Scene 1: We're sitting in the airport, waiting at the gate for our plane to begin boarding. Across the room is a lone young man, big old jock football player. He sat alone, listening to his music while I sat with a dozen band kids, all laughing and joking, recalling all the fun moments from the week. I left to get some coffee because it was O'Dark-ass Thirty in the morning and when I came back, the Big Jock had moved closer to us, but still at a safe enough distance that we couldn't invite him into our conversation. And why would we? He's a football player and really doesn't have much to do with band kids, right?
Scene 2: I had to go pee, because.. coffee. When I got back to the gate, folks had already begun boarding. All the band kids were in the same boarding group and there was no sign of Big Jock. So we all lined up and boarded. When I got to my row, guess who was sitting in my seat. Big Jock. In my window seat. But Big Jock is, no lie, 6'5" and 310 lbs. No flipping WAY I'm going to tell him to vacate my window seat. So I squeeze my big hiney into the seat next to Big Jock. Trust me, it was a tight squeeze, no room for an armrest. Or a fart.
Scene 3: We're about ready for takeoff, and I offer gum to my daughters sitting on the other side of the row from me and Big Jock. I gave some to 'selfie-kid' who was sitting in front of us with his mom. That's when Big Jock asked if he could have a piece of my gum. It was the first time I'd heard him speak, and when I gave him the gum, he said "Thank you, ma'am." Very polite. We struck up a conversation because he seemed really nervous. He told me that for as big a guy as he is, he's scared to death of heights, of flying in airplanes and of spiders. He was flying alone because his parents and his little brother drove down to San Antonio from Woodbridge, VA because it was too costly to fly. Amen to that, Big Jock. I then asked if he played for the East or West team in Saturday's All-American Bowl Game. He said he played for East, but he was injured and had to be helped off the field at the end of the third quarter because someone from the West team went hard at his leg and did something to his ankle. I felt badly for him, and sort of guilty because we left right as the third quarter was ending so that we could catch up with the band. I never saw the injury, I never saw him being helped off the field. I was only thinking of my own child, not someone else's.
He told me that his mom was so worried about him as the Army trainers worked on him, and that he and his little brother who is 6 years old have matching turtle necklaces, and when he handed his little brother his own necklace to hold, the little boy started crying. He told me that the turtle is a symbol of wisdom. I'm here to tell you, Big Jock had plenty of wisdom to share with me. He definitely taught me a lesson in humility.
As he told me about his week of training for the US Army All-American Bowl Game, every question was answered with "Yes ma'am" or "No ma'am". He could not be any softer-spoken, gentle or polite. I was truly taken by him as we spoke. Moms in front of us and behind joined in our conversation, as we all listened intently as he answered our questions. I asked what his favorite part of the whole week was. And without missing a beat, he told us this story. I'm paraphrasing, not directly quoting, but you'll get the message:
"My favorite part of the week was visiting the sick kids in the hospital. We went over on Tuesday and I met this kid named Angel. He was real sick, and he told me that his goal every morning was to get up and be able to walk for 5 minutes. That's all he wanted to do, every day. Since he was so sick, they don't really think he's gonna live much longer. Angel was a really great kid and I went back to the hospital Tuesday night and ate dinner with him. After dinner, I picked him up and walked around the floor with him. I pulled his IV pole around behind us. We talked about how he just wanted to walk a little bit every day but he was so sick that it wasn't always possible. I told him that tonight, I'll walk FOR him."
I was so taken with him. And I'm going to stop calling him Big Jock now because he deserves better. His name is Matthew Burrell. He attends high school in Virginia and he will be attending Ohio State University in the fall. He told me that he looked at several universities in the South but because he's so big, he sweats a lot and didn't want 'to go somewhere real hot'. I hear you, Matthew. So he has a full-ride scholarship to OSU. He told me that our 'Marching Band's show was real good' and that he was really impressed.
|Photo courtesy of http://www.usarmyallamericanbowl.com/players/player-roster|
I was ashamed of myself, and I still am. I judged this young man, assumed he was just a Big Jock. I was so consumed with pride in my own children that I never thought about other members of this year's event. But let me tell you this: I would be proud to call this young man my son. His mother must be over the moon proud of him. He was polite, courteous, respectful and an absolute beautiful soul. His parents did an amazing job in raising him to be an incredible person, and I hope our paths cross again one day. This man has great things in his future. Look for him playing for OSU in the fall.
Watch these videos, and appreciate how wonderful and inspiring Matthew Burrell is. In the first video, he speaks at the :53 mark. In the second, he is the first to speak.