November 2, 2013
By Kelly McHugh
The bond between Kansas State University and its next-door neighbor, Fort Riley, is unique, formed over time.
It's a bond of two different communities - collegiate and military - and the result is a relationship special to the heartland of America.
A glimpse into that bond can be found this afternoon in Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
Among the most anticipated home football events of the season, Fort Riley Day is a tradition K-State football has celebrated for nearly three decades.
"Fort Riley Day means a lot to us because it's our thank you to the soldiers, especially those at Fort Riley," senior offensive lineman and team captain B.J. Finney said. "We're thanking them for what they do in their service in allowing us to have the opportunity to do what we love."
From a pregame tailgate for more than 1,000 soldiers and their families to the Big Red One's 1st Infantry Division Band performing a special medley of patriotic music at halftime, the day's festivities are one of a kind.
"I've been to some military appreciation games before, but none were as big as this one," Command Sergeant Major Todd Nibarger of the 1st Battalion 28th infantry regiment said. "They're helping soldiers out, and it's a morale builder for these guys to go down there and see the football game. We're all pretty fired up about it."
Prior to kickoff, each battalion stationed on Fort Riley will be displayed by its respective flag marched onto the field. While many of the flags' colors will be blowing in the blustering Kansas wind, many will be covered, representing the units that are currently deployed.
"It's pretty interesting to watch this over the years," K-State marching band director Frank Tracz said. Tracz has played a role in helping bring to life the Fort Riley Day program for 21 years. "All the events, the conflicts that they've been involved in, and how many flags are covered and uncovered each year, that's the first thing that I notice. I noticed this year there's a lot more flags that are uncovered, which means there are a lot more soldiers home, and that's a good thing."
Today's game is dedicated to honoring and thanking soldiers at Fort Riley and their commitment to the likelihood of Americans nation-wide, and while those soldiers will be celebrated, those who gave their life in the line of duty will not be forgotten.
The loud, exciting atmosphere of Bill Snyder Family Stadium will be put on hold for a moment of silence and, before the National Anthem plays and the game kicks off, Taps will be played by a solo trumpet in their memory.
"What does it mean to me?" K-State football head coach Bill Snyder said as he spoke about the sacrifices of the men and women in the Armed Forces. "We're talking about an awful lot of youngsters who volunteer to serve their country and defend all of us in this day in age. They're always going to be in a position, or they will be at some point in time in their career, to put their lives in jeopardy and they understand that. I don't know how many of us would step up and volunteer our services to do that so you have to have a special appreciation for them. I do and our players do as well."
But it isn't just today that the K-State's red, white and blue side shines - it is a year-round friendship.
While Fort Riley Day has been a long-time event in Manhattan, partnerships between K-State's athletics teams and units stationed on the fort began in 2006 between Col. Patrick Frank, former commander of the 1-28 Infantry Regiment, and the K-State football program.
"They saw that they had this community outside of Manhattan and the players and many of our soldiers really are the same age bracket, so developing relationships between these two groups we thought would be relatively easy," Col. Frank explained. "We thought this partnership would give us the opportunity to do that, and they got along great."
Seven years later, 11 different units from Fort Riley are partnered with 11 different athletics teams at K-State.
K-State student-athletes attend deployment ceremonies, train with soldiers and have even checked out what it would feel like to soar in an apache while visiting the Fort Riley helicopter simulators. When the 1-28 Infantry Regiment, the Black Lions, were deployed, K-State football held a special "Black Lion Cub" day at the stadium for children who had a parent overseas.
"The support that they have provided to the First Infantry, to our soldiers and families, not only at the annual Fort Riley Day at K-State, but they've also been great supporters of our families and units when our soldiers were deployed," Col. Frank explained. "To me, that was one of the most important aspects from our units perspective. To see that support when our units were deployed, I thought was a very special part of the relationship."
Though Col. Frank's duty as a commander on Fort Riley came to an end and a new commander has taken over the role, K-State football has continued its partnership with the Black Lions. The bond between the two has recently caught national attention, and on Oct. 31, the National Football Writers of American nominated K-State Football as one of seven nominees for the 2013 Armed Forces Merit Award.
"It's a two-way street, it's not us reaching out to K-State or K-State reaching out to us, it is a partnership, a meaningful one too," Lieutenant Colonel David Lander, current commander of the Black Lions explained. "It's not just lip service or getting bare minimum effort. I don't even know what bare minimum is because K-State football goes so far above and beyond that. They really do reach out to us regularly, not just during football season."
The award, presented to an "individual and/or a group who has created, developed and produced a program within the realm of the sport of football that provides care, concern and support for past or present members of the Unites States Armed Forces and/or their families" according to its website, will be announced on Monday, Nov. 11, Veteran's Day.
Before the 2013 football season kicked off Bill Snyder and his coaching staff invited members of the Black Lions to a luncheon at the Vanier Complex. It was there that Ltc. Lander found out his battalion's insignia was displayed on the team's football helmets.
"When we went over for the luncheon they showed us the helmet, the very next weekend I went home and I recorded the game," Ltc. Lander laughed. "I kept pausing it and trying to catch a player at the right angle because it's on the back of the helmet, and sure enough, there it was. To me, that is very meaningful."
A few years ago, the football team spent a cold morning on the military instillation training with its military neighbors. Associate head football coach Sean Snyder said it was one of his favorite memories since the partnership began.
"The thing that was really cool about that was watching two completely different environments coexist together and actually work and communicate together," Snyder said. "The thing that was really cool was they had a very short period of time, they were all thrown together, but they jumped into it and did really well. What was neat coming out of that was there was more of an appreciation for each other that transpired through that experience."
While Fort Riley Day is K-State Athletics' way of saying "thank you" and celebrating the strength and sacrifice of its military neighbor, it is also a day where Fort Riley has the opportunity to display exactly what the military is made of to 50,000-plus Wildcat fans.
"The big thing is, people from Kansas, not just Manhattan, will get to see the soldiers," CSM Nibarger said. "Sometimes there's a stereotype of what a soldier looks like or what they do, so hopefully they'll get to see a different view of what they are."
Along with the Black Lions, also helping make the day-long celebrations of Fort Riley Day possible were members of the 1st Infantry Division Team, Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Spielman, Captain David Cooper and Sergeant First Class Edward Maldonado.
"We want America to come see its Army, because it really is America's Army," said Ltc. Spielman at the event's run-through on Tuesday morning. "So any opportunity we have for the community to come see their Army is great and I think that's what this day is all about, it's going to be great."
In the end, through events like Fort Riley Day and through K-State Athletics' partnership with the Army post, K-State student-athletes have the opportunity to experience life in bigger ways than just their respective sport.
"All-in-all, for our players, there's been a good meaning behind it and also an understanding that they're the same age as a lot of these guys," Sean Snyder said. "One's playing a game and one's fighting for lives, so I think the appreciation and the understanding of things in a bigger picture have really fallen on our players through these experiences."