ATLANTA – Since Air Force Recruiting Service began a partnership with the Chick-Fil-A College Football Hall of Fame last year, it has been able to use the venue for enlistments and other functions, including a rather unique swearing-in March 24.
University of Georgia student Devon Merrill of Savannah received a warm welcome into the Georgia Air National Guard when Army Maj. Gen. Tom Carden, the adjutant general of the Georgia Department of Defense, administered his oath of enlistment at the HOF here.
Merrill has worked as a student athletic trainer for the UGA football team and various other sports while in school. He is slated to graduate from UGA in May with a degree in athletic training.
“Devon is stepping up to serve a cause larger than himself,” Carden said. “He has joined the one-half of one percent who swear to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. He has signed a blank check to protect our way of life.”
At the beginning of 2020, the Air Force entered into a three-year agreement with the HOF to build a permanent exhibit for the Air Force AIR RAID QB Sim experience. This virtual reality simulator is used to train quarterbacks at both the college and pro levels. In the experience, visitors play against an Air Force defense and the stadium features Air Force branding.
“The Georgia ANG, along with AFRS marketing, has built an excellent working relationship with the Chick-Fil-A College Football Hall of Fame,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jose Padilla, the state recruiting production superintendent. “Having the Georgia ANG conduct the first-ever enlistment at the HOF facility was an honor, not just for our recruiters, but for the entire HOF staff. The HOF staff went all out, making this day extremely special for our enlistee and his family. They rolled out the red carpet, providing a tour of the facility, giving the opportunity for our enlistee to experience the Air Raid and even coordinating with us prior to the event to create an electronic banner highlighting the enlistment information on their gigantic digital screen. Total Force recruiting should capitalize on these opportunities.”
The Georgia ANG’s leadership was eager to take part in this enlistment at the HOF.
“Georgia is lucky to have excellent leaders like Maj. Gen. Carden and Maj. Gen. Thomas Grabowski, the Georgia ANG commander,” Padilla said. “They are our strongest supporters and are continuously involved with our recruiting and retention mission. Maj. Gen. Carden took the time to welcome our new Airman, briefed him and his family on some of the benefits and opportunities that await him, and shared some of his personal experiences from his 30-plus year tenure in the military.”
Merrill said it was a great honor to be sworn in by the top officer in his state.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big deal until I spoke with my recruiter and some of my family members,” he said. “It made me feel like the leadership of the Air National Guard valued me as much as I value them. Leadership and culture start from the top, and Maj. Gen. Carden exemplified the same leadership and support I’ve received from everyone in the Air National Guard.”
Merrill will serve as a fireman in the Savannah-based 165th Civil Engineer Squadron.
He thanked his recruiters for providing him with an option to serve in a field of interest that hits close to home.
“My stepfather and grandfather were firefighters at Fort Stewart, Georgia,” Merrill said. “Growing up around the fire department and now having the opportunity to join it is awesome. I know they are both proud and excited for me. I actually reached out to my stepfather about my decision first and he helped me reach out to Tech. Sgt. Reza Whitehead to begin the process.”
Whitehead is an ANG recruiter in Savannah. He said he was blown away by the enlistment ceremony and how the HOF made it special for Merrill.
“The experience is definitely a major highlight in my recruiting career,” Whitehead said. “The partnership Air Force Recruiting has with the HOF by far one of the best ones I’ve seen yet. The HOF treated everyone who attended like red-carpet celebrities.”
The partnership with the HOF is a great resource for Total Force recruiters, especially those based in Georgia.
“Having a resource for the Total Force to utilize is a game changer,” Whitehead said. “You can’t beat being able to advertise in downtown Atlanta. Any college football fan would be crazy not to experience the HOF. Having Devon, an athletic trainer for the UGA football team enlist there just solidified what the ANG is all about – service and community.”
Merrill said he was astonished with the treatment he received at the HOF and shocked to see his name up in lights on the hall’s digital screen.
“My name was in a bigger font than the names listed for the 2021 HOF class like Tony Romo, Carson Palmer and Bob Stoops,” he said. “It made me feel like a big deal. The support from everyone for my family and me was unreal. This is when I realized I definitely made the best decision to join the Georgia Air National Guard.”
For the AFRS marketing division, utilizing the partnership with the HOF is important. This enlistment showed the kind of impact it can have for recruiting.
“I wanted to get an enlistment from someone who lived close to Atlanta. With Merrill being a UGA student and working in the athletic field, it was a perfect fit,” said Master Sgt. Daniel Bedford, AFRS events program manager. “This will create buzz, especially with spring football practices being conducted and a local Georgian deciding to take his oath to serve the state of Georgia and his nation.”
Bedford is the point man for the partnership with the HOF. He is a member of the Air Force Reserve and has been a head high school football coach in California and athletic trainer for years. He is passionate about athletics and the partnership with the HOF, and plans on having other events there to include enlistments for the Air Force Reserve and the regular Air Force.
In addition to being able to utilize the HOF for events, Total Force recruiting was able to use the mobile Air Force AIR RAID QB Sim experience this year at the Super Bowl.
Whitehead said he is excited about the partnership between the HOF and the Total Force recruiting enterprise.
“I would love to add that being part of Total Force recruiting and having programs like our partnership with the Hall of Fame proves that being one team, and one fight is a true statement,” Whitehead said. “Anytime Total Force recruiting rock stars come together, magic happens. Seeing Devon and his family treated like they were celebrities and having everyone come together, just makes me excited for the future.”