By Capt. Jay OstrichAugust 21, 2009
WITH golden helmets glistening in the setting mid-June sun, emotions were rising as young masters of the gridiron paid homage to Pennsylvania's fallen warriors from the Iron Division.
But for a community still healing from its losses, it would serve as a night to remember because it meant they would never forget.
They call it the Big 33 Football Classic, the Super Bowl for prestigious college-bound football players from Pennsylvania and Ohio. But during pre-game ceremonies in Hershey, Pa., it became a salute for what some are calling the "Brave 34."
The 34 best players from Pennsylvania donned the first-ever helmet sticker designed to honor the 34 Soldiers from the Pennsylvania National Guard who have been killed in action in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The design was that of a simple black keystone like patches worn by Soldiers in the 28th Division, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, with an embedded yellow ribbon, said emblem co-designer Airman 1st Class Claire Behney, Joint Force Headquarters public affairs specialist.
"The ribbon is a reminder of the sacrifice of these 34 brave Soldiers who would never see the Keystone state again, and a symbol of hope in the safe return of the more than 5,000 Pennsylvania National Guard Soldiers and Airmen currently serving overseas," said Behney.
But as players solemnly raised their helmets skyward during a 21-gun salute and rendering of taps, honored guests like Gold Star family members said its meaning went well beyond that.
A day our Guard stood still "just to know that people still remember him means the world to us," said Dana Shearon, sister of Cpl. Gerry Pellegrini, 31, who was killed Aug. 9, 2005, when his convoy was attacked in Bayji, Iraq.
Also killed in the attack were Pfc. Nathaniel Detample, 19, Morrisville, Pa.; Spc. John Kulick, 35, Jenkintown, Pa., and Sgt. Francis Straub Jr., 24, Philadelphia.
In a separate attack that day, Staff Sgt. Ryan S. Ostrom, 29, of Williamsport, Pa., was killed in action-making it the greatest combat loss for the commonwealth since World War II.
As the names of the fallen echoed throughout a respectfully quiet stadium, Shearon softly kissed her fingers and slowly pointed them toward the heavens. For her, this tribute was not as much a memorial about how these Soldiers died, but about how they lived.
"There were people here who never heard his name before, but they heard it tonight and hopefully will never forget who he was and what he died for," said Shearon. "This tribute says that we can just remember him for all the positives that made him a hero before he died, not how he died."
Her self-described "baby brother," Gerry, had been a Philadelphia police officer and avid boxer. He turned professional and won his welterweight debut by knockout in May 2004 before deploying to Iraq.
Shearon said Gerry would have humbly laughed at the notion of such a tribute to him and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Just a day before the game, players and coaches from Ohio heard about the stickers Pennsylvania's players planned to wear. So moved by the gesture, the team humbly requested the honor of wearing them, too.
It was a classy expression of gratitude and solidarity that didn't go unnoticed by former NFL standout and Big 33 honorary chairman, Kyle Brady.
"Oftentimes people refer to football players as warriors who sacrifice their bodies for the team," said Brady, a Pennsylvania native who played tight end in the 2007 Super Bowl for the New England Patriots. "But the terms 'warriors, sacrifice and commitment' should really be reserved for those in uniform."
Brady's father served in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., in the 1950s, and his brother is currently undergoing rigorous special operations training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"It's a great honor for these players to be wearing this emblem as a part of their uniform this year," said Brady. "As a young high-school kid, I think some of them have the maturity to understand what this means. But for some, I think it never can hurt to remind them of what they're representing, not only in their state, but also with this sticker and what it means."
Major Gen. Jessica L. Wright, commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard, left the field knowing those young men had received the message.
"The players standing out there were quietly saying 'this is for them,'" said Wright. "For the players to understand they were playing for a much bigger reason, for the Soldiers who gave their lives in defense of this country and the freedoms we enjoy, was truly an emotional moment."
For Shearon, it was proof positive that her beloved brother would never be forgotten.
"That people take the time to do this, speak his name and remember him and the other heroes means that he did not die in vain," said Shearon.
"The fallen Soldiers and Gold Star families are a part of our family and they will never stop being a part of our family," said Wright. "Tonight, Pennsylvania is representing Guardsmen from the (50 states and four territories) who have given their lives for our freedom."
For others like Brady, it put the game into perspective.
"As we all know, football is simply a game," said Brady. "After the game, you go across the field and meet at the 50-yard line, and you shake the competitors' hands, and you all go home safe and sound." When the final whistle blew, the players bearing tribute would do just that. Ohio beat Pennsylvania 38-31.
As Dana Shearon and her extended Guard family safely headed home as well, they would do so knowing that what they bared witness to that night was more than just a game.