Just into the beginning of the New Year, Master Sergeant Michael McKenzie received a phone call at his post near Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. He had just been given orders for deployment to the Middle East to take part in the freeing of Iraq.
Just shortly after, in February, the 19-year Air Force veteran was stationed in Oman, Jordan, where his talents as part of the information management unit would be utilized.
Working around 72 hours a week in the 120-degree desert heat, McKenzie turned to the internet as an occasional release from his military duty as well as a source for connecting with home.
It was on ESPN.com where McKenzie entered the ESPN Jocks to GIs Direct contest. He submitted a short, 100-word essay and about 10 days later received word that he was selected for the program. Military contest winners were paired with NFL players to establish email communication. His partner? Texans quarterback David Carr.
"About a day or so after I was told I was selected, I got an email from David introducing himself and saying that he was happy to be in the program," McKenzie remembered.
It was the start of a three-month electronic correspondence. Tonight, for the first time, the two will meet face-to-face when McKenzie leads the Texans out of the tunnel to kick off the Texans/Broncos opening pre-season match up.
A native of Houston, where he grew up watching the Oilers, McKenzie followed Houston's birth as a football franchise from the very beginning. At the time, he was stationed in Florida but still stayed in the loop with all of the latest Texans news.
"After Mr. McNair got the Texans, I started rooting for them and have been following ever since," he said. "I would go onto the internet and watch the stadium being built online."
On Carr's end, he answered with an instantaneous "yes" the moment the Jocks to GIs Direct program was pitched his way. Carr's brother-in-law was serving in Iraq and the opportunity to connect with his experience was extremely important to Carr and his wife, Melody.
"It was real interesting for my wife," Carr said. "She loved that I was doing it. She felt like she had a link to her brother while he was over there."
The two began writing to each other at the end of March and the program continued through Memorial Day weekend. McKenzie received around 10 or more emails from Carr.
The two talked about the war, the Texans football team and exchanged stories about fatherhood. It was a learning experience for both Carr and McKenzie.
"I told him a couple of times that he must be tough for taking all of the hits he had taken," McKenzie laughed. "He said that about after the first 20-25 sacks, he kind of blurred them all out because they were painful.
"We also talked about the upcoming year."
Carr was full of questions about the mission and life in the military but mostly enjoyed touching on topics that varied from his normal football conversations.
"It was neat to spend some time with him because its such a different thing that we're going through," Carr said about the different lifestyles the two men lead. "It's great when you meet someone like that and you don't have to always talk about what you do for your profession.
"He was always asking questions but I was probably asking him more about what was going on in his life because it was cool to sit back and talk about family and be a dad with him. I think it gave us both a release."
The colliding of different worlds gave both men a new appreciation for both life in the Air Force and life on the gridiron.
"They (the U.S. military) were doing something over there that was really important and are still there doing something that's important," Carr reflected.
Exchanges about Carr's family Easter egg hunt and his brother-in-law in Iraq opened up McKenzie's eyes to the human element of professional athletes.
"It was a chance to see a side of him that many people don't get to see with pro athletes," McKenzie said. "He's young, he makes a lot of money and is a star quarterback, but he's a person.
"He's a nice, caring person. He's an actual human being."
McKenzie returned from Oman in the middle of June. Upon his arrival, he tied the knot and is enjoying life as a newlywed. He has since been notified that he will be re-located to Washington D.C. in a few weeks where he will be stationed for two years.
"I'll be stationed in the D.C. area so if the Texans are ever in Washington or Baltimore to play, I'd love to go to a game," he said.
While in Houston though, McKenzie will be attending his first-ever Texans game and will do so in grand style when he runs out onto the field waving the Texans flag as 71,000 fans show their appreciation for his patriotic service.
"I'm happy that he's back safely and I'm really excited to meet him," Carr said on the eve before the two men meet on the Reliant Stadium turf.