Relief washed over Jay Glazer when he saw two fighter jets whiz by overhead on 11 September 2001. The future Fox Sports reporter was out in the New York City streets and, like most people that morning, his eyes were fixed upward to the two burning towers ripped open by hijacked passenger planes. The country was under attack, but the presence of those jets gave many, including Glazer, a sense of security. In that moment, Glazer became an active supporter of the US military.
Fourteen years later, Glazer and Nate Boyer, a former member of the special forces who briefly played for the Seattle Seahawks, launched Merging Vets and Players (MVP), a non-profit that brings military veterans and retiring professional athletes together in the gym. MVP is an amalgamation of Glazer’s journey through sports, but not the public one that took off when he became Fox’s NFL Insider in 2004 and was suddenly thrusted into millions of homes every Sunday.
Football is his bread and butter, but Glazer’s passion is MMA. Glazer competed in two professional fights in 2003 and wanted more, but Fox instructed him to stop when he came into work one day with a black eye and a smashed orbital bone.
“Only about 1% of the world was willing or able to do [MMA], so it made me feel good about myself for somebody who grew up with not a lot of self-worth, and was always kind of told that I was bound to get in trouble or bound to go to jail,” Glazer told the Guardian. “I felt that I belonged in the cage and it empowered me.”
By 2007, Glazer’s NFL broadcasting career was well cemented. He broke stories of injuries and trades at breakneck speed, a lot of it due to his ability to relate to the players. That off-season, he persuaded a frustrated Jared Allen to join him at Arizona Combat Sports, where the defensive end incorporated MMA training into his routine. Allen later reported to camp 25lbs lighter and almost tripled his sacks that season. When Glazer got requests from other players, he enlisted UFC legend Randy Couture to help create MMAthletics, which has instructed more than 1,000 NFL players.
The Unbreakable Performance Center, opened by Glazer and NFL hall of famer Brian Urlacher in 2014, was a necessary next step to ensure there was a dependable place for football players and Glazer, who had graduated to TV personality, to train without interruption. It quickly became a home for Hollywood stars like Chris Pratt and musicians like Snoop Dogg.
At Unbreakable, Glazer made it a point to never turn away military veterans. He’d visited bases over the years and jumped at every chance to support the armed forces. Boyer befriended him there.
Boyer was sitting with Glazer when he received a phone call from the wife of a retiring NFL player. It was the type of call Glazer had received before.
“He hadn’t gotten picked up by another team and hadn’t left the house for six weeks. The blinds were shut day and night and she didn’t know what to do,” said Glazer, who noticed that Boyer was managing a similar call from a soldier. The correlation hit Glazer like a lightning bolt.
“When you’re done playing football, you don’t get to play ever again,” said Glazer. “There are no pickup games like basketball. So, it’s something you’ve done since you were a little kid and all of a sudden, it’s over. I started seeing this with a lot of NFL players whose careers would end, they’d be falling off and struggling.”
MVP was an opportunity for Glazer to meld together his passions. With Boyer’s military background and Glazer’s access to the NFL, the first of seven chapters had its beginnings in 2015.
That same year, Romby Bryant’s 11-year career ended abruptly in the Canadian Football League. Bryant, who had made the rosters of the Arizona Cardinals and the Atlanta Falcons in 2004 and 2005, hadn’t given thought to what he’d do after football. When his wife became pregnant less than a year into marriage, the stress brought on anxiety and depression.
“The transition was tough,” said Bryant. “It was the toughest thing I ever did. It’s almost like an identity crisis.”
Bryant said he was lucky that he had a support system that encouraged him to reach out to a counselor. He eventually went back to school and earned his master’s degree in dispute resolution and conflict management.
When Bryant was contacted in 2020 to help launch an MVP chapter in Dallas, he was already coordinating community outreach between the NFL Alumni Association and local military veterans. He hadn’t planned to join the first MVP meeting himself, but he related so much to what was being said that he stayed.
“It was like football, like the locker room,” said Bryant. “A lot of us keep up with one another because we all had that shared experience. MVP had that same feeling of belonging.”
Dallas chapter member and retired marine sergeant Frank Cortez joined MVP last February. There have been 50 suicides from Cortez’s 1,500-member battalion since 2008, he said, including his friend Elias Reyes Jr. After being discharged, Reyes graduated with honors from UCLA but succumbed to PTSD accrued over three Middle East tours.
Cortez didn’t want himself or others in his battalion to end up like Reyes, whose family said he couldn’t get expedient and thorough care through Veteran’s Affairs.
“In the military, you’re told to suck it up, to keep doing your job. On the infantry side, you’re considered weak if you go for medical attention, so you just don’t go,” said Cortez. “You don’t realize how combat has affected and changed you until you’re living as a civilian for a few years.”
Cortez didn’t want to acknowledge his own symptoms: the sleepless nights and the mornings he’d wake up angry for no reason at all.
“There’s no handbook on how to recover from war,” said Cortez, who’d met Bryant at another veterans event and joined the Dallas chapter. “We all react differently.”
At an MVP session, the athletes and vets work out together, then sit in the huddle to talk and listen. The huddle can be diversified. In one group, a Vietnam War colonel was looking for a way to communicate better with his three military sons. Another veteran shared her trepidation about the approaching anniversary of her mother’s death, but didn’t feel alone when the other huddle members texted to check in on her.
Cortez reached out to Bryant when his mother-in-law recently passed away. The pair like to play a round of golf when life will allow it, but if not, there’s always the huddle.
“We talk, we cry and laugh about it and that’s the glue that brings us together,” said Cortez. “Then we go about our week with a better outlook on life, knowing that people who care about us have our backs again.”