San Francisco coach dons full combat gear, banters about sports with soldiers

Mike Nolan went to Afghanistan to thank the troops.

He came back with a new appreciation for what it means to be a teammate.

In the military, Nolan said, "If one slips up, another one could die. You're not talking about another play or the next down."

The 49ers coach toured war zones in June, paying his respects to the troops and talking NFL with anyone hungry for a taste of life back home. Nolan kept his visit quiet at the time, for security reasons, but talked publicly about his experience Thursday.

Not much into politics, Nolan said he was more captivated by the personal side of day-to-day life in Afghanistan. For example, whenever he held court for soldiers, the most commonly asked question had nothing to do with football.

"It was: How did I handle being away from my family?" he said.

Nolan spent six days overseas. The trip was coordinated by radio host Ron Barr, who has made four trips to Iraq or Afghanistan, each time bringing a different crew of sports personalities with him.

This time, it was Nolan and former 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Davis. They frequently ventured out -- through convoy or helicopter -- to what the military calls forward operating bases.

Barr said the 49ers contingent was unusual for its adventurous spirit. He received a letter from Gen. Robert Cone on Thursday noting that not all celebrity visitors were as daring as Nolan and Davis when it came to visiting smaller, far-flung FOBs. "Many of the soldiers here are still talking about it," Cone wrote.

Nolan said he felt safe the entire time, describing one of his vehicles as "like being in Fort Knox, like a moving bank safe."

But Barr said the conditions were brutal. Temperatures reached 135 degrees, he said, with Nolan and Davis dressed in full combat gear. They frequently heard gunfire. Barr said during one helicopter trip, with the 49ers contingent on board, a gunner was unnerved by something on the ground and opened up machine-gun fire.

(Barr can attest the danger is real; he was struck by shrapnel in his hand and shoulder during his first visit to the Middle East.)

For Nolan, the danger was worth it. He is a fan of the military. On 49ers trips, whenever he spots a soldier in an airport, the coach goes over to say hello and express his gratitude.

In Afghanistan, Nolan said he was struck by the "human side" of it all. He noticed that posted by the phone was a list of "10 Steps for Dealing with Conflict." It was a guide for soldiers to avoid personal strain when talking with loved ones back home.

"That was real when it comes to the war and what it does to these guys," Nolan said.

Nolan had originally hoped to make the trip last February, but the NFL scouting combine presented a scheduling conflict.

Thursday, he sounded grateful that he finally got his chance.

"What I learned," Nolan said, "will take a long time to sink in."