Jim Harbaugh: “First of all, I want to introduce Mike Viti, former Army Captain platoon leader, who shared lessons and motivation to our young players today. A lot of inspiration was gained from that, and just the respect that we have as an organization, as a team, for our military, and also for the cause that Mike has embarked on. He’s going to walk over 7,100 kilometers to the Army-Navy game for 6,800 that have fallen in the War on Terrorism. One kilometer for each of those persons who has fallen in the War on Terror. And, today to do it on D-Day, the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, this is very special for our team, very special for our organization. I want to applaud Mike and Alex Larson for their efforts and for stopping in here to talk to our team. It was a very special meeting with you today and we’re honored to share our sideline with you.”
Mike Viti: “Thanks a lot, sir. I appreciate it. So, as coach Harbaugh just touched on, I was fortunate enough to get to speak to the rookie class about the cause and why we’re doing what we’re doing. And, really the root of it is to honor the legacies of 6,810 heroes who gave their lives during a Global War on Terror. I think the Gold-Star families really are the center of gravity for the project for us because they are the ones who are footing the bill for almost 13 years of war. So, to pay homage to them and really represent them, is what this project’s all about. On a day like today, D-Day, the 70th Anniversary, it’s an easy vehicle to draw a few lessons from some of the greatest heroes this country has ever known or will see. And, connecting it naturally with being a teammate and what that means about being a team. The greatest team that we can all be a part of is team America. It’s honorable to think of the heroes past and currently our generation’s heroes to kind of tell that story and help keep their legacies alive. So, it was an honor to be here coach and I really appreciate the 49ers and their connection with the cause. Certainly humbling and I know foremost that the families who are left behind, this is what it’s about. Their sons, their daughters, their husbands, their wives, that they’re remembered and we all understand that. Today’s just a day where we can pause and reflect on that and make sure that we just understand that and value that a little bit more.”
How did, the invitation, how did you guys come together for this day?
[Viti] “Our connection is Wyatt Batchelor. I served with him at West Point and he was a teammate of mine. His wife, Brenna, he married [49ers secondary coach Ed] coach Donatell’s daughter. So, that was the connection and coach Harbaugh heard about the cause. Just the way he runs his organization and the culture and the vision he has for his team. I think there’s a lot of parallels there that can be drawn and a lot of lessons and synonymous characteristics that translate pretty easy. You don’t have to be a military guy or have even a military background to understand really solid core values and apply them to team and what that means to be a teammate. So, that’s the natural connection right there.”
Can you share with us a little bit about what it’s like mile after mile, day after day? It looks like you’ve gotten a little sun. Is this taking a toll?
[Viti] “Sure. And, I’m happy that it is. Because, it’s a small sacrifice for me, but I get to. I look at it as I’m a vehicle to raise awareness to a group of people who I think are underrepresented. The grueling part is easily reinforced by (the fact) that I’m still around because of the guys who I identify as my heroes. And I'm lucky enough that my family is still able to enjoy me being here and that’s all the motivation I need. And anytime I’m feeling sorry for myself, I have the opportunity to be here. So, it’s pretty easy.”
What was the reaction from the players when you were able to speak with them?
[Viti] “It was good. I certainly shared the cause, but I think on a day like this, I brought them to the over 2,500 Americans who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy. We’re really their legacies. Our fathers are their legacies. I talked to them about, we used them as a group of people to talk about being a great teammate, because before you can be a team you really have to understand what it is to be a teammate. To pull lessons from them on what kind of teammates they were as part of team America and our history and current, is pretty easy, and that’s what I shared with them. They took very well to it. Again, you hear it in sports all the time, the relationship between the military and sports, but it’s very translatable. We speak the same language, we just have different jobs.”
What’s the biggest lesson that you hope your players get from this experience?
[Harbaugh] “Well, I know that we drew the long straw today, being with Mike and his team. Our players watched the meeting and there was total silence and attention, terrific questions. But as Mike said, there is a great respect that our football players have for what the military does. We do make parallels from time to time, but it’s out of respect and honor for what our military does. To hear the insights of a team when it’s life and death, and the goal is to protect our country, from somebody that’s been there, that is gold for our players.”
