Steelers OT Starks plays a large role on USO Tour

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Max Starks stands 6 feet 8 and weighs in the neighborhood of 340 pounds. A big man, in other words. So big, even the citizens in Moscow's Red Square gawked.

"Everywhere I went," said Starks, the Steelers' right tackle. "I didn't understand a single word that they said, but the look on their faces -- their eyes bugged out and they were pointing. I kind of got the clue.

"They have a replica of Lenin that walks around Red Square, a very drunk Lenin. He looked at me and said, 'I'm scared to stand close to him because he may take a bite out of me.' "

Probably not a Steelers fan, and one of just a few Starks met who was not during his participation in the NFL's USO Tour, which ended yesterday. Starks and two other players visited U.S. service men and women at bases in the Balkans and Persian Gulf since March 26, and Terrible Towels were flying as if he were in Heinz Field.

"There were Terrible Towels, there were flags, there were banners, T-shirts, hats -- everything Steelers," Starks said. "In Kosovo, on one of the Apache helicopters, there is a Steelers logo painted on the belly that I got to autograph on the helicopter. It was pretty profound. That was a great honor, getting the opportunity to put my autograph on a United States Army vehicle."

Starks even flirted with the enemy -- Seattle defensive end Bryce Fisher made the trip with him, as did Atlanta's Patrick Kerney.

"They started to understand what it is to be a Steelers fan, and I think they got a pretty good conception of the fact that the Steelers are truly a world-renowned team," Starks said. "It was really my honor to be a part of that and to be part of the team and to see all the fans that were supporting us in all parts of the world."

Starks, Fisher and Kerney renewed a long tradition between the NFL and USO. It was the 40th anniversary of such trips that began in 1966 when the league sent players, including Johnny Unitas, to Vietnam on a goodwill tour to visit U.S. troops .

"I tell stories and answer questions," Starks explained. "The biggest thing, I think, was letting them tell their stories and to listen to them.

"Meeting the troops was the most fascinating and moving part of this trip. To be able to see all the troops -- all the armed forces, all the national guards and the ambition and integrity that all these troops have. ... They're putting their lives on the line every single day and they still have time to cheer for football."

Starks recalled one harrowing trip through downtown Kabul, Afghanistan, "probably one of the wildest rides in my life."

"They don't have street lights, they don't have stop signs, they don't have lines on the roads to determine which lane is which. It is a free-for-all. ... They were worried about us getting hit or side-swiped by other cars."

The group stopped off in Moscow for a quick visit, which is where Starks came face-to-face with the Lenin impersonator. He headed home yesterday, Dubai to London to Chicago to Pittsburgh, where he and other Steelers in their first and second years will begin their strength and conditioning workouts Monday.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.


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