Hail Mary play: How the president and the Air Force evacuated a football team stranded in Honduras

The team had a brand-new, hard-won championship plaque and medals to admire. The pool and the sky around them were equally brilliant shades of blue. The columns of the hotel gleamed in the sunlight. The air was warm, the ring of mountains in the distance a beautiful backdrop. 

All in all, life would be pretty good … that is, if they weren’t stranded, without a plane, behind closed borders, and with no idea when they’d get home. 

This is the story of how 55 members of a traveling football team found themselves stuck in Honduras as the coronavirus pandemic raced across North America … and how they used social media, political appeals, and some good old-fashioned football grit to get out. 

Wednesday, March 11

The 55 members of an American Football Events traveling team arrived in Honduras on Wednesday, March 11, just hours before the world turned sideways. AFE, an amateur, nonprofit organization designed to allow athletes to keep playing, regularly sends teams of both men and women to spread the gospel of football around the world. 

Honduras was the site of the Americas Women’s Bowl, a full-contact football exhibition featuring four countries: the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and the host nation. The event would combine charitable missions with competition, running through Sunday, March 15. 

In the days prior to the event, AFE officials checked with the U.S. embassy in Honduras, attempting to determine whether the trip was a go. “Before we left, we were in very close touch with the federation and the U.S. embassy in Honduras,” AFE president and head coach Dale Glossenger said. “When we left, nothing had transpired in the U.S., nothing had been canceled. We didn’t have any red flags.”

The team flew to Honduras and landed in Tegucigalpa, checking into the Clarion Hotel Real in the center of the city. That same night, a Utah Jazz official ran onto the court just before the start of that night’s game in Oklahoma City. Within minutes, the first domino of the United States sports landscape fell, with the NBA suspending its season. 

Team USA members of the Americas Women's Bowl board a C-130 sent by President Trump to bring them home from Honduras as the coronavirus pandemic broke out across the world. (Courtesy of AFE TEAM USA)

Thursday, March 12

The team’s first day in Honduras had been designated a community service day. After a three-hour morning practice, the team went to an embassy-backed school established to teach English to underprivileged children and hand out supplies, from books and crayons to shoes and clothes. They signed a few autographs for some awestruck kids along the way. 

That night, all four teams attended a news conference. “Not once during that media press conference was anything mentioned about the virus,” Glossenger said. “Even to that point, there was no fear, no thinking we were in danger.” At that point, Honduras had exactly one reported COVID-19 case. 

The teams were far more excited about the prospect of being allowed to play in Honduras’s national stadium, Estadio Tiburcio Carias Andino, an honor generally reserved for the national soccer team. Three days of football, then back to whatever awaited them in the United States. That was the plan, anyway. 

Friday, March 13

For the tournament’s opening game, the U.S. drew Mexico, by all accounts the toughest competition in the tournament. With more than 50 players and a well-organized, well-disciplined structure, Mexico would be a tough matchup for a U.S. team that was, in effect, an all-star team made up of players from leagues all over the country. Aside from that lone Thursday morning practice, the U.S. team had no experience working as a unit. 

Early on, it showed. Mexico ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and on the ensuing drive, the Americans stalled in the red zone. But the U.S. defense toughened up, scoring twice, and the Americans came away with what would be their toughest win of the tournament.

The second game, played later that afternoon against Costa Rica, had exactly none of the drama of the morning tilt. Glossenger switched to a ground-and-pound offense, peppering in play-action to freeze the defense, and the U.S. won the afternoon game by more than five touchdowns. 

Saturday, March 14

As originally planned, the four teams would play in a round-robin tournament the first two days, with championship and consolation games on Sunday to determine the overall winner. But as the pandemic’s shadow grew over the Western Hemisphere, it was obvious that wouldn’t happen.

“The only television channel in the hotel that was in English was CNN,” offensive line coach Yatia Hopkins said. “You can imagine what that was like. It was easy to drive yourself crazy if you watched too much.” 

Before the United States’ Saturday game, rumors were already beginning to spread that Mexican players, fearful that Mexico would close its borders, were preparing to drive back home through Belize. 

At halftime of the United States’ game against Honduras, the announcement came down from the Honduran government: no gatherings of more than 50 people would be permitted. That meant no more tournament. The game was allowed to finish out — the United States team was one of the last in the world still playing at that point — and the Americans won the gold medal by sweeping all three games. 

After the game, the U.S. players began giving away equipment to their less fortunate opponents and members of the Honduran community. “Shoulder pads, helmets, cleats, gloves, we gave them to the other players,” Glossenger said. “We want to be able to share what we have. It was a tremendous impact to see that.”

The U.S. team returned to its hotel. Their planes were scheduled to leave Monday morning, and there’d been no indication that would change. That meant they had an entire day to enjoy Honduras, and they intended to do exactly that. 