Mike, do you have any stories of your travels that you’d like to share with us? A particular family that you met or a place you that you visited that had significance for you?
[Viti] “Maybe not a particular story, but a theme when I meet with Gold-Star families is that those wounds are still very open and real. Thirteen years is a long time, but as inconvenient as it is to follow, it’s still very inconvenient for those families. Those losses are still very real, whether they happened 12 years ago or unfortunately last week. For me, it’s being able to successfully raise awareness to a sensitive topic, and having a background that respects and honors that and isn’t intrusive to those families. For me, they’re the underrepresented group of us all and I think that’s been a huge takeaway for me. It’s just doing it for them. And really how do we keep legacies alive? We always ask ourselves that question, and it’s this right here. There is no right way, it’s just being respectful and valuing it and understanding the deeper meaning of what those guys are about and what their families are currently going through.”
Can you explain some of the logistics of the hike? How many hours a day you walk, how far you walk a day?
[Viti] “Sure. I’m going to introduce Alex Larson, who’s the director of operations for all this. He’s really my support man who’s helping me get through it each day. So, he can talk a little bit about some of the logistics I think is probably more appropriate.”
[Larson] “On a daily basis, Mike has to average about 22 miles a day, but so far he’s been doing a really good job of averaging anywhere between 25 to 30. So, the hardest thing to do is try to give people a route more than 24 hours out where he’s going to end up because he will just decide, ‘Well, I’ve made it my 22 today, but I want to push it to 30.’ So, it’s hard to give people an exact approximation of where he’s going to be. Also, trying to plan out six months ahead of time where he’s going to be in the next. So, those are the challenges that we meet every day, but Mike is definitely holding up strong and he’s making it every day and he’s making every kilometer in memory of our heroes count as he’s going. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to be here with him. I’m really happy to be part of this cause, because as a recently transitioning military member, this is the best way I believe for me to acclimate back to the civilian world, is to actually travel the country that I did three deployment tours for. I just want to thank Mike and I want to thank the 49ers for the opportunity to come here and share our story.”
How far today?
[Viti] “So, I’m actually, today is kind of an off-day. I’m going to be doing a half day, so after today, I thought I’d put in about 15, 20 miles.”
[Harbaugh] “15 to 20 on a half-day.”
[Viti] “Yeah.” [laughter]
[Harbaugh] “You know what I love too is the route that Mike and Alex chose is major population centers that goes through the towns and cities of the most families that have lost a loved one, but it also goes through the heat. We’re talking Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. This is quite an undertaking. We’re just proud to have met him. This has been a big thrill for us as a team.”
If I could ask one more bonehead question while we’ve got you, the stadium’s looking really good. I’m just curious, when you look up at it, are you getting excited, are the players getting excited about finally getting in there at some point?
[Harbaugh] “It’ll be great excitement for the players. We’ve watched it go up for two years. The men and women who’ve worked on the stadium, we’ve watched them toil in their effort and what stands as a great piece of infrastructure for our organization. But, I think it’d be great excitement for the players when they get in it and play in it. Should be a value added in terms of excitement to the players.”
Your quarterback, a new contract, is your reaction to that happy to have that taken care of and done with?
[Harbaugh] “I’m excited for any of our players when they sign a contract. There’s the rookie free agent contract, there’s the veteran free agent contract, there’s the drafted contract. Somebody signs their second contract as [QB] Colin [Kaepernick] did, and it’s always an exciting day for the organization and for the young man.”
He talked about it being team-friendly, is that a good sign that he’s a guy that understands that this an organization that he can’t do it alone?
[Harbaugh] “I think it was a great life-changing moment for Colin, for our team. I’m equally as excited about it. Colin is a great football player and a great teammate, and also going through a season now not having to think about contracts or questions about longevity, and maybe pressure on him to put up certain statistics or numbers. Now he’s in a position where he knows, and our team knows, and Colin can grow as a player, and I’m most excited about that.”