World Wrestling plays Joint Base Lewis-McChord

Military kids awed by their life-size heroes

Staff writerDecember 11, 2013 

Big Show, all 7 feet and 441 pounds of him, gripped a can of Red Bull energy drink as if it were a thimble and took a swig. Then the professional wrestler went back to signing autographs and posing for photographs Wednesday afternoon at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Diree Wallace, 8, watched in silence as The Show signed the youngster’s World Wrestling Entertainment-themed skateboard.

“I was stunned,” the young fan said later.

He and his family were attending one of many meet-and-greets at JBLM between military families and WWE stars and divas. They were all building up to an evening show with the wrestlers, singer Chris Daughtry and comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham.

“WWE Tribute to the Troops,” staged in a C-17 maintenance hangar, will be broadcast Dec. 28 on NBC.

The Show and his compatriots spent most of the day shaking hands, posing for photographs and signing all manner of objects.

“I’ve only had about four hours of sleep in the past two days, but being around these young men and women, seeing how excited they are, it pumps me up to put on one heck of a show tonight. So energy will not be a problem,” The Show said at a base gym. “Plus, we have coffee and Red Bull. So I’m good.”

Earlier in the morning, WWE star John Cena and several other wrestlers spent some time on a firing range shooting 9 mm pistols and M4 rifles. Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment assisted the wrestlers, alternately demonstrating weapon safety and giddily posing for photos with the TV stars.

Cena, Titus O’Neil, Darren Young, Celeste Bonin, aka Kaitlyn, and Santino Marella lined up on the range and took aim at the paper targets. Cena gripped his M4 like an expert as he quickly sent 60 rounds into his target. Smoke poured from the rifle as a cloud of steam came from his mouth.

Cena, who is 6 foot 1 and 251 pounds, is the World Heavyweight Champion in his third reign and has a company record 14 world championships. The wrestler may be a mountain of muscle on the outside, but he’s all marshmallow on the inside. Cena has visited with 375 children with life-threatening medical conditions for the Make-A-Wish Foundation — more than any other celebrity in the foundation’s history, the organization’s spokesman, Josh deBerge, said.

In between firing weapons Wednesday, Cena said he has similar motivations for the Make-A-Wish visits and the military events, which he’s performed at annually since 2003.

“(It’s) the same reason we come here, to see the reactions on the guys’ faces. It’s an indescribable feeling you get with a small child whose one wish is to spend some time with you. That’s why we wake up in the morning. Being here with these guys and gals and being active with Make-A-Wish truly gives you a sense of validation to what you do.”

O’Neil and Young, who perform as The Prime Time Players, had a brother-like rivalry going at the firing range.

“I beat you for the first time!” Young bragged to O’Neil. O’Neil disputed the claim, but the assisting soldiers confirmed that Young was the better shot.

Cena was clearly interested in the military equipment. He gripped a grenade launcher mounted to a Stryker and asked for specs on a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. It was during that demo that Sgt. Charlie Griffin handed Griffen’s autograph to Cena. “You’re not the only famous one here,” the cocky Griffin sold Cena. The wrestler told the sergeant he would hold on to it.

“This is always a fun day,” Cena said. “The shooting is a bonus, but I like being able to meet as many of the men and women as we can because that’s what we’re here to do. What I really appreciate is the soldiers opening up the base to us and treating us as one of their own.”

Outside of wrestling, Cena has starred in three feature films, including “The Marine.”

At lunchtime, half a dozen of the WWE Divas, a wrestling franchise unto their own with their own reality show, had chow with soldiers in one of the base’s mess halls. The women, with fire engine-red hair and every curve on display, had many of the soldiers’ rapt attention.

One diva, Nikki Bella, kept three soldiers entertained.

“You know what I like about military men, besides that you’re all strong and protect us? You all have nicknames,” Bella said to the men. Then Pfc. Alexander “Gonzo” Gonzales asked Bella who her boyfriend was. The answer – “John Cena” – caused Gonzales to yell in surprise and leave the table for a few moments.

“The majority of the time it’s fun,” Bella told the soldiers. “But there are moments when it’s exhausting.” She said she’s broken her nose twice, stress fractured her tibia and had a tooth knocked out.

Professional wrestling’s appeal cuts across all demographics, said Tara Carraro, WWE’s vice president for communications. The WWE attracts 15 million U.S. viewers per week.

It’s a theme echoed by the base’s commander, Col. Charles Hodges. “The WWE is what America is all about,” Hodges said. “It is Americana.”

At one signing event, Timothy Ybay, 18, was holding a replica of a championship belt he had just had signed.

“I was speechless. I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth,” Ybay said after meeting Big Show, Booker T and other stars.

Ybay was there with his sister Aryana, 14, brother Tyler, 11, and friend Michael Rosario, 18. The siblings’ father, Sgt. Maj. Tim Ybay, is stationed at the base.

Wrestling is a family tradition in their home.

“My dad grew up watching wrestling with his dad. We all talk about who is our favorite. Meeting (the wrestlers) is on our bucket list,” Ybay said.

One soldier brought a folding chair to be signed. Many a wrestler has been hit over the head by them. The soldier wouldn’t say who acquisitioned the chair.

“Let’s just say it’s a company chair and it will stay in the company,” Sgt. 1st Class Chris Rightmyer said.

In one of the final appearances before the show, a group of Purple Heart recipients gathered for a rally with the wrestlers and Daughtry. Cena and the singer pumped up the crowd before Col. Louis Zeisman, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, made what he thought was the final speech.

Suddenly, the Primetime Players jumped up on the platform and took the mic from Zeisman. They then engaged the Purple Heart recipients in their signature “millions of dollars” dance.

“OK little fellow, I got this. ... Nice haircut,” Zeisman told the towering and bald O’Neil after the dance was over. O’Neil glowered at the colonel and made a mock attempt to rush him. Young held him back.

“I got a whole bunch of soldiers — look out,” Zeisman warned O’Neil.

“Now I know how you guys feel,” Zeisman said to his soldiers.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541
craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

SEE IT ON TV

  • What: WWE Tribute to the Troops
  • When: 8 p.m. Dec. 28
  • Where: NBC
  • Information: wwe.com

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