By Janelle Griffith The Star-Ledger
WEST ORANGE — It was a night to celebrate bravery.
Last night, hundreds of people filled the Richard J. Codey Arena at South Mountain in West Orange to show their support for the men and women who risked their lives for the benefit and freedom of the American people.
The undefeated Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team — composed of veterans injured while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — played in a charity game against a team of 9/11 first responders from New Jersey and New York.
The game was part of the festivities for Super Bowl XLVIII.
“We celebrate veterans 365 days a year here,” Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said. “We wouldn’t have anything to celebrate on Sunday if it weren’t for these guys.”
Servicemen and women, schoolchildren, families and law enforcement officials filled the arena. Also on hand were former Pittsburgh Steeler Rocky Bleier, who was injured while serving in Vietnam; former professional wrestler Mick Foley; and the Village People, who performed for free after the game.
Former Giants Joe Morris, Odessa Turner and Phil McConkey, who served as a lieutenant in the Navy, signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans.
Both teams helped organize last night’s charity game, as did members of the Wounded Warrior Project Club at Seton Hall Prep who sold tickets and promoted the event. The group holds fundraisers yearly for the benefit of wounded war veterans.
Dave Stevens, an assignment desk manager at ESPN who is an amputee, also helped plan the game and played for the Wounded Warriors.
Stevens, whose injury was not the result of military service, said the Wounded Warriors try to do these charity games in states with a strong military base.
“The way I see it, every town has a veteran. So every town should understand the need for this cause,” he said.
Proceeds from the event, which is in its third year in a Super Bowl host state, will go to the Military Benefit Association, the Wounded Warrior cause and an FDNY 9/11 charity.
Turner said he was moved to see the passion in the players.
“This is definitely something. Just to see these men playing a sport that they love,” said Turner, a wide receiver who played for the Giants from 1987-1991 and won a Super Bowl with the team. “If I could give them any advice, I would say, if you fall, get back up.” It’s a lesson Turner says can apply to the game of football and to life in general.
James D’Asti, who attended the game with his 4-year-old son, Vincenzo, said everyone who played in the game is a hero.
“There’s no way we could ever repay these guys for what they did,” he said.