By Rob McIlvaineFebruary 3, 2012
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Army News Service, Feb. 3, 2012) -- Each year, Soldier-heroes and high school football players are paired up before and during the Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas.
In one case, though, the pairing in January might last a lifetime, said Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Shawn Michael Hibbard, who was paired with all-star football player Eli Harold. The two found they shared similar hardships from the past, along with similar aspirations for the future.
Both had rough childhoods. Hibbard lived in 15 different foster homes. Harold grew up without a father and lost his mother last year. But both have a belief in the good things to come.
Both aspire to play in the NFL. Hibbard already plays professional Arena football and Harold will play next year at the University of Virginia. Both also have a mutual desire to mentor others to make positive choices.
"I think coming from the military, as well as professional Arena football, it couldn't be more true. I try to mentor kids and shape their future by telling them they have the control to make the choices, the positive choices," Hibbard said.
"I just love being around kids. I've been a mentor, just letting them know where I've been from and letting them know they can do anything, but keep God first," Harold said.
"It's a battle on the gridiron and (while football might not be as serious as protecting each other's lives in battle), it's still that dedication to your team, to your teammates, and to your fellow troops," Hibbard said.
While doing a 16-kilometer route clearance in Nadi ali, Hibbard, along with a counter improvised explosive device, or IED, team and some British forces, came under a complex and heavy ambush from both their left and their right.
"We were on the southeast road moving to tear down a patrol base, and basically what happened is we got ambushed from our left and our right -- RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), AKs and I decided to get my 50-caliber Barrett M107 sniper rifle out," Hibbard said.
Hibbard climbed up on top of the British Viking, an all-terrain armored vehicle, and started picking targets 400 to 1,100 meters away.
"At the end of the thing, I had eliminated a few people and saved my guys who were getting initially targeted, so they could fall back behind cover," Hibbard recalled. "I had the machine guns in the front and my rear, I was walking up on targets because I couldn't see them, coordinated some air strikes. And then after we were moving out of the kill zone, we came under fire again, so I started firing and basically ran out of ammunition for my sniper rifle."
He went back to his M4 carbine using single shots, even though it can shoot in three-round bursts because for a trained and disciplined Soldier a well-placed single shot is better than just a random burst.
"Through rifle marksmanship and training, I just stayed there, trusted my instincts, and guided in machine-gun fire. During the lull, we decided to move on again. We ran over an IED. It didn't go off, but the vehicle behind us had struck the IED and it went off, throwing the turret gunner out, who I was just coordinating machine-gun fire with.
Hibbard jumped off, leaving his rifle, grabbed the metal detector and cleared a path for the turret gunner. Using his personal first aid kit, he administered first aid to the gunner's deep skull fracture and began sucking out bone and blood from his throat because he was choking.
"But we stabilized him, I coordinated the medevac out. We loaded him. We finished the post-blast, 'cause we had to investigate the scene to determine how much of an IED, like, the main charge was and just continued our mission," Hibbard said.
He was awarded a Bronze Star with V device. He also received a battlefield promotion to staff sergeant.
TOUGH LIFE BEFORE THE ARMY
Hibbard was born in the back of a taxi cab in Tennessee in 1979, just before his mother ran away from his father.
"I guess you could say I lived a pretty rough life, faced a lot of physical abuse type things," Hibbard said. "Everything kind of led me to who I am today. We all have the trials and tribulations we have to go through and the choices that we have to make -- and this all happened by the time I was age three. The funny unique part about all this, I have memories all the way back to about a year, year and a half old, which most people don't, but because of the traumatic incidents and things like that, there's certain things that I very vividly remember."
By the time he was 3 years old, Hibbard had lived in six different states and had witnessed a lot of abuse, he said. He was the youngest of three boys. His older brothers included Tommy, the oldest of the three, and Paul, the middle boy, who also suffered from cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
"I was the youngest brother of three," Hibbard said. "But I ended up, at 3 years old, being bigger in size than both of them, and kind of took on a parenting role."
Hibbard remembers back to when the three were together, living in a trailer park with their cousins in Virginia.
"It was just bad. There were a lot of drugs around," Hibbard said. "Of course, I didn't know what drugs were at that time."
The young boys plotted to run away from their situation, to live together inside a "shark dinosaur" that was inside the fence line of a nearby dinosaur-themed amusement park.
His life of "mission command" began many years earlier, he said, when he took charge of his two older brothers and said, "we can't be here anymore."
"I had my cousins, who were older, pack us a lunch -- peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and made us a red thermos with a white top full of Kool-Aid," Hibbard said. "That was what we were going to live on until ... whatever."
