Photo Gallery - Practice & Naval Station Mayport
FERNANDINA BEACH, Fla. - The best parts of a bowl trip are the added experiences the student-athletes get to take part in during their time away from typical game week duties.
Wednesday's TaxSlayer Bowl preparations included the second on-site practice of the week at Fernandina Beach High School, but when the team finished up the morning session, the group boarded buses bound for a unique visit to Naval Station Mayport.
After being escorted through the front gate of the Navy base, the team ate a barbecue lunch before embarking on a tour. The first stop visited a hanger and tarmac with several Sikorsky MH-60R "Seahawk" helicopters. The players interacted with pilots from the Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron FOUR ZERO (HSM 40 Airwolves) while they toured the complex combat machines.
The HSM 40 Airwolves provides training to fleet pilots so they "may fight and win at sea." Numerous players sat inside the cockpits and back seating area of the helicopters as they asked questions of the pilots as the crews informed the group on weaponry, radar and what it's like to participate in combat.
From the helicopter hanger, the team was escorted to a pair of ships, with half of the group boarding the USS Vicksburg and the other group walking on the USS Farragut. Named for both the land Battle of Vicksburg fought during the American Civil War and the city of Vicksburg, Miss., the USS Vicksburg (CG-69) is a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser.
Named for Admiral David Farragut, the USS Farragut (DDG-99) is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The current Executive Officer of the USS Farragut is CDR Megan A. Thomas, who is a Penn State graduate (1997). CDR Thomas was thrilled to welcome members of the team. Thomas addressed the team with words of encouragement on land before half of the squad boarded the 510-foot destroyer for a guided tour. Thomas is on track to become captain of the USS Farragut in the spring, becoming one of just eight female captains in the U.S. Naval fleet of more than 300 ships.
Thomas and the USS Farragut crew of approximately 300 returned home from an eight-month deployment on Nov. 7.
Naval Station Mayport features the third-largest naval surface fleet concentration area in the United States. The busy harbor is capable of accommodating 34 ships and an 8,001-foot runway capable of handling most aircraft in the Department of Defense inventory.
Sitting seven miles east of Jacksonville at the mouth of the St. John's River and Atlantic Beach, the base is home to 10,500 sailors and personnel. The Penn State players and staff members embraced the opportunity to visit the base by asking a host of questions about the operation and combat tactics. The tour included a look at missiles capable of traveling 1,000 nautical miles from the destroyer ships.
"You have to respect everything that these people do for our country," said wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, who comes from a U.S. Marines family. "It's pretty cool to see all of this. It's good for all of the guys to see things like this, and we get to spend a lot of time together."
The Nittany Lions will practice again on Thursday at Fernandina Beach High School before a number of student-athletes visit Wolfson Children's Hospital.
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