It started as just a bucket-list dream.
But when Craig Steichen of Bartlett and his 29-year-old son, Matt, of St. Charles, decided to attend a football game at all 32 NFL stadiums -- and do the entire pilgrimage in one season, no less -- they agreed to focus on more than the game.
More than 65 wounded veterans accompanied the duo during each stop of their journey from New York to Tennessee, which they finished in just 15 weeks, breaking a world record.
The experience, they wholeheartedly agree, was life-changing.
"This whole thing's been just a whirlwind," Matt said. "I didn't expect it to be as much about giving back and as much about the veterans as it turned out to be. These guys are now my best friends."
The Steichens were so moved by the veterans they met during their "All 32 in 17" adventure that they decided to keep paying it forward by starting a nonprofit organization called Operation Warrior Wishes, which will provide similar experiences, from sporting events to concerts, for more veterans.
"We're just looking to continue this on," Matt said. "We have so much invested into it. So many people want to see this keep going. We figured, why stop?"
Making it work
Matt said he remembers sitting in his basement for about two hours on April 17, 2012 -- the day the NFL schedule came out last year -- to figure out if it was even possible to visit all 32 stadiums in one season. Once he realized it was possible, he brainstormed with his dad about whom they could help.
The Steichens first thought of the Make A Wish Foundation, but knew tailgating outside NFL stadiums wouldn't be the best atmosphere for kids. They reached out instead to the Wounded Warrior Project, which selected the veterans who joined them at each stop of their journey.
The duo budgeted about $25,000 to pay for the whole trip, which was to cover transportation, lodging, food and tickets for them and the veterans.
However, as their mission went viral -- ESPN brought a lot of the attention with a segment around Veterans Day weekend -- they received an outpouring of support that included free hotel rooms and a van donated by St. Charles Toyota and decorated like a football field by Signs Now of South Elgin.
About halfway through the season the Steichens were surprised to learn that someone else had managed to see games in all 32 stadiums in a single season.
Even though their mission by then was focused less on the games than on helping wounded vets, they decided they might as well try to break the record by shortening their journey by two weekends.
Craig is semiretired, but Matt works a 40-hour week at a local bank, so it wasn't an easy task.
"It was tough to stay awake some days, just from traveling," he said, adding that sometimes he'd go straight to work after driving home from a Thursday night game.
'He was just like me'
Before each game, Craig and Matt usually met up with two wounded veterans for breakfast or lunch to break the ice. They would sometimes spend time with them long after the game, too, talking late into the night at a bar or their hotel.
There were certain moments that made every game special, like high-fives and hugs the veterans and team shared with members of the Pittsburgh Steelers in a stadium tunnel.
Tears also flowed many times, including when a veteran in Phoenix gave Matt a comrade's killed-in-action bracelet, which he hasn't taken off since.
"I had no idea about what I was getting myself into," Matt said, noting he often found a more personal connection with the veterans than his dad because he was so close in age to many of them.
"Just knowing that less than a year ago he was just like me ... I can't imagine going through an experience like that," he said of one veteran who had lost his leg.
While the experience was overwhelming for the Steichens, it was "the experience of a lifetime" for Army veteran Joshua Hays.
"It was a very touching and emotional day," said the 34-year-old from Bourbonnais. "It's an honor that they did this."
Hays and 28-year-old Marine veteran Dave Jelinek, of Downers Grove, joined Matt and Craig during their stop at Soldier Field in October.
Jelinek recalled when he got a phone call inviting him to the Monday night game just two days earlier.
"At first I thought it was a joke, to be honest with you," he said. "I thought somebody was just kind of messing around with me."
The day started with a private tour of Wrigley Field that included a surprise visit from the Cubs' front office staff and owner Tom Ricketts in the clubhouse.
Hays said one of the highlights of the day was getting a Cubs jersey with his name on it from Ricketts.
"It made me feel like a superstar," he said.
Jelinek said fans at the Bears game kept giving them high-fives and older veterans would occasionally come by and slip money into their hands.
"It was really nice to know that all of the fans, everybody has that respect for the military," he said. "None of us go forgotten, that's for sure."
Hays said it was an amazing to stand on the field and meet the "Monday Night Football" television crew. "What I got was way more than I ever expected," he said.
Paying it forward
Craig said the new nonprofit will help continue their efforts in a bigger way.
"It's going to be like a Make a Wish for soldiers," he said.
Because the Steichens can't go to every event, Craig is hopeful he'll be able to partner the right people with veterans who share their interests.
"A big part of what we do is not just going to the game," he said. "It's the hanging out, the camaraderie. That was the part from day one we learned how to do."
Craig said there already are numerous ways people can help. The organization needs money and tickets. People interested in serving as "host families" also are needed.
Hays said he was amazed when he heard the Steichens wanted to continue working with veterans.
"For them to see that we (serve) them, and they appreciate what we do now, I think it's a great thing," he said. "For them to continue to want to do things like this, I was shocked. It's an honor that they even did this."
Jelinek shared similar sentiments, adding that the experience was very humbling.
"I really respect the two of them for doing what they're doing," he said. "It's really cool to watch."