When the boys, alone and on foot, stopped to ask some adults for directions to the park -- which was less than a mile from the trailer park where they lived -- Hibbard wonders why somebody didn't detain them and call for the police. But nobody did, so the boys continued on.
"It seemed far for us," he said.
A short while after the boys attempted to climb the fence at the park, they were stopped by a state trooper, Hibbard said. The three brothers were taken into custody, and that began the cycle for Hibbard of moving from foster home to foster home. He experienced a total of 15 different families in all.
For a while, he said, the three boys were together. But eventually, his two older brothers were taken in by one family and adopted. Hibbard was left behind. He says they didn't take him because he was too much of a parent figure to his brothers, and their new parents didn't want to contend with his brothers listening to him and not to them.
"After that, I just bounced around from foster home to foster home and was adopted at the age of 10 by the Hibbards," he said. "That's how I got my last name."
But even with the Hibbards there was trouble, he said, including more abuse. Eventually, he moved on from there and, by the time he was 14, he found a new family, he now considers his parents, in Winchester, Va.
"They became my permanent foster care, which is basically the same thing as adoption without the name change," he said. "They signed for me to join the military at 17 years old, just like any other parent would have to do. They're my mom and dad still to this day. That's who we have family get-togethers with, that's who I call when I need something or if they need something. I found my family, finally."
ELI HAROLD'S EARLY TRIALS
"I grew up without a father so my mom took care of me her whole life. But she passed on last year and ever since then I've been living with my older brother, Walter Jr., who's in his 40s, and his family. We've always been tight -- his kids, my nephews and nieces, we've always been tight. So I call them my brothers. We're all together, one big family," Harold said.
Harold has been playing football since he was 6 years old.
"All the stuff I've been through, I just don't let it get in the way of my success. I was brought up to respect others and just keep God first and you can do anything with God in it, so I don't let that bring me down.
"And with a guy like Hibbard, being a mentor to me, and where he's come from and where I come from -- we relate, we're from the same area and we can sit down and talk and get to know each other a little more.
"He hit me up on Facebook and let me know (that he was going to be my Soldier-hero) and then we started talking a little bit, and he plays ball and it's a great thing.
HIBBARD REMEMBERS BEING PAIRED UP
"I found out who I was going to get paired up with, so I thought I'm going to go ahead and do a little research, found him on Facebook, and I even sent a shout-out to his Ocean Lakes High School football fan page on Facebook, 'Does anybody know this guy? Tell him I'm trying to get at him.' So I sent him a message, introduced myself a little bit, telling him I was going to be partnered with him at the All-American Bowl as his Soldier-hero, and also let him know that I played Professional Arena football as a wide receiver -- a position he also plays."
"I played defensive end in high school, as well as tight end, but in the Arena League I had to play wide receiver -- we don't have tight ends because of seven-man football.
"Eli is an amazing kid. I don't know the situation as far as where he comes from but I do know that he's on the path to make a positive choice in the face of adversity by continuing on to college -- he's committed to the University of Virginia -- great athlete, academics, I mean just all around. I got the chance to spend some time with him yesterday (when the Soldier-heroes and players were paired up the week preceding the Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, Jan. 2012) and I'm amazed at today's athletes and just how aware they really are with understanding the importance of academics being the positive role model.
Hibbard said he told Harold that only about 25 percent of what you do really matters as it pertains to the field. The other 75 percent is the character that you have off the field.
"Everyone is always going to be watching. Actions always speak louder than words," he said.
Hibbard said he does a lot of speaking engagements. Along the way, he has adopted a couple of schools -- Page County Middle School and a high school, where he provides healthy snacks. This provides other opportunities to get into the communities, speak at church groups. He also partners with a local restaurant that gives him a hundred meals he passes out to families in need.
"That's what I try to portray to some of the kids, you have to look at the community service because you're a star in your hometown, you really are, I mean the caliber and the level you're playing at, they have a really big obligation. They may not see it now but they're the future, and the other kids coming up are looking up to them and they're going to want to emulate that."
"So, by being positive, making great choices, getting involved in their community, that's probably the best thing they could do," he said.
Hibbard and Harold got linked up because of the demographics. Nobody from the Winchester area was selected to come play, but Eli Harold is from Virginia Beach and Hibbard is stationed in Norfolk -- in that tri-city area of Hampton Roads.
"So they felt it would be a great match-up. In high school, I played defensive end, too, so it's kind of unique that we share so many similarities -- maybe not the same path coming up but I think definitely it's a brotherhood that you just know when someone's genuine.
