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Patriot joins cause

War moves Izzo to do charity work

FOXBOROUGH -- Larry Izzo recognized the dead man's face. He didn't want it to be so.

It didn't seem possible. He'd just been joking with the guy a few days earlier, showing him a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring as they regaled each other with stories from two fields of combat.

One a football field. The other a killing field. Larry Izzo understands the difference now; that reality hit when Larry Izzo realized David Connolly was dead.

Connolly, a Suffolk County assistant district attorney, was killed April 6 when his CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed in bad weather about 80 miles south of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Izzo, the Patriots' Pro Bowl special teamer, had visited American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in late March on a goodwill trip sponsored by the NFL. And the reality of war was driven home only a few days after his return during a visit to the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, where he and his teammates stopped before continuing on to the White House to celebrate another Super Bowl victory with President Bush.

Those experiences left him changed.

So changed that Izzo has a new goal, beyond the annual one of returning to the Super Bowl. It has nothing to do with rings and victories and everything to do with doing what he can for men in combat and the families that too often are left to mourn them.

''It's the real deal," Izzo said. ''It's life and death. You mess up on the football field and you might lose a game. Out there, you mess up and lives are lost. We need to remember those guys."

One he particularly remembered was Connolly. When he got home to Boston and heard about an Army reservist, an attorney, missing in Afghanistan, he told Patriots public relations director Stacey James, ''I think I met that guy." When the Globe ran Connolly's picture the next day, Izzo's outlook on life changed again.

''When I saw the story about an attorney who died in Afghanistan, I got a bad feeling," Izzo recalled. ''I met David at Bagram just a couple of days before his helicopter crashed. We had about a 15-minute conversation at dinner one night at his base. We talked about Boston. He was a real sports fan. It was his second tour overseas. He'd already been to Iraq and then he got called up again to go to Afghanistan. That impressed me so much. He was such a likable guy.

''A week later, the day we left Baghdad, his helicopter crashed. I didn't know anything about it until I got home. It was so incredible."

So, too, was the day he walked through Walter Reed Hospital, less than a week after he'd returned from the war zone, and heard a patient say, ''I'm the guy who put your ring in my pocket in Afghanistan."

''After he said that, I recalled when we met," said Izzo. ''It was the last night in Bagram. That was the last I saw him and now there he was, a few days later, with part of his leg gone. The following day he'd stepped on a land mine. It was such an eye-opener.

''I'd just been over there with those guys and a week later someone I'd just seen the week before healthy is lying there, telling me he hopes he can get back to his unit. It caught me by surprise a little bit."

After returning from Walter Reed and learning about the loss of David Connolly, Izzo knew he had to do something. So he put his Rice University education to work and began searching his mind and his heart and the Internet and finally, he came upon several charities raising money for families changed forever by the loss of a soldier's life or limb.

What he hit upon was a blend of celebrity, music, and open hearts, all of which will come together Oct. 24 at Avalon, the dance club on Lansdowne Street in Boston.

''I made the trip to honor my late father, who spent 23 years in the military and was wounded in Vietnam and got sent to Grenada and Bosnia," Izzo said. ''Because I was a military brat, I have a great appreciation for what the families of soldiers go through. My visit to Iraq and Afghanistan . . . the impact it had on me . . . well, it was the most rewarding experience I ever had."

More rewarding than Super Bowl victories and diamond rings and the life of a professional athlete with all its perks and privileges. Izzo thought of those different lives that intersected so briefly with those of the soldiers, and he came up with a plan.

''I just kept thinking, 'I've got to do something,' " Izzo said. ''Everywhere we went, the guys kept saying, 'Don't forget us over here.' We got young kids losing their lives and families here at home losing their loved ones. There had to be something I could do."

What he came up with was an effort to raise money for charities that help those grieving families. But how do you raise money? How do you have an impact?

Anyone ever think of Karaoke Night with the Stars?

''I wanted to come up with a different idea, so my wife and I came up with a karaoke event," Izzo said. ''We're going to get as many celebrities as we can to come and do it. We'll sell tickets through TicketMaster. You can just buy one to watch or you can purchase a package that will let you sing with a celebrity. A lot of my teammates will be there and, hopefully, other celebrities. We're going to have an auction to go with it.

''When you talk about the war and all the great things we're doing over there, we're winning. I know that's not the politically correct thing to be saying around here, but it's true. I've seen it. When I talk to people about my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, they always wonder what they can do to help the soldiers. This is an example of a way to get behind something to help the families of these guys.

''The whole time I was with those guys it seemed so normal. We were just guys talking about sports and laughing. You didn't realize sometimes what it was. Then you'd see the MedEvac helicopter take off and you knew where you were.

''You see soldiers loading the coffins with US flags draped over them into a plane and then you get in and sit down 10 feet away and you look over there and just imagine that those guys were with us just yesterday and now they're not. That was an eye-opener. You think about the families back home that are just devastated. It was definitely sobering to see that. Those are definitely the real heroes of our country."

A different kind of hero, a Sunday afternoon hero, understands the difference now, and all he's asking of the people who have spent so much time and money cheering him and his teammates is one night of their time to celebrate some bigger heroes.

''I just hope people come out," Izzo said. ''It's important to me but it's a lot more important to the families that have already given so much we can't ever really repay them."

On Oct. 24, you can start with a microphone and a band and maybe Larry Izzo rocking at your side.

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