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NFL-USO Tour Of Middle East Kicks Off

NFL players who excel on the field and in the community are continuing an NFL-USO tradition initiated more than 45 years ago as they take part in weeklong visit to U.S. troops at military bases throughout the Middle East.

Carolina Panthers punter JASON BAKER, former NFL linebacker DHANI JONES, Cleveland Browns center ALEX MACK, San Diego Chargers linebacker TAKEO SPIKES and Houston Texans tackle ERIC WINSTON are currently overseas spending time with service members in the annual renewal of the NFL-USO program.

The NFL and USO have organized overseas morale-building visits for more than 45 years. In 1966, the NFL teamed with the USO and became the first sports organization to send a group of players to Vietnam and other parts of Asia to demonstrate the league’s support for America’s troops. Since then, NFL icons including TERRY BRADSHAW, LARRY CSONKA, FRANCO HARRIS, HOWIE LONG, DON MEREDITH, LYNN SWANN and JOHNNY UNITAS have visited troops on NFL-USO tours in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Kuwait and Somalia.

Players participating in this year’s NFL-USO Tour:

  • JASON BAKER, Carolina Panthers:

A veteran of 11 NFL seasons, including seven with the Carolina Panthers, Jason Baker ranks as the Panthers all-time leader with 570 punts and 169 punts downed inside the 20-yard-line. He stands second in team history with a 43.97-yard punting average. In 2006, Baker achieved personal bests for gross average (45.74), net average (39.00), punts inside the 20 (31) and total punts (98). His 39.00 net average that season is a Panthers team record.

A 2011 team captain and Players Association representative, Baker is a respected voice and leader in the Panthers’ locker room. Though he is active in team-driven community events, Baker’s philanthropic efforts extend far beyond the walls of Bank of America Stadium. He is the founder of Catie B. Charities, a foundation dedicated to the development of a Continuity of Care program in the state of Indiana. For several years, he has also hosted hundreds of middle school aged youth at his Fort Wayne, IN football camp. The camp, which is funded by Catie B. Charities, provides campers with training in football fundamentals as well as emphasizing community service and building strong character. In lieu of a monetary fee, Baker requires that all campers engage in a day-long community service project. In addition to the personal time and commitment he provides to both his foundation and camp, Baker serves as the Panthers’ team ambassador to the USO of North Carolina.

"I feel blessed to be able to go and share our appreciation directly with our service men and women in theater (Romans 12:8-21)," said Baker. "It’s great that the NFL and USO facilitate this so that we can draw further attention to the service and sacrifice that these men and women choose to make."

  • Former player DHANI JONES:

Warrior and Bowtie Expert. Linebacker and Poet. Jock and Treehugger: Dhani Jones understands the extremes of life. An 11 year NFL player, Jones started his own philanthropic endeavor, Bow Tie Cause in 2010. Through the Bow Tie Cause, Dhani now provides others with an avenue to support a cause they believe in. What began as a way to support his friend has become his main avenue to support others and their cause. Jones can now add the title of ‘author’ to his resume with the publication of his travelogue/memoir, "The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons From an Around-The-World Sports Odyssey." Recapping his time in the NFL, as well as his role hosting of the Travel Channel’s original series, Dhani Tackles the Globe, the book revolves around Dhani’s discovery that sports have the ability to open a window into a culture, define a destination and unlock a common passion in people.

Dhani also hosts LiveBIG, an inspiring show examining how current and former members of the Big Ten Conference impact their communities, on the Big Ten Network.

  • ALEX MACK, Cleveland Browns:

Mack has started all 48 games at center and has not missed an offensive snap since being drafted by the Browns with the 21st overall selection of the 2009 NFL Draft. In 2010, he was selected to the AFC Pro Bowl squad, becoming just the sixth Browns center to earn the honor and first since Tom DeLeone in 1981. Also in 2010, he was voted as the center on Sports Illustrated's All-Pro team and was part of an offensive line that paved the way for five individual 100-yard rushing performances and a running game that averaged 4.0 yards per rush attempt.

Since his arrival, Mack has been committed to volunteering at numerous community events in northeast Ohio. He has participated in events such as the Toys R Us Touchdown for Tots, Sushi Rock "Rollin' at the Rock" fundraiser for Providence House, Cleveland Foodbank and Shop with a Pro. He has also attended a meet and greet with the members of the local USO of Northern Ohio and several other military themed events.

"The USO tour is a great opportunity to show our appreciation to our military," said Mack. "I think it’s really good for us to see what they go through and what they do. It’s great for them to be able to see that people care about them. Then we can further understand how important their work is and just how hard their job really is."

  • TAKEO SPIKES, San Diego Chargers:

It didn’t take long for veteran inside linebacker Takeo Spikes to make an impression in San Diego. A little more than a month after signing a three-year contract, teammates voted Spikes a team captain. Spikes led his new team right onto the gridiron, pacing the squad with 119 tackles, his 11th-career 100-tackle season, while mentoring fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler, who was basically a rookie after missing his entire rookie season with an Achilles injury. Spikes’ experience resonated on Butler who ended up ranking 1-2 with Spikes in tackles with 102. At the end of the year, teammates voted another honor for Spikes, this time selecting him as the team’s Most Inspirational Player.

A native of Sandersville, Ga., Spikes’ number is retired at Washington County High School and pictures of him are strewn throughout the school’s athletic facilities. Over the years, he’s helped the school financially on numerous occasions and in June 2012 he will host a free football camp at Washington County High for the 11th-consecutive year. Spikes’ reputation as a leader extends beyond the locker room and the playing field. In 2007, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL Players Association appointed Spikes to the first-ever Player Advisory Council, a six-man committee established to advise Goodell on a wide range of player issues. In 2003, Spikes and former NFL linebacker Carlos Emmons launched 51 Ways, Inc. (, a non-profit foundation that provides financial, spiritual and physical resources to families that have children with cancer or blood disorders. Both players grew up in Georgia and lost family members to cancer.

  • ERIC WINSTON, Houston Texans:

Winston has blocked for three 1,000 yard rushers, including the 2009 rushing champion, and a top-10 offense each of the last four seasons. A third round pick in the 2006 draft out of Miami, Winston has started 87 consecutive games at right tackle for the Texans since making his first start nine games into his rookie season. His streak is the second-longest starting streak in franchise history and amongst offensive linemen.

Off the field, Winston is a spokesman for the Souper Bowl of Caring, a national movement of young people working to fight hunger and poverty in their own communities around the time of the Super Bowl. In 2012, the Souper Bowl of Caring generated $8,742,261 nationwide in cash and food items for local charities.