"I think Eli and I have connected on a level where he understands that I'm genuine and I just care about establishing a relationship so this athlete can say, 'You know what? I might not have known a lot about the Army but through Staff Sergeant Hibbard and his accomplishments, just as long as I work hard, I can do whatever I want to do.'"
Hibbard thinks it would be awesome to maintain this mentoring relationship with Harold, a hometown athlete who stands out across the board.
"I think it would be good for not only him but for myself, as well. So, when he finds himself going to that next level, he can kind of relate a little bit, as well, to me and to say, 'You know, I'm really on my way after all the hard work.'"
A lot of these kids, Hibbard said, understand what it takes to get to the D1, D2 or D3 level of college.
"When you get to college the work has just begun," he said. "Everything they've done is to get to that next level -- you've got to stay on top of it, academically -- first and foremost, academically -- if you don't have the grades, you can't play."
"But understanding that guy on your left, that guy on your right depends on you, just like we do in the Army," Hibbard explained. "We depend on our battle buddies to make sure that we all come back. I think football players share that mentality. If I keep my block and my QB can make that pass, it's a good day."
HIBBARD'S FOOTBALL CAREER
Hibbard said he's very passionate about what he likes to do.
"I kind of mentioned the idea, after talking to Ron McDole (the Washington Redskins left defensive end from 1971 through 1978) and some of the other greats from the Redskins at an Aug. 2010 benefit tournament at Rock Harbour Golf Course. 'I think I want to try professional football.' They said, 'well, with your size, definitely go for it.' But a lot of people told me I was too old because at the time I was 31 years old and I thought, 'You're never too old. You just got to want it, you got to be hungry for it," he said.
He contacted an agent, he said, because in professional sports an agent is needed to get you in the door.
"So, being a combat veteran, wanting to pursue this because I didn't go to college because of serving in the Army, I really was like, I've got to work hard."
The team he played for this past season was the Richmond Revolution for the Indoor
"I was a special teams captain and was a wide receiver, as well as a special teams player. This year they're going black because they're building a new arena to come back in 2013, so I have a couple of workouts with the Richmond Raiders. They just moved to the Professional Indoor Football League. And I've also got a scheduled workout with the Philadelphia Souls for the AFL.
"I was supposed to go to the Ravens for a workout, but I ended up tearing my Anterior Cruciate Ligament in my knee in the last game of last season. So the lockout was going on and you're not allowed to have any contact with anybody, so when the lockout lifted I couldn't do anything because of my knee injury. So, I had to go through rehab and the team took care of everything. It was the most pain I've ever been through. I mean, I've been blown up in the Army, in vehicles, and injured my leg a little bit but nothing hurt like tearing my ACL, and I hope I never do it again."
The football team was so impressed by Hibbard that they did a story on the cover for the game program: 'Revolution wide receiver, Shawn Hibbard has two bands of brothers.'
"I have the uniform on the field and I have the uniform off the field, and I look at the values of being both as having dignity, respect, leadership, selfless service -- they're all hand in hand."
HAROLD FOLLOWS IN HIBBARD'S STEPS
Hibbard said he wants to get Harold involved in some of his football camps provided to military kids with a deployed parent.
"People are already looking up to him, people see him as a role model and as long as he continues to do what he's doing and making the positive choices and just working hard, I mean, he's going to be positive, he's going to be successful in anything he does, whether it be in the league, or maybe he decides he wants to do something else, but dedication and hard work.
If he doesn't get in the league, Harold would love to own his own business.
"But like I said, guidance counselor, coach, I love the game, basketball, also, I mean, I just want to help out young people, when I get down the line."
"Being an All-American Bowl player means a lot to me. I was a quarterback but when I came to Ocean Lakes High, they moved me to wide receiver and defensive end. I have never played defensive end in my life, so I just got good at that, I was around great coaches and some of my older cousins that played the position and they helped me out a lot, and I just sprouted, I grew a lot, stayed in the weight room, hard work, I just did it, and I still can't believe that I'm here."
"It's by the grace of God that I'm here," Harold said.
With the support from friends such as Hibbard, the field is wide open for this wide receiver.
For more information on the foundation Hibbard works with, visit http://www.cover3football.com.
For more information on Military Kids Football Camp formed by Hibbard, visit http://www.cover3football.com/index.cfm?load=page96beb7ae173145acd23e848cdb6e6d3d08abb7e1bf1bed1162c325000788e58f3d94b5243237fcfa3b9e3a1388551f13913a788214d7554ae64419d4f69bcceepage=63.