Jeremy Staat starred in football at Arizona State, played in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers and fought in Iraq as a U.S. Marine, but Saturday’s bike ride uphill from Tempe to Payson presented him with one of his biggest challenges.
“Sorry I’m late, but there was a mountain in my way,” Staat told a group of supporters just after arriving March 10 at the Payson American Legion Post.
Of course, he couldn’t complain too loudly — since his riding companion Wesley Barrientos used biceps to pedal after losing his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq.
The daylong ride to Payson, from the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe, was a small portion of the “Wall-to-Wall,” 4,000-mile-plus journey he and former military buddy Barrientos are making.
The ride began Feb. 19 at the Wall of Valor in Kern County, Calif. and will wrap up before Memorial Day at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
Along the way, Staat and Barrientos plan to make more that 70 stops at military bases, veterans’ memorials, schools and posts such as the Payson American Legion where the two were hosted for dinner on Saturday afternoon before retiring to a local hotel for a much-needed night of sleep.
The Jeremy Staat Foundation, which is sponsoring the race, was founded to increase awareness of the issues those returning from war must face in their day-to-day lives.
“Our veterans have given up so much for their country,” Staat said. “We need to make sure they are properly taken care of.”
The ride also emphasizes the problem of childhood obesity by offering bike riding as one of the solutions.
Barrientos served in the 101st Airborne division as an infantryman and is a three-time Purple Heart recipient who lost his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007.
The two met while volunteering at the Wall of Valor project in Bakersfield, Calif.
Originally, Staat planned the Wall-to-Wall journey as a long distance run and asked Barrientos to be a part of the benefit.
Barrientos’ reply was, “Dude, that’s not going to happen, I don’t have any legs.”
Eventually, the two decided to turn the journey into a ride with arm-propelled bikes.
At ASU, Staat was a 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound defensive line standout on the Sun Devils’ 1997 Rose Bowl team.
He was taken by the Steelers in the second round of the 1998 NFL draft and eventually played for three teams in five years.
While at Arizona State, he became a good friend of Pat Tillman who gave up a lucrative professional football contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the U.S. Army.
Tillman was killed on April 22, 2004 in a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan.
Staat said he and Tillman became friends while at Arizona State because both marched to the beat of a different drummer, playing football for the love of the game rather than fame and fortune.
After 9-11, Staat considered joining the military, but says Tillman convinced him to remain in the NFL for one more season to qualify for retirement benefits.
In 2005 after earning his football retirement, Staat put his country before the gridiron joining the U.S. Marines.
He eventually was trained as a machine gunner and in 2007 spent a tour of duty in the Iraq war zone.
In 2009, he was honorably discharged leaving with a newfound respect for the men and women of the armed forces.
“The veterans, they are the true heroes of our country.”