More than 200 people gathered as one team Feb. 21 at The Club in Birmingham. They weren’t divided by Roll Tide and War Eagle, although each battle cry could be heard. The second One Yard at a Time Gala was the latest effort of Lettermen of the USA, sports rivals who’ve united under a common banner to help veterans, including wounded warriors.
Darryl Fuhrman, a former Alabama linebacker and founder of the organization, called it a celebration of the accomplishments they’ve had and a chance to let supporters help them do more.
“Since last year’s gala, we’ve given a motorized scooter for a World War II veteran and a down payment on a Chevrolet Avalon,” Fuhrman said. “Also, we did an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant renovation on a veteran’s home in Florence.”
That veteran is U.S. Army Airborne Private Jason Melhiser, who was permanently disabled with a broken back and leg, and torn knee during a mission in the first Gulf War.
Lettermen of the USA grew out of the tornado outbreak that raked across Alabama on April 27, 2011. Former football players from Alabama and Auburn got together for a fundraising flag football game at Hoover’s Spain Park High School, raising $150,000 for the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.
Former Auburn offensive guard Todd Boland said the effort “kind of evaporated for a couple of years” until Fuhrman had the vision to pick it up and continue to carry the torch.
“Since that time, Darryl and I have worked closely with Desmond (Holman, vice president and director of operations) and all the guys who are part of Lettermen of the USA to organize events like this,” Boland said.
The effort began with giving autographed footballs and memorabilia to veterans but has grown to being more impactful.
“It started as an Alabama vs. Auburn thing,” Fuhrman said, “and it’s turned into a whole slew of athletes in general, guys who are here to support the veterans and wounded warriors.”
Birmingham native and former Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett spoke at the 2019 gala and was back Friday.
“It’s a tremendous experience to be here serving,” Bennett said. “My father was a veteran, and having a chance to give back to the community, not only to veterans but also former football players. I’m always happy to come home and to serve.”
Medal of Honor recipient Capt. Gary Rose and UAB football coach Bill Clark were honored during Friday’s event. Clark said he got involved in the effort about four years ago, autographing footballs before his Blazers returned from a shutdown of their program.
“I was able to go to Huntsville and really hang out with veterans and give them some footballs,” he said. “You talk about heroes of mine, these guys who have served and fought for our country. I’m glad to help out in some small way.”
Clark applauded what LotUSA does for former college athletes. “It’s great this organization has a heart for these guys, especially those who have fallen on hard times,” he said.
Fuhrman said the first football given by LotUSA was autographed by former Auburn quarterback and Samford football coach Pat Sullivan, who died on Dec. 1, 2019. Patrick Sullivan Jr. was on hand to aid in the fundraising effort.
“We always knew that if we could prove that rival fan bases could work together, there was much more undiscovered country that we would be able to traverse,” Fuhrman said. “It’s because of that flag football game and what it started that we are here tonight.”
Friday’s event exceeded its $20,000 goal. On stage was a new motorized wheelchair and a motorized scooter; one was donated by a radio listener and the other a viewer of a Birmingham morning television show.
Saturday, Fuhrman and others traveled to Huntsville to give the wheelchair to Vietnam veteran Gary Hallman, a former tail-gunner with the 281st Assault Helicopter Company.