UCF shows appreciation to National Guard troops
To aid with relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, UCF has opened their doors to the Florida National Guard.
The 164th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, commanded by Colonel Grant Slayden, has set up camp at Spectrum Stadium and the adjacent football facilities.
"We've been doing all kinds of missions," Col. Slayden said. "We've been doing shelter missions for a lot of people that evacuated. As you know, 6.5 million Floridians evacuated. They need somewhere to go, so we've been providing shelters in coordination with the Red Cross and ESF 13, the state division of emergency management. We've been doing point of distribution site missions where we hand out food and water to citizens because stores and restaurants are closed.
"We've also been doing search and rescue missions just here in Orlando. The other night before last, we saved a couple hundred residents in a community to the west of here. We've been doing that for the last two days straight. In Clay and Duval counties, we saved hundreds of people because of rising waters from the storm. We've also been manning the emergency operations center, providing generator support to essential facilities. Doing a lot of security missions, keeping people off bridges that are dangerous.
"Just all kinds of missions. You name it, your Florida National Guard has been doing it."
To show their appreciation, the UCF coaching staff and several dozen players served dinner to the troops on Tuesday night.
"It puts football in perspective when something like this happens because we've seen how many people's lives are affected," head coach Scott Frost said. "Football is a small piece of the equation when something like this happens."
Col. Slayden commended UCF for stepping up as a host.
"We've been lucky to be put in this location," Col. Slayden said. "It's a tremendous benefit. They've been working long hard days and to be able to come back to a nice facility that's secure, has electric power and to be fed by the University of Central Florida football team is outstanding. It certainly beats MRE meals any time. We appreciate the University of Central Florida family and the community opening their arms and taking us in. It shows how much they appreciate our service on their behalf and we appreciate them so much."
Irma has obviously impacted the football program as well, forcing UCF to cancel back-to-back home games against Memphis and Georgia Tech. Frost defended the decision to release the players last Friday in advance of the hurricane's arrival, which was one of the factors that led to calling off Saturday's scheduled game with the Yellow Jackets.
"Once that got cancelled on Friday night, it was difficult for us to keep our team here and tell them it's too dangerous to play on Friday but you have to stay here to practice for the next game," Frost said. "Right now we have about 75 percent of our team back on campus. Yesterday we only had about 55-60 percent of our team. Realistically, we won't have our team back together until tomorrow, or probably Thursday or Friday. That, combined with us being able to give this facility to people that are out helping people who were really hurt by this storm, made it a really easy decision.
"Everyone's safety is at the forefront of these decisions. These kids and the coaches are disappointed they're not getting to play. We prep and practice for a long time to get an opportunity to play the games. Unfortunately we can't play but like I said, the safety of this community and the Florida people come first. We understand the sacrifice that a lot of people like the Colonel and his troops are making so any support we can give them is more important than football."
Col. Slayden, a graduate of the University of Florida and Tallahassee resident, says he's now a UCF fan too.
"My deputy commanding officer is a UCF alumni and he was down here meeting Coach (Frost) a couple minutes ago and he was like a kid in a candy store," Col. Slayden said. "My headquarters is located in Orlando and a bunch of my soldiers are current students and a big percentage are alumni. I hear nothing but good things about UCF. One of my co-workers, her daughter plays here for the volleyball team, Miranda Watkins. We do have a lot of people around us who are UCF fans and supporters and I guess I am now too."
Col. Slayden then presented Frost with a Command Coin, emblazoned with the insignia of the 164th Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
"We should get that sticker on the back of our helmets," Frost said.
UCF player Rory Coleman has a unique perspective on the situation, being he's an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and also spent time in the reserves. The football player in him expressed disappointment over the game cancellations, but stressed bigger issues were in play.
"Any team that experiences having two of their games cancelled is going to be disappointed," Coleman said. "The main thing is stay focused as a team. You can't get those games back, but being there for your state and being there for everyone experiencing the impact of a hurricane, that takes precedence. It's disappointing, sure, but on to the next week. We've got our sights set on Maryland."