GLENDALE, Ariz. — At the Seattle Seahawks-Arizona Cardinals Warrior Wishes pregame tailgate party Thursday night, it seemed just like any other day — food on the grill, people socializing, alcoholic beverages being consumed. For anyone who intervened in a conversation, however, it became clear that it was far from a normal day.
Veterans from various military backgrounds were in attendance, brought together by Warrior Wishes and the Arizona Cardinals.
Tailgate attendees were enthralled by tales of battles overseas, personal struggles and combat injuries –everything the veterans in attendance did for their country and the reasons behind it. Talk to anyone there and you’ll leave a better person. Yet, as each conversation came to a close, a question was posed:
“Have you talked to Shane?”
Everyone at the tailgate knew about Shane Kruchten — he is respected, admired and trusted as a leader among the group.
“What he went through, to where he is now, I’m not only in awe of the guy, I’m inspired,” one person at the tailgate said. “He’s a warrior and he made what I did look small.”
Observers see Kruchten as a tough-looking guy on the exterior — he’s roughly six feet tall, with dark facial hair, a tattoo covering his entire left arm, and built like a bull. He can be intimidating at first, but after talking to him, people feel they’ve known him for years. He’s welcoming, open, honest and friendly. When he begins to tell his story, he gets serious; after a moment, it’s easy to tell why.
On April 29, 2004, while serving overseas, Kruchten was on patrol and was hit by an explosion. The impact of that day was significant, but the effects of the blast lasted much longer. He later dealt with the mental struggles and psychological issues of returning home after being wounded.
“When I came back home after being hurt in Iraq, I returned back to America and did not feel the same., Kruchten said. “I was a young man, not even 19 years old yet and didn’t know which way was up in life at the time.”
He entered the Marine Corps at age 17, and was discharged at 20.
“After being discharged, I had no purpose in life, no guidance, and fell deeply into drugs and alcohol.”
“I tried to kill myself on June 14, 2009. I went and ended up trying to overdose on purpose. I was revived by paramedics. That day, I ended up getting a new mission in life and realized I needed to get back to my brothers that never came home and push forward and not succumb to those feelings.”
Since then, he’s been clean and put countless hours into non-profits that support veterans, giving those organizations publicity and all the support he can. That led to this experience with Warrior Wishes, who helps veterans fulfill their dreams, and one of those journeys was to University of Phoenix Stadium, but not before a quick stop on the other side of town.
A day before the game, the veterans were allowed to tour the Cardinals’ facility in Tempe. They were in the locker room and weight room, watched a closed team practice, talked to Cardinals players and got autographs. Kruchten’s goal was to trade his jersey, a Pat Tillman jersey, in exchange for one of the current players’ jerseys. He was told it was unlikely, but he was giving it a whirl anyway.
His goal was to swap jerseys with Larry Fitzgerald, but the receiver wasn’t able to. At that point Kruchten wasn’t sure whom he would like to trade jerseys with, until an opportunity appeared right in front of him.
“The seas spread and there was Adrian Peterson,” Kruchten said with a smile on his face. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
As Peterson got closer, Kruchten’s nerves intensified. Hands sweaty, his mind started pounding.
“Do I shake his hand? Do I give him a hug? How do I shake his hand? Gentleman handshake? Do I say ‘What’s up,’ like a friend handshake?”
Peterson eventually worked his way to Kruchten and the two extended arms for a gentleman’s handshake. They began talking. Shortly into the conversation, Shane shared his story and it struck a chord with Peterson. The running back became emotional.
They hit it off so well that Kruchten figured he would offer Peterson the same deal he offered Fitzgerald: His Pat Tillman jersey in exchange for one of his jerseys.
Peterson countered, pointing to Kruchten’s wife’s Fitzgerald jersey.
“You’ll have to fight her for that,” Kruchten told Peterson. “I should tell you she is an MMA fighter,” he added.
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that,” Peterson responded with a laugh.
Kruchten shared with Peterson that he is also a Purple Heart recipient, then asked the running back if he would like to see a tattoo on his back. It’s a tattoo that extends throughout his entire back, with the names of 19 fellow service-member soldiers he worked with that were killed in action overseas and the dates they passed Those names and dates are surrounded by “Only The Good Die Young” in red, white and blue lettering.
“Peterson looked at it for three seconds and was almost in tears,” Kruchten said.
Peterson had to leave, but before he did, he told Kruchten, “Thank you for your service. You are my hero.”
Touched by his experience with Peterson, Kruchten didn’t even mind not getting the jersey he initially sought. Little did he know that Peterson was already planning to make that hope a reality.
“Out of nowhere, the equipment manager comes up to me and says, ‘Adrian wants you to have this.’”
In Kruchten’s hands was the jersey Peterson wore against the San Francisco 49ers when he ran for 159 yards on a career-high 37 carries. Peterson signed it and put his number on it.
Kruchten wasn’t the only member of the group Peterson interacted with.
“Peterson signed my service dogs jersey,” Michael Schwartz said with a smile on his face. “He went above and beyond for each one of us, making sure to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ You could tell he meant it, too, and that meant a lot to all of us.”
The Cardinals played an integral role in the next phase of the veterans’ Arizona visit, providing them with tickets to the Thursday Night Football game.
Throughout the game, the Cardinals honored veterans and the families of veterans who passed. Each time the Cardinals honored a veteran, each person in the group stood up and applauded as long as possible. That included one man, who didn’t want to be named in this story, who was missing both of his legs. Each time a veteran was honored, he mustered the strength to stand up, sometimes with the help of others around him.
“No man left behind,” one person in the group shouted.
The Cardinals went above and beyond to honor these veterans – from the tour of the facilities, to the tickets to the game and everything in between.
After spending a day with these veterans, not only did I leave inspired – I left a better man.
Thank you all for your service.