On Super Bowl Sunday, just moments before kickoff, conversations swirled around the various matchups at play in the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida – Chiefs vs Bucs, Brady vs Mahomes, and COVID vs the NFL. For each member of a small group, specially trained and specially selected, the only conflict was an internal one of discipline and endurance.
Where moments before had been nerves and excitement of attending the Super Bowl, a stoic calm descended upon the group. Their eyes focused on the distance. Not staring at the stands, but staring into the future, fixed tightly on the task at hand.
There, below the roaring fans, waiting to step onto the field and into the light was the U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard. These military service members present the National Colors and carry their service flags on behalf of the Department of Defense to represent the U.S. military and all service members past and present. Specially selected from the honor guard units of each military service within the National Capital Region, these soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, and coastguardsmen, provide ceremonial support and excellence throughout the Washington, D.C. area, as well as fulfilling the memorial affairs mission of laying fallen service members to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Back in Tampa, these 11 service members strode out onto the field. H.E.R. performed America the Beautiful. The nation’s colors team moved forward, kept in step by the cadence of The U.S. Army Field Band percussionists flanking their formation. The colors were presented and the service flags lowered. Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan belted out The Star-Spangled Banner and the U.S. Air Force’s “trifecta” of bombers, a B-52, B-1 and B-2, passed overhead right on cue. Fireworks erupted and the audience roared. The color guard ordered arms and made a swift exit. Four short minutes, give or take, and the mission was complete.
Behind the scenes, those four minutes stretched into hours of practice and days of preparation. Before the trip, those four minutes meant months of drill and years of experience. Each member of the color guard brought their skills and professionalism to this mission. They checked and rechecked everything, debating arcane minutia of uniform and regulation not because it was the Super Bowl, but because these chosen few are proud to represent their respective services and are honored to carry the colors.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Franklin Taft, 39th color sergeant of the Marine Corps, is stationed at U.S. Marine Barracks, Washington D.C., and is no stranger to hard work and hours of practice in pursuit of a goal. Prior to joining the Marine Corps, Taft played college football for Colorado Mesa University and rode saddle bronc on the rodeo team at Oklahoma State University.
“It was a hard road to get where I am today, but if you have the pride and determination to meet your goals, you will succeed,” Taft said.
A huge Eric Church fan, Taft also spoke of the privilege it is to meet the performers for this year’s opening ceremony, but even moments after meeting a personal hero, he still tempered his excitement and focused on why the team was there in Florida.
“While it’s a dream come true to meet these performers, ultimately my focus is on the duty. My mission to hold the colors and represent our nation,” Taft said. “It is truly an honor to represent the United States Marine Corps.”
The service members that comprise the color guard come from all over. Whether by design or luck, two members of the team hailed from Tampa and Kansas City respectively.
U.S. Coast Guard Seaman Valentina DiZio was thrilled to be back in her hometown of Tampa, Florida. Born in Miami and raised in Venezuela, DiZio returned to the states just four years ago and settled with her family in Tampa. She credits her high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (JROTC) instructors with helping her acclimate to the states, finish high school, and ultimately find her way into military service.
“I had no clue what JROTC was, but it sounded amazing. I was in! It was the best decision I had ever made. My instructors help me with confidence and the language,” DiZio shared. “If I knew then what I know now, I’d do it all over again. That’s how I got here. Just two weeks ago I was a state and territorial flag bearer at the White House for the inauguration. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity.”
U.S. Army Sgt. Ryan Weber of Kansas City, Kansas couldn’t be happier to be at a Super Bowl where his beloved Chiefs were playing.
“It’s great to be here, with all my friends back home supporting me and the Chiefs. It’s absolutely amazing to be in Washington, D.C., and representing the Army in all the color missions we do, as well as the retirement ceremonies for the Soldiers leaving the service,” Weber beamed.
His focus wasn’t just on the Chiefs. A member of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, has given Weber a catalog of incredible experiences. “In my time in The Old Guard, I’ve provided ceremonial support to the Secretary of Defense. I was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the joint armed forces color team at The White House during the inauguration. I’ve been the color bearer for the Baltimore Ravens many times,” Weber recounted. “There are no two missions exactly the same, but my experiences will definitely help me on game day.”
These service members find their way to the military by varying routes. Some are looking for a personal challenge, some are looking to see a different part of the world, and some have a deep family connection that makes the military a great fit.
U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class James Hunter hails from Long Beach, California. Like most of the team, he too just served in the 59th Presidential Inauguration before finding himself at Super Bowl LV.
“I come from a military family, I am following my family’s footsteps and trying to make them proud. A few weeks ago I was a color guardsman at the wreath-laying ceremony for the inauguration. It was cool because I got to see former presidents (Bill) Clinton, (George W.) Bush, (Barack) Obama and President (Joe) Biden, it was an amazing opportunity,” Hunter continued. “I find myself in a series of once-in-a- lifetime experiences going from inauguration to the field of the Super Bowl in less than two weeks. It’s amazing. If you had asked me if I would do this six months ago, I would have had no idea. It’s one of a kind. I’ve never had experiences like this before. I’m very happy I made the decision to join.”
Likewise, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Hannah Larson from La Plata, Missouri has that deep family connection to service. Larson is one of eleven children. Six of the Larson siblings have already enlisted into the Air Force. Hannah Larson, like her siblings, joined for the education benefits but has decided to stay in the service.
“I’m trying to make a career out of it, I’m doing the full twenty. I love the job and love the challenge,” Larson said before addressing the challenge of performing at the Super Bowl, “It’s going to be nerve-wracking definitely. The hugeness of it will hit me on game day. I’m looking forward to it; it’s going to be awesome.”
And indeed, it was awesome. These service members, who found their way into the military and through their dedication to personal excellence were chosen to serve in our nation’s capital as guards of honor, displayed a level of discipline, precision and ceremonial excellence that can only be described as perfection.
The U.S. military isn’t the best in the world because they say they are. They’re the best in the world because troops like these understand that the standard demands excellence and it doesn’t matter the mission. Whether it is charging into battle or striding onto a football field, they represent not just themselves but all of us, and they did us proud.