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Panther Pros Challenge G.I. Joes

Zack Williams, an injured 304-pound rookie offensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers, plays a violent sport.

Jantzen Frazier of Hartsell, Ala., is an Iraq War veteran, a recipient of seven Purple Heart medals. In his last battle in 2007, he was wounded six times and broke his back in three places after he was blown out of a Humvee.

The two met Tuesday when the wounded veteran asked the NFL rookie for his autograph at Bank of America Stadium during a real-time video game contest organized by the nonprofit Pro vs. GI Joe organization and the Panthers.

For two hours, Williams and Gary Barnidge, a Panthers tight end, and David Gettis, a wide receiver, played the popular "Call of Duty: Black Ops" video game against wounded vets like Frazier, local Army National Guard troops and deployed troops on R&R in a Kandahar, Afghanistan USO. It was all beamed into the stadium's Gridiron Club on the internet using Xbox Live.

"It's largely a morale-booster for the troops," said Greg Zinone, an Orange County, Calif., resident who founded the charity with his wife, Addie. "We saw there was a need. These guys serving our country get to play against and talk to professional athletes, musicians, movie stars. And the celebrities feel like they're giving back."

The couple founded the organization after Zinone's wife completed two tours in Iraq with the Army Reserves and noticed the troops spent much of their down time playing video games.

Williams, who spends his days rehabbing his left knee, was awed when told about Frazier's injuries.

"I should have asked him for his autograph," he said. "Playing football doesn't compare to being in a war zone, not knowing the next minute what's going to happen to you. Worrying about your family and whether you'll see them again. Anything I can do help build morale, I do."

Advantage, soldiers

The video game they played Tuesday is a modern warfare, shoot-'em-up game.

The NFL players took turns playing troops in Afghanistan. Through headsets and microphones, they could talk to each other as they played.

It was hard to get Williams away from the game.

He lost the first four games, won the last.

"I didn't hear a lot of it, but I think they were talking a lot of smack to me," he said. "They had the advantage -- they know when to duck, when to shoot."

That's the part that struck Barnidge.

"We're in here just playing a game," he said. "They do that stuff in real life.

"This is a meaningful way for us to give back. I want them to know how appreciative I am of what they do."

The local troops were appreciative of the players' time.

"It shows us that people care," said George Bullem, a captain in the N.C. Army National Guard.

Easing readjustment

That's what Frazier, 27, needed after his injuries forced him to leave the Army.

They came five days after he'd reenlisted "indefinitely." He was on a 15-man patrol in three Humvees when a dump truck with 23,000 pounds of explosives rammed the convoy.

The blast destroyed two Humvees, and blew Frazier's vehicle on its side, throwing Frazier out. Thirteen of his comrades died.

He was married and his first of four daughters had been born while he was in Iraq.

Still, he would have gone back.

"When you go into the military, you have a second family," Frazier said. Readjustment was hard. Loud noises sent him to the ground. When he drove under a bridge, he'd change lanes so no one above would drop a bomb on him.

"I didn't want to go out of the house," he said.

Then he found the Pro vs. GI Joe organization, which also includes rehabilitation events.

Now he gets paid to go on the road with the group, helping set up and tear down events -- and talking to recently wounded veterans.

"I feel I'm starting to come out of my shell," Frazier said. "My family still doesn't know what I did over there.

"But this has helped -- I'm starting to feel alive again."

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