Hero and courage are words sometimes tossed about carelessly in sports. Fans and sports journalists often confuse courage with hard work, commitment, or the perseverance and determination it takes to return from a serious injury. A sports hero is an athlete who makes great plays under intense pressure when the game – or the championship – is on the line. At SC Sports Source, we love sports stars as much as anyone. We revere teams that excel, athletes who play at the highest level, and thrilling finishes that spur us to leap from our seats and scream wildly (BYU’s Hail Mary pass last year to beat Nebraska – I flew into the air and smashed my hand on the rotating blade of the ceiling fan; or closer to home, Whit Merrifield’s game-winning base hit to give the Gamecocks the 2010 College World Series championship)!
But courage in sports is defined clearly by athletes like Pat Tillman – a real hero whose story every sports fan knows. On this Memorial Day, SC Sports Source remembers athletes who displayed talent on the field of play, but uncommon courage on the field of battle. Today is about celebrating our heroes.
Ryan Rawl was a wrestler and football player for Lexington High School in the early 2000’s. His teammate and classmate was Almar Fitzgerald. Ryan and Almar played sports together from little league through their junior varsity football days, until Ryan decided to devote himself to wrestling.
After Rawl’s JV football season was over, the JV wrestling coach approached him about “giving wrestling a try.” His very first match was at a double-elimination tournament. His parents, Stan and Diane, expected it to be a short run since he was new to the sport. They were wrong. Ryan won every match and won his weight class for the tournament. He left the gym with his parents around midnight.
But Ryan and Almar left their mark on a different field.
After high school graduation, Ryan and Almar went to The Citadel together. They remained friends, but their military careers went in different directions – Almar to the Marines and Ryan to the Army. On February 21, 2006, Marine Lt. Almar Fitzgerald was mortally wounded by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq. When he died a few days later in Germany, his organs were donated to eight German citizens.
“A 53-year-old man received Almar’s 23-year-old heart,” Fitzgerald’s mother, Sharon Fitzgerald-Foster, said in a 2014 interview for the documentary film Bringing the Fallen Home.
In 2012, Lt. Ryan Rawl led his Army platoon on a patrol of the volatile streets of Khost, Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. A suicide bomber took Ryan’s life along with two other South Carolina Army National Guardsmen. Thousands attended his funeral in Lexington, and the procession from the church to the cemetery stretched six miles!
“Ryan was thirty years old when he was killed,” Diane Rawl said in a 2014 interview. “He was a father of two children. He was an athlete; he excelled in school; he was in Boys State. He was just an all-around good guy. He was the most generous man I ever met in my life. He would give the shirt off his back when he didn’t have the shirt to give.”
Derek Strobel was Ryan Rawl’s wrestling coach at Lexington High School.
“As captain of the wrestling team, Ryan was the leader,” Strobel remembers. “He brought out the best in his teammates. I can still picture Ryan in the practice room yelling to his teammates during those hard and strenuous practices. Encouraging his teammates to push through the physical and mental barriers. He would step in when someone struggled and push with them. Doing extra. That is a leader.
“I believe these are traits Ryan took from the mat and implemented in his life and on the battlefield. When I hear the words leadership, sacrifice and courage, I think of Ryan,” Strobel said.
Kimberly Hampton always wanted to be a military pilot, so she applied and was accepted to the US Military Academy at West Point. But, West Point isn’t for everyone, and it only took Kimberly a few days to understand that. Surprisingly, she and West Point were not a good fit – although she would later become a respected Army officer. Her superiors at West Point tried to convince her to stay because she was a top recruit for the women’s tennis team, but after two weeks, she found her way back home. Eventually, at Presbyterian College, she found the balance she was looking for – an ROTC scholarship, a spot on the tennis team, a college close to home, and an academic environment where she could thrive.
Hampton went undefeated in conference singles during her PC career and was named South Atlantic Conference Player of the Year as a junior.
“Tennis gave her a sort of physical release from being a battalion commander of the PC ROTC unit and her academic efforts,” her father, Dale, said recently. “She was an Academic All-American and led the team in three NCAA Tennis Championship tournaments. Tennis was extremely important to her but still secondary to her efforts in the classroom and her vision for the future.”
After college she was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army in a private ceremony, because she was competing in the NCAA Division II tennis championships while her
ROTC classmates were being commissioned. College tennis and ROTC were challenging and sometimes difficult. But courage and heroism were attributes reserved for the next phase of her life.
“She wanted foremost to be an Army officer and leader and to go to the places across this planet that required American leadership and dedication,” Hampton said. “We supported her efforts and encouraged her to give her 100% at all times.”
Kimberly became a helicopter pilot and completed her first deployment – to Afghanistan in 2012. In 2013, she deployed to Iraq, but never made it home from that deployment. Captain Kimberly Hampton was killed January 2, 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq, when her OH-58 Kiowa was shot down by insurgents. She was the first female American aviator killed by direct enemy action.
“Kimberly died in the service of our country and we respect, honor and particularly on Memorial Day we prize her dedication and ultimate sacrifice!”
We love sports and sports stars. This weekend South Carolina golfers Kevin Kisner and Bill Haas are battling for a PGA title in Texas, right beside Webb Simpson, who lives across the state line in Charlotte. Clemson is playing for the ACC baseball championship and over in Myrtle Beach, Coastal Carolina has its site set on going deep in the college baseball post-season. So, on Memorial Day weekend, light up the grill, pop a cold one, tee it up at your local golf course, or go watch your favorite athletes and favorite teams do their thing.
But first, take time to remember those young men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, who can’t be here to enjoy this Memorial Day. On this Memorial Day weekend, remember those American heroes. Remember.