Warrior Wishes

August 2019 View more

Veterans Sammie Braswell and Todd Myra with Xander (5), Matt, Quinn (2), and Craig Steichen at the Vikings vs. Bears game on December 30, 2018. 

Craig and Matt Steichen have been creating memorable experiences for wounded veterans and their families for the past seven years. What initially began as a personal goal—to be the first to see a game in all 32 NFL stadiums in a single season—turned into a mission that has touched the lives of thousands of people all over the country, something the St. Charles residents never dreamed would happen. 

It all began as a father and son bucket list item to visit every NFL stadium—a task that could have taken them nearly 30 years. However, when Thursday night games were added to the schedule in 2012, it suddenly became possible to see a game in every stadium in one 17-week season. The duo spent months planning to be the first to accomplish the task. And, to make it even more meaningful, they decided to take two wounded veterans to each game.

Early in their journey, Craig contacted ESPN on a whim to see if they could tour its studios. Through sheer persistence and luck, he got a hold of sportscaster Chris Berman, who gave them a personal tour and ultimately changed their lives forever. ESPN ran a story about them on Veterans Day, which led to Mike Ditka offering to fund their trip (they initially turned him down). Letters poured in from vets thanking them for the experience. 

“Families were thanking us for the best day their son ever had. As civilians, we didn’t fully understand. To us it was just a football game; to them it was so much more,” Craig explains. They decided to take Ditka up on his offer and use the money to create a 501(c)3 charity so they could continue their new mission into the next year and beyond. 

During that first year, Craig and Matt successfully visited all 32 stadiums in a world record time of 103 days. More importantly, they honored over 65 wounded warriors. A year later the U.S. Army contacted them to see if they would include Gold Star families (those grieving a military loss) in their mission. 

Now known as Operation Warrior Wishes, the nonprofit has evolved to include all sports venues, and even the ESPY Awards. They have taken nearly 700 Gold Star families to events and plan to honor their 5,000th veteran at this year’s Super Bowl. Craig estimates they have hosted between 10,000 and 15,000 people. 

“We always allow the vets to bring someone. On the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June, we took eight World War II vets to the Kane County Cougars game and they brought 47 people with them,” he explains. To keep up with demand, they now have ambassadors in several cities to accompany vets to events when they can’t. 

What’s especially remarkable is that the Steichens do all this voluntarily, and rarely attend the actual game. “We are at every event 100 percent. We take people to dinner, maybe visit a local attraction, and take them to the game. But we only go to the game if tickets are donated to include us as well.” Craig spends 200 days a year on the road, and often travels overnight to save money on hotel costs. “I do a lot of overnight bus trips and take advantage of last-minute deals,” he notes. “We’re all about experiences. It’s not just taking them to a game. We get to know them and stay in touch. It’s an experience we hope they cherish forever.”

Aside from relying on in-kind donations, Operation Warrior Wishes sponsors events throughout the year, including a motorcycle ride in August (see box). To nominate a soldier or Gold Star family, visit warriorwishes.org. 


What: Warrior Wishes Ride for Warriors 

When: Saturday, August 17

Where: Roadhouse Country Bar & Grill, 1901 South Bridge Street, Yorkville

Tickets: $30 to ride, $10 per passenger through Eventbrite; includes breakfast, a shirt for the driver, and concert entry

Details: Registration starts at 9:30 a.m.; kickstands up at 10:30 a.m. After the ride, hang out with Super Bowl champions Dan Hampton, Otis Wilson, and Steve McMichael, plus enjoy live music from the Chicago 6 and Whiskey Romance.

Photo courtesy Craig Steichen