Team USA won gold in the Americas Women's Bowl, then promptly found out their flight out of Honduras had been canceled. (Courtesy of AFE TEAM USA)

Sunday, March 15

With no expectation of problems, the team spent Sunday as tourists. The team’s Honduras liaison took the Americans to a small village called the Valley of Angels, about 20 miles outside Tegucigalpa. Some dining, some shopping, some sightseeing … it was a fine way to spend an unexpected day off. 

The team returned to the hotel and prepared for a little celebration — a combination St. Patrick’s Day party/surprise birthday party for two of the coaches. The team gathered around the hotel pool wearing green … and that’s when matters started to take a turn. 

Players noticed their liaison spending a great deal of time at the front desk, in deep discussion with hotel officials. Soon afterward, they found out why: Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez made an announcement at about 7:30 that evening: The country’s borders were closed as of midnight that night. Land, sea, air — there would be no way out. 

Right afterward, phones began chiming with more grim news: Monday morning’s flight had been canceled. The team thus had less than five hours before the borders closed for at least seven days. 

The problem was while three major airlines service Honduras — American, Delta and United — none of them “sleeps” there. Planes bring in a load of passengers, then leave with another load right afterward … and all the planes had already left for the day. And they wouldn’t be coming back. 

“Great,” center Carolyn O’Leary recalled thinking. “Now what do we do?” 

Monday was going to be a long day. 

Monday-Wednesday, March 16-18

“We immediately started putting ourselves to work to see what we could do to get home,” Glossenger said. “We had to make sure we were taken care of where we were at. And we had to get people back home. We had single mothers, people on fixed incomes, people who had to get back to their jobs. Nobody was expecting to spend another seven days there.”

The team worked out a deal with the hotel to get discount rates. Players bunked four to a room, collected their own trash, and did their own laundry … and there was plenty of laundry needed, given they hadn’t planned to be staying past Monday. They worked out a pared-down menu with the hotel staff, limiting options to finger foods like pizza and chicken fingers. 

“We wanted to make sure we had what we needed, but we also wanted to make sure we weren’t overburdening the staff,” Hopkins said. “We were fortunate that we were even in a hotel that was staying open.” 

At the same time, players began leveraging their own connections, reaching out on social media, contacting their representatives, seeking both help and donations. Stephanie Balochko, an AFE linebackers coach, had worked as an intern in the Steelers organization and used her connections there to get the word out through the NFL community. The message: Send help, or at least send money.

Team USA spent four extra days at a hotel in Honduras before being evacuated. (Courtesy of AFE TEAM USA)

Finances were a definite concern; team members had paid about $500-$600 apiece for lodging and food, plus the cost of the plane ticket ... but that was predicated on a five-night stay, not an indefinite one. 

There were other, more immediate needs, like medication. The police detail that had been assigned to the team since they arrived in Honduras stuck with them, taking individuals out to grocery stores for staples and pharmacies for needed medication — one team member was a diabetic who needed insulin, and others had high blood pressure issues. 

The relationship that the team had developed with the embassy during the previous Thursday’s charitable event paid off, too. Officials at the embassy began working on the team’s behalf. “Everyone at the Embassy is doing everything possible to find solutions for American citizens grounded in Honduras,” an embassy official told Glossenger’s wife Sandy, the AFE’s operations manager. “You are definitely not forgotten.”

At the same time, the media offensive worked. The team’s plight reached outlets ranging from the Washington Post to CNN to Sports Illustrated. Donations poured in, enough that none of the players had to pay out of pocket for the additional nights at the hotel. And while the families back home were “freaking out,” in O’Leary’s words, the team itself was staying steady and working with purpose.

“It was like being on a team,” O’Leary said. “Everybody took a role, whether working the phones or doing interviews with local media or newspapers. Players who are athletic trainers organized workouts. It was a constant churn of effort, trying to figure out what was going to happen.” 

“My philosophy in life is, the situation is as serious as you make it,” Hopkins said. “The reality is, we’re here, we can only do what we can do, get it done, see where that leaves us. Control the controllables.” 

During downtime, coaches organized scavenger hunts and held impromptu film study sessions. One coach set up a laptop and screen in a conference room and ran movies — “Forrest Gump” was a bit of an ironic choice, given that Tom Hanks had just been diagnosed with coronavirus. They took photos of themselves in front of large stores of toilet paper in a Honduras grocery store and sent them to friends back home suffering through the Great Toilet Paper Rush. 

“Everyone was checking on everyone’s mental state,” O’Leary said. “It helped that we had a lot of positive press going on every day. We were getting links to articles at bigger and bigger sources. That gives you hope.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, Sandy Glossenger got another call from the embassy. There would be a U.S. Air Force plane leaving soon from Palmerola Air Force Base, an hour and a half northwest of Tegucigalpa. The team had 30 minutes to get to the lobby, bags and passports in hand. 

