Say what you will about Mike Nolan, but the guy has an inexhaustible supply of energy. At a time of the year when the NFL is hibernating, Nolan last month was boarding a C-17 cargo plane from Kuwait to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. From there, the 49ers coach donned a helmet and flak jacked and hopped in a massive armored vehicle - "It feels like you're in Fort Knox," Nolan said. "It was a moving safe from a bank." - for a two-hour drive to a base in Kabul. The route took his convoy over a number of dirt and gravel roads, the ones in which insurgents like to bury the explosive devices that have killed so many American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Why would someone who has a big, comfy home in Saratoga do this? "I'd always wanted to go over just out of respect and I've always been fond of the job our military does and the people that do it," Nolan said. The coach made the trip along with radio host Ron Barr and former 49er Eric Davis. Nolan said he was close to making a similar trip to Iraq with Barr in February but that it overlapped with the scouting combine. Former Ravens coach Brian Billick and former 49er Randy Cross were part of that trip.
From Kabul, Nolan, Barr and Davis made a number of day-long forays to forward operating bases or FOBs around Afghanistan, which, as you may have read, has seen a recent upswing in violence. Of course, Nolan ran into NFL fans wherever he went. The New York teams - Giants, Jets and Bills - were well-represented. And there were naturally a lot of Cowboys fans. Many of the Air Force personnel he ran into were from Travis Air Force base, and a lot of them were 49ers fans.
When you talk about the war in the United States, Nolan said, the conversation invariably boils down to politics, and that frustrates him. In Afghanistan, Nolan said he was impressed by how little politics was discussed. Instead, the men and women were there because of a sense of duty. There were a lot of football questions and Nolan noted the similarities - teamwork, leadership - between running a military unit and a football team.
But one question that kept coming up - and one that surprised him - was how he dealt with being away from home during the football season. Nolan said that many of the soldiers were on their second, third and fourth tour. "I found that interesting," Nolan said. "It immediately told me what they deal with. It's a volunteer (military), and a lot of people are away for the first time. They deal with that every day.... That's a stress for these guys."
On that note, Nolan said he trouble clearing the trip with his wife, Kathy. She eventually relented, he said, when she saw how important it was to him. Nolan also said there were some 49er players - he would not divulge names - who wanted to go but who were forbidden by their wives. Some of them called Nolan hoping he or Kathy would argue their case for them. "I quickly backed out of that," Nolan said. "I have enough issues of my own."
-- Matt Barrows