Pro Bowl players mingle with military families, make wooden US flags to honor their loss
By STEPHEN RUIZ | The Orlando Sentinel | Published: January 25, 2020
ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — When Pvt. First Class Kalin Johnson’s family received his personal effects in South Carolina, they opened the trunk and found a familiar item.
Johnson was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2011. A Terrible Towel, the black and gold cloth waved by die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fans, rested atop Johnson’s belongings.
“Kalin loved his country,” said his father, Brent. “He loved every person in this country, and no matter what your beliefs were, no matter what you thought, he fought for freedom of all rights.”
Along with his son, Noah, and grandson, Logan, Brent Johnson was at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Friday. They joined 19 other families who have lost loved ones who served in the military to paint and assemble wooden U.S. flags during the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Huddle.
Not far from where wounded warriors played flag football, the families were joined by NFL players who are in Orlando for the Pro Bowl. The all-star game is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday at Camping World Stadium and will be broadcast by ESPN, ABC and ESPN Deportes.
One father told Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick how much he appreciated what he did for a living.
“I didn’t think I could do anything for these people because I see myself as a regular guy who just loves football,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s really cool just to see the impact that we have on people emotionally and just throughout their lives.”
The AFC and NFC did not practice Friday, allowing players to perform good deeds. Players and fans assembled bags headed to the Children’s Home Society of Florida, SafeHouse of Seminole and Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. Other players fanned out to the Children’s Safety Village in Orlando and to a Boys & Girls Club in Kissimmee.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox were among at least 14 players befriending military families. Some dipped sponges in red paint to color pieces of wood and watched the flags being built. Some signed the flags — each with a small plaque honoring a fallen loved one on the back — gave autographs and posed for pictures.
Noah Johnson, a defensive end at Barton College in Wilson, N.C., interviewed Fitzpatrick and Steelers teammate T.J. Watt.
Above all, the players listened to the families’ stories.
Christine Southards of Temecula, Calif., was there with her sons — Kyle, 17; Trevor, 16; and Jackson, 8. Southards’ husband, Timothy, served in the Navy and died of a heart attack in 2018.
Their flag is going next to his urn.
“(This) helps you not (to) forget but to escape everything out of your normal everyday life,” Southards said.
Bonnie Carroll founded TAPS in 1994.
She said her husband, Brigadier Gen. Tom Carroll, and seven others died in an Army plane crash in Alaska.
“It’s not about the fact that someone died,” Carroll said. “It’s about the fact that they lived a life that included selfless service to their country, and that life is remembered and honored. It continues to inspire us. We continue to love them and carry them forward.”
Said Brian Steorts, who was injured on his ninth deployment: “This gives them a little bit of closure.”
After spinal surgery, Steorts discovered woodworking as a form of therapy. In 2015, he started Flags of Valor and began constructing American flags. He hires only combat veterans, and they have helped the company construct more than 30,000 flags.
Steorts’s sister, Tammie, was in the Navy and died in 2011.
“(These families are) working with their hands, working with wood, working alongside other TAPS families, NFL players,” Steorts said. “It’s what it’s about.”
Brent Johnson appreciated the support.
Fitzpatrick wore a button showing Kalin’s picture, and Watt signed the family’s flag. The Johnsons didn’t need to wave a Terrible Towel to show how much those gestures meant to them.
“We will remember this moment forever,” Johnson said.