Sophomore Owen Hill crouches down and studies his golf ball. A simple putt will give him a par; he’s done it a thousand times before. But a careful tap sends the ball rolling way past the small hole, and Hill groans. He’s tempted to throw his putter across the course, but he glances behind him to his black SM East Lancers golf bag. It’s the usual bag the golf team carries around, but this year something’s different. This time a laminated, white tag with blue and red borders hangs off it.
The tag is simple – just some words and a small photo of a man. But it means so much more to Hill and the rest of the team.
The tag reads: “Navy Special Warfare Operator Petty Officer (SEAL). Matthew D. Mason. Died August 6, 2011, During Operation Enduring Freedom.”
Just seeing this tag calms Hill and reminds him that missing a putt isn’t the same as risking his life for his country like Mason did.
The boys golf team recently became one of the first high schools in the nation to participate in the Folds of Honor program. The foundation was started in 2007 by Major Dan Rooney to raises scholarship money for the spouses and children of fallen soldiers mainly through golf tournaments. Jenny Spencer, the mother of senior varsity golfer Andy Spencer, brought it to East for the first time this spring.
Jenny, along with athletic director Kelli Kurle and coach Ermanno Ritschl, wanted to spend the first year just focusing on honoring the soldier. The team does this by having the tags on their bags that recognize Mason for his contributions to the U.S. They will probably expand in the future by raising money for scholarships or hosting events, but not this initial year for simplicity’s sake.
“We’re just trying to gain awareness of the program and that it’s out there for people to make donations,” Jenny said. “It’s really just to honor this fallen soldier. I hope in the future that more golf teams in the metro area take this upon themselves, to put this in their bag, either raising awareness or funds.”
Folds of Honor was created by Rooney after he saw the effects of losing a loved one overseas firsthand. He created the foundation and later partnered with a friend to create a golf course in Tulsa, Oklahoma called the Patriot to help host events. Jenny and her husband learned about the non-profit through Milburn Country Club, where they belong, because of the annual benefit it hosts on Labor Day. Interested by it, she wanted to do something more, so she contacted the Tulsa-based organization and East administration.
“[Kurle and Ritschl] thought it was a great idea and so did Mr. McKinney,” Jenny said. “We’re one of the first high schools [to join the program so] we [didn’t] really know what to do. [But Kurle] was very instrumental in setting up and paying the nominal fee [of $25] to get us registered and get us our soldier. They were wonderful.”
While there are few high school teams, many colleges take part by having special Folds of Honor bags that they bring to each golf tournament, in addition to fundraising. Jenny and the others originally considered mimicking the collegiate teams but decided creating bag tags would be easiest. Each bag tag features Mason with a brief description of his life and death.
Mason was chosen by Jenny, Kurle and Ritschl since he grew up in nearby Kearney, Missouri. His wife and kids live about 10 minutes from East and are well aware of the team’s bag tags this season. In fact, the team intends on presenting Mason’s two sons with East hats soon as another part of their commitment to honoring Mason.
The response to the introduction of the program has been positive all across the spectrum, with enthusiastic support from everyone involved.
“I thought it was fantastic. Honestly,” Hill said. “I mean, we’re just high schoolers out here. This is something that we could do in the future that’s really a worthy passion, a worthy job. That guy died for his country. That guy’s a true hero.”
Coach Ritschl believes he can really understand the meaning behind the program because he is a naturalized citizen.
“[It] probably [means] a little bit more [to me] than people who were born here because I appreciate where I came from in Italy and Hungary,” Ritschl said. “I thank the Lord that we have people fighting for the freedom and fighting for all the opportunities that we as citizens have. It’s an honor and it’s a privilege to be able to do this for them. And for their families.”
Back on the golf course, Hill holds the tag in his hand and takes a deep breath. Suddenly, that missed putt doesn’t seem so frustrating. Now calmer, he bends, he taps, he scores.