The team flew into action, throwing clothes into bags. Half an hour later, all 55 of them were gathered in the lobby — with appropriate social distance to stay within the national guidelines — when another call came through. 

The message: Only 28 people could go. And there was no second plane coming. 

“Who do you keep in the boat? Who do you kick out?” Glossenger said. “We knew the people with medical issues had to go. But nobody wanted to leave. It was very difficult, very emotional.”

“It was hard, because honestly, nobody wanted to leave their teammates behind,” defensive end Sasha Cruz said. “Normally, you think when you’ve got a bunch of Americans and say, ‘Only a few of you can go,’ everybody’s going to bum rush the gate. But here, you had people looking around, making each other get up— ‘You’re an EMT, you need to go; you’re a police officer, you need to go.’ ”

Finally, the team had carved out 28 members to take the plane out. Then: Another call.

The number allowed wasn’t 28. Now it was down to 21. 

Sandy Glossenger made the call: Have everybody ready, and as many people could get onto the bus would go. So the team sat and waited. And then came another call. 

The plane wouldn’t be leaving that night. 

Thursday, March 19

The team gathered in the lobby once again at 6 a.m. Thursday morning. All told, 25 players left the hotel — at 9 a.m. — bound for the airbase and a planned noon flight.

Naturally, it didn’t happen that way. 

“The next thing we know, we get a message in the mid-afternoon: The plane hasn’t left yet,” Glossenger said. “Mechanical problems.” 

The 25 team members and embassy officials stayed at the airbase the rest of the day, eating MREs for lunch and in the chow hall for dinner. Their plane, a C-17, finally took off at about 9 that evening bound for Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. The first wave of the AFE team arrived back in America at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, more than a week after they’d left. 

From there, they scattered across the country: Washington, California, Texas, Michigan. (They had been screened before getting onto the plane in Honduras.) O’Leary had booked a flight back to Ohio despite a Delta agent who was confused as to how she had gotten from Tegucigalpa to Charleston. 

Meanwhile, the remaining 30 players and team officials sat at the hotel, and did a Fox News interview that proved to be pivotal. Late that afternoon, Sandy Glossenger got a call from the embassy. 

“There’s good news and bad news,” Glossenger recalled the embassy representative saying. “The bad news is, you’re not going home until tomorrow morning. The good news is, the president himself has seen and heard your story, and he’s making sure another plane is on the way.” 

Friday, March 20 

All members were screened before getting on a plane in Honduras, bound for the United States. (Courtesy of AFE TEAM USA)

That morning, as the team was preparing to leave, they saw a large number of other Americans showing up at the hotel. The embassy had notified them of the impending departure, and they were looking to catch on with the team. 

This time around, the remaining team members would be flying in a C-130, a cargo prop plane with sling seats against sidewalls. “This’ll be an experience to mark off the bucket list,” Glossenger recalled thinking.

At the airbase, Glossenger encountered a captain who was in charge of loading the team onto the plane. He told Glossenger he was surprised at the ever-changing flight plan; up until about an hour before, he’d thought he would only be ferrying the 30 team members out. Instead, he'd be adding dozens more Americans to the flight. 

“Because of our story, our adversity, we were able to get another 60 American citizens out,” Glossenger said. Some were on mission trips, others were on vacations. All were trying to get out before borders shut down for good. 

All told, there were about 600 Americans in Honduras at the time the lockdown dropped. Upon returning, one of the team’s coaches started a private Facebook group for Americans still left in the country, offering tips and embassy contacts. As of late last week, only three still remained there.

“It wasn’t just about us,” Glossenger said. “We wanted to help everyone we could help. … When you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.” 

The danger wasn’t from the virus; it was from the lockdown. “We were never in harm, never in fear,” Glossenger said. “We were very safe, honestly. But it’s great we got out when we did or we wouldn’t have gotten out.” Since then, Honduras has enforced even more draconian laws; residents can’t even leave their homes except on specific days, as mandated by the numbers on their passports. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. team has scattered across the country, back at home but with a hell of a story to tell. Glossenger hasn’t yet heard from the president, but he’s hoping to present Donald Trump with an AFE jersey emblazoned with “45” at the first opportunity. 

“I really feel like being football players helped us through this,” O’Leary said. “The football mentality is, everyone has a job, an assignment. We’ve all been through tough practices and game situations. You roll with it: Get to the next play, do your assignment, get through it.” 

“It was just like the movies, being on a military base, seeing how it all worked,” Hopkins said. “I told my wife I want to join the Air Force. She looked at me and said, ‘Maybe the reserves.’ ” 

“If you interview each player, each coach, and ask, ‘What would you change?’ Not one of them would change anything,” Glossenger said. “Except, bring more underwear.” 

____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter and contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

More from Yahoo Sports: