“Who If Not Us” Kyle Brandt & NFL360 show Ukrainian Football on the War’s Frontlines

In a new documentary by NFL360 entitled ‘Who If Not Us’, NFL Network’s Kyle Brandt explores how American football players and families in Ukraine have been forced into a harsh new reality as a result of the ongoing Russian invasion.

The documentary, produced by Trent Cooper and Ryan Smith, and edited by John Orfanopoulos, introduces the current State of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine followed by an overview of the Ukraine’s American football league, ULAF (Ukraine League American Football).

“I wanted to do something to connect American’s with what was happening on the ground in Ukraine. Within a couple days I was in touch with players in the ULAF who were on the frontlines. I was messaging them to learn about their story, what life was like in Ukraine before the invasion, how they got their families to safety, and what they’ve seen on the battlefield.”

“We thought Kyle Brandt would be the perfect correspondent for the project because of how similar he was to the ULAF players… fathers who love football. We also wanted to show a different side to Kyle’s personality. The soldiers were excited to engage because it was Kyle, someone they enjoy watching.” – NFL360 Producer Ryan Smith

Kyle Brandt of the NFL Network’s marquee morning show ‘Good Morning Football’ builds a strong bond with the Ukrainian football players now turned soldiers who are fighting on the frontlines of this terrible war, by exchanging videos back and forth with them

From light-hearted videos chatting about the greatness of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers playoff hopes to tearful, heart-wrenching descriptions of their fallen comrades and the destruction of their homeland, the raw and unfiltered messages between Brandt and the players/soldiers leave viewers with a rollercoaster of powerful emotions.

Throughout the documentary masterfully interweaves images of the reality of the war in the Ukraine showing bombed hospitals, first-person videos of gunfights, rockets launching, and mass graves, with the sounds and images of soldiers singing patriotic songs in their native tongue.

Then he abruptly flips the page back to the wide smiles of the soldiers as they recount their gridiron glory days of the past, while adding intimate family home videos of them playing with young sons and daughters, now far away from the battlefield.

“I had no idea that we would find such inspiring, funny, family oriented, football guys. They all had their own unique personalities and we all clicked quickly. It seemed to be a perfect pairing between them and Kyle.’ 

“The whole project has been hard emotionally for all of us, a bond has been created with these soldiers and wives. You feel a connection to them. Any pain they are feeling you start to feel. When they lose someone on the battlefield, when you see the pain they are going through, it impacts you in ways you would never imagine.”- NFL360 Producer Ryan Smith

The stirring first-person videos from the Ukrainian soldiers show the war’s horror, carnage, and destruction along with the day-to-day struggles of sleeping on the cold ground and living on high alert in a dirt trench, all while they are heroically fighting for their country. Viewers are given a never-before-seen point of view from the frontlines of the conflict.

Brandt’s primary ‘Pen Pal’ is ULAF president and Kyiv Patriots player Yurii Gundych. Gundych’s days of arranging the league’s games, practices, and running routes seem far away now, as he explains why he chose to take up arms for his homeland against a massive Russian onslaught

“We are from sport, we don’t know how to make war, we have muscles and we have big big hearts, and we decide…. who if not us’
Thirty-two-year-old Andrey Zaretsky, a center for the Kyiv Capitals and a former quality assurance engineer turned soldier, keeps his reasoning simple.
“We will defend our country, we will defend our families, and if means to die, we will die”

Andrey Zaretsky with his wife and young daughter: (NFL360-Who If Not Us)

Tragically, several members of the Ukrainian football community have been killed by the war ranging from 19-year old Oleksandr Akinin of the Zdolbuniv Eagles, to Dymtro Serbin, a renowned cardiologist known as the ‘Jerry Rice of Ukraine’, and sadly many more.

The project goes on to show how the American football community in neighboring Poland has risen to the challenge, sheltering millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled to the Polish border, often carrying their shattered lives in nothing but a backpack.

American TJ Richardson, a former Millersville University (NCAA DII) safety and longtime player and coach in Ukraine, now with Poland’s Warsaw Mets, shares insights on how his team and others in Poland reacted to the humanitarian crisis at their doorstep.

“For me I was thinking ‘what can I do to help?’, so we got together and brainstormed. We said, ‘let’s send some guys to the border and pick people up wherever they need to go’. 
They are lost and confused about what the situation is, and where it’s gonna go. They also have no idea what the future looks like.

“During tragic times, football can open doors for people, so I thought let’s go to the refugee camps and shelters. Any kids who want to be part of cheerleading or football can join. Just to help them give them an outlet.” 

Richardson and the Warsaw Mets promptly organized a charity game against cross-town rivals, the Warsaw Eagles, encouraging Ukrainian refugees to join the teams as players, cheerleaders, or whatever role they wanted. The Mets, among others in Poland’s football community, helped arrange ongoing aid to and from the Ukrainian border, hosting families, bringing supplies, and doing whatever they could to help those in need.

“We were able to raise some crucial funds just in time for winter. We also hosted some kids from the orphanage for a kids day introducing them to American football and giving them a opportunity participate and be a part of the community after months of sitting in shelters.” – TJ Richardson

Brandt eventually meets up with the families of two of the Ukrainian players who have since fled to other parts of Europe.

The NFL pundit turned war activist then surprised them, bringing them to the NFL’s first game in Munich, Germany, to watch Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took on the Seattle Seahawks in Allianz Arena.

 Of course, this trip is made with optimistic promises of bringing their husbands and fathers at war to an NFL game on a later date. At the game, the families of the Ukrainian soldiers along with TJ Richardson were honored and given a roaring and heartfelt ovation from the crowd.

“The Munich trip was about the wives being able to honor the sacrifice their husbands were making and giving them a moment of joy, a break from the constant pain of separation and uncertainty. The daughters were pointing at the players shouting ‘daddy’. They are used to seeing their fathers out there playing.’

‘Anna Gundych and Anastasiya Zaretsky were recognized at halftime by the crowd of over 70,000 people. They were there to represent the entire ULAF, the players sacrificing for Ukraine’s freedom. The ovation from the crowd was so powerful, and there was so many people that came up to the wives to say Slava Ukraini, they really felt embraced by the city of Munich. NFL 360 producer Ryan Smith

The documentary gives the audience a rare perspective on how these players, sons, fathers, and brothers’ reality quickly turned from the brotherhood of the field and family roles, to the harsh, ugly, and often deadly realities of war. A war that is still violently raging in the heart of winter.

According to ULAF Vice President Denis Polubinskyi donations for the Ukraine relief fund can be sent to the George Pataki Center.

The NFL360 documentary “Who If Not Us” will air for a second time on NFL Network today Dec 27th, at 8 EST, and New Years Eve at 10pm EST, it is available on the NFL Network, NFL Plus, Peacock, and all NFL streaming services (including NFL Gamepass), as well as Youtube.

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Alex is a former NCAA and semi-pro American football player who is now located in London, where he works in digital marketing. His goal in writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and