A number of years ago, Valparaiso football player Billy Baldwin pitched the idea to his coaches of honoring the military at a game.
He had Wounded Warrior wristbands made to sell as a fundraiser and increase awareness. Soon after, the Vikings began running onto the field before home games carrying American flags.
"We had 50 flags that we borrowed from the American Legion," Viking Quarterback Club President Erik Olson said. "Since then, we bought 100-plus so we have our own now."
When Bill Marshall became head coach before the 2018 season, he decided to build on the concept by having a night during which they honor military and first responders.
"What Billy did was a great start," Marshall said. "I talked to our Quarterback Club and told them I really wanted to ramp it up and shows these people what they mean to us."
It's a personal cause to Marshall. When he's out and sees a veteran wearing his military service hat, he makes a point of stopping by them to shake their hand and say thank you.
"My brother (Wayne) is one of my biggest role models," he said. "He served in the Marine Corps for six years, coupled with playing college football. He was the guest speaker at one of our Thursday night meals. One of my biggest regrets is I didn't follow that path and serve our country. By doing this, I'm able to show my respect to those who do, those who make the selfless sacrifice each and every day. Unfortunately, they often live under the radar."
Marshall collaborated with retired Indiana Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Stewart on the idea and Stewart was instrumental in having a helicopter and a Blakchawk aircraft on the grounds for the inaugural Patriot Night game last year against Crown Point. Player parent Brian Bennett facilitated the display of an FBI mobile command post and the Freedom Riders drove their motorcycles around the track.
"We had a lot of neat things," Marshall said. "We had numerous people in uniform, veterans who came back. There was a man who served in World War II. It was something people won't forget for a while."
Marshall and Olson are hoping Friday's Patriot Night against Michigan City will be even bigger.
"We had a nice response the first time and it's gaining momentum as we go," Olson said. "We all have relatives or know people in the service or first responders. You couldn't help, looking at that field, but to feel proud, honored and thankful for those who have come before us and done what they've done for us, and continue to do daily. It's a tear jerker. It definitely hits you."
For Friday's festivities, the 713th Indiana Army Reserve National Guard unit will be on hand with a MAT-V combat vehicle. The Indiana Patriot Guard, Folds of Honor and Indiana Fallen Heroes Program will also be participating. A flyover and static display of a Blackhawk has been confirmed, so adults and kids can climb in the pilot seat of a real Blackhawk that will be landing at the field. LutheranAIR will also have a helicopter on the adjoining baseball field. The Michigan City High School Marine Corp ROTC Color Guard will provide the presentation of colors with a 50-foot flag to be unfurled on the field for the national anthem.
The game ball will be delivered by a military bomb disposal robot, while honored guest, Major Vincent Georgetti, the Commander of the Indiana Army Guard Recruiting and Retention group, will do the opening coin toss with Baldwin.
Both coaching staffs will be wearing shirts specifically made for the occasion and the Valparaiso student fan section has a red, white and blue theme for the game. Activities begin with the helicopter landing at 6:10, leading up to kickoff at 7 and conclude when the Blackhawk makes its final flyover on its way back to the base at the end of the third or fourth quarter.
All military, past and present, and fire, police and emergency will be admitted free.
"This program was started...a few years ago and has grown exponentially," Stewart said via email. "We have several local fire and police, along with ambulance services attending. This was such a success last year, we are expecting a multitude of people to support again."