniel M. Shepherd, also from Elyria. Players were free to conduct their own Internet research to learn more about each military serviceperson.

Wojciechowski died at age 25 on April 30, 2009, with two others while supporting combat operations in Iraq. Shepherd was killed in Iraq at age 23 on Aug. 15, 2004, when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

Hilliard wrote that he and Wojciechowski likely shared a few things in common, growing up in Cincinnati with Skyline Chili and following the performances of the Bengals and Reds.

"It is so inspiring to see a young man so selfless and determined," Hilliard wrote. "This week has given me a newfound respect and appreciation for what Memorial Day is all about and learning about the hard times and sacrifices people made to provide me with the right to vote and many other freedoms. From now on, every time I hear the national anthem before a game, I will think of your son, and be thankful for every selfless hero who has put others before themselves in making an extreme sacrifice for the people of this country. Though I have never met your family, I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers for the rest of my life."

Ohio State receiver Terry McLaurin wrote to the family of First Sergeant Ricky L. McGinnis, a Hamilton, Ohio, native who died Oct. 26, 2006, at age 42 when an explosive device detonated near his patrol in Iraq. McLaurin noted in his letter that he had an uncle and a grandfather who served in the armed forces, which gave him an even greater level of respect for everything people in the service must endure.

"However, this week I learned so much more from multiple representatives of the armed forces and walked away even more blown away," McLaurin wrote. "Mr. McGinnis risked everything just so I can have freedom but also play the game I love. I in no way take that for granted and am eternally grateful for his sacrifices along with other members of the armed forces. I express my deepest condolences to your family, but I hope you all know he is not forgotten and his legacy will live on forever."

Meyer said he didn't know yet how many of his players had heard back from those families. He did, however, recently receive a letter from Chip Tansill, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, personally thanking Meyer for his efforts with the players.

Meyer noted two players on the team had family members who died while serving in the military, and described Patriot Week as a "very emotional time for them." He said the feedback was so good from players and their families that he would continue to incorporate the letter-writing assignment into his Real Life Wednesday classes, which began when he was coach at Florida and are meant to prepare players for life after football.

"I think it's something we're going to do every year," Meyer said. "It's something I'm going to have my family get involved in. I think that's something that everybody should do.

"When you wake up in the morning and you think we're going to celebrate the Fourth of July and live in the greatest country in the world, I think we all take it for granted. An exercise like this forces you to really show the compassionate side of who we should be."