Tensions on Korean Peninsula take on serious meaning for this New England Patriot

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The real world is never far away for Joe Cardona.

NFL’s media night usually brings gags and hijinks, questions about favorite foods and the like. The Patriots’ long snapper, however, stood in a throng of reporters and fielded questions about the Korean Peninsula, and whether he might be headed there as soon as this offseason.

“There’s a chance I’ll be traveling over there,” Cardona said Monday. “We’ll see.”

Joe Cardona on his service in the Navy:
Joe Cardona on his service in the Navy: “If they call you to Korea, you have to work in seamlessly with your unit.” (AP)

Asked whether it was a large chance, he only offered, “There’s a chance.”

Cardona is a supply corps officer in the U.S. Navy, and he’s on active duty even as he practices and plays for the Pats. Last year, he needed permission to play in the Super Bowl, and this year brings the same scheduling conflict. But in 2018, the offseason could look quite different. He is now working with the Navy as part of a joint forces operation with South Korea.

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“It’s being prepared for whatever they could call you to do,” he said. “If they call you to Korea, you have to work in seamlessly with your unit.”

A lot has changed globally since Cardona got this assignment after last season’s Super Bowl victory. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated and the upcoming Olympics seem to promise only a short respite. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does not appear to be ready to back down from his threats and U.S. President Donald Trump has joined him in a war of words. What we see on cable news as a worrisome possibility of conflict is something Cardona and his fellow sailors have to be ready for.

The reality of that showed up when President Trump welcomed the Patriots to the White House in April. Tight end Rob Gronkowski made headlines for jumping into a Sean Spicer news conference as a joke, but one of the questions for Spicer was about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson and an “armada” that may have been approaching the Korean Peninsula. Only a short time after that news conference ended, Cardona and his teammates were feted in the Rose Garden. Cardona was wearing his Navy uniform. The president, after all, serves as his supervisor more so than Patriots team owner Robert Kraft or head coach Bill Belichick.

“Ultimately that job is more important,” Cardona said.

The 2015 Navy grad is a constant reminder of the gap between civilian life and military life. To see him in this kind of setting, soberly answering queries amidst a sea of revelry and occasional silliness, is a needed callback to what really matters. Two of the accredited media here on Monday were wearing camouflage: representatives of the Department of Defense. They were with Cardona for a while, listening to his answers along with a camera guy from his native San Diego and a couple of other writers.

Petty officer James Veal, 31, has been in the Navy for six years. “It’s huge,” he said of Cardona doing two jobs. “It gives me hope for whenever I’m out of the military. Nobody wants to step out [of the service] not knowing what they’re getting into, but then you see someone like him out here, doing big things on this huge platform and you think, wow, there’s something else waiting for you.”

New England Patriots punter Ryan Allen (6) takes a snap from Joe Cardona during warmups. (AP)
New England Patriots punter Ryan Allen (6) takes a snap from Joe Cardona during warmups. (AP)

Cardona even held a reenlistment ceremony during training camp in Foxborough in August. Tom Brady and the Patriots attended in their practice gear, and Cardona — who had just changed from football pads to his uniform — ran the ceremony. It’s easy to forget about the unending training and preparation that goes into being active in the military, but the media coverage of Cardona helps keep that in the spotlight. He often gets letters from sailors stationed around the world, and sometimes there are unit patches or challenge coins enclosed in the envelopes.

“It’s truly humbling to know people see me and say, ‘That’s a Navy guy,’ ” Cardona said. “Representing a ton of sailors all over the world, doing their job, it motivates me to be the best sailor I can be and the best person I can be.”

There is some debate over whether those who serve in the U.S. military should receive waivers in order to play in the NFL. Last week, Brett Toth became the first Army player to take part in the Senior Bowl, but no one is sure if or when he will be drafted as he has at least a two-year commitment to the military. Cardona may be the last of his kind.

If so, he has worn both uniforms admirably. He has been a part of an elite special teams unit for the Patriots, and he has used his off days to drive to Rhode Island for training and education as part of his “real job.” For everyone else in the locker room on Sunday, it’s 60 minutes of effort before a long rest. For Cardona, the most important work begins when football season ends.