The faces of twelve heroes summed up the spirit of the Fifth Annual Veterans Appreciation Football Game held Sept. 15 at Legacy Stadium.
They were the faces of Americans who had served in every one of their country's theaters of war since World War 2. They'd served as sharpshooters in Vietnam, been taken prisoner during the Korean War and given the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. Artifacts from their service – medals, pins and other badges of honor, had been melted down to form the 1,000-pound bell that representatives from the Honor Bell Foundation carefully unloaded from a van before kickoff at Legacy on Sept. 15.
The 12 portraits of those whose artifacts went into forging the bell decorated the side of the van, and those who passed to get a firsthand glimpse of bell couldn't help but gaze at their photos and meditate on their sacrifices. It was an effect that aligned with the overall mission of the event, which was designed to unite the Cherry Creek School District community in a common tribute to service members, emergency responders and others whose lives perfectly encapsulate the meaning of service.
"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the service and sacrifices of all those who are spending the afternoon with us," said CCSD Chief of Staff Chris Smith, who attended the event with his father, Jim Smith, and his son, Ian Smith. "This is a day for us to give back, just a little bit. We just want to say thank you."
Attendees were welcomed to the Cherokee Trail High School and Fox Ridge Middle School campus before the game with a free pizza lunch and a chance to meet firsthand with students. The 1,000-pound Honor Bell served as a centerpiece for the communal meal before Honor Bell Foundation members moved it to the football field to toll seven times, a number that aligns with the number of stars embossed on the bell.
"Education is a big part of our mission," said Michelle Mallin, executive director of the Honor Bell Foundation. The bell, which is housed at Fort Logan Cemetery in Denver, is used in a formal ceremony that's a centerpiece of military funeral honors. It's also become a valuable teaching tool at schools and other events around the state. "We want to be a part of Colorado and Colorado military history … We recruit veterans, and the bell may only be tolled by veterans."
That formal ceremony took place before the coin toss for the game between Grandview High School and Fountain Fort Carson High School. Honorees walked from Fox Ridge to neighboring Legacy Stadium through a gauntlet of cheerleaders, poms and student musicians performing in their honor. A group of Honor Bell Foundation members tolled the bell before John Vargas, a Vietnam veteran and representative of the Honor Guard, tossed a special ceremonial coin.
Vargas, who made the rounds between tables to speak directly with students before kickoff, said the combined community gathering and military tribute was a moving acknowledgement for every veteran in attendance.
"It's a wonderful thing," Vargas said. "It means that we're honoring the soldiers present today, and we're honoring those heroes who did not return."
Offering that brand of tribute gave the day meaning and importance, according to CCSD Superintendent Scott Siegfried.
"I'm so proud to be a part of the Cherry Creek School District in the way that we honor our veterans. This is the right thing to do," Siegfried said. "I think it's important for students to see why we're able to do the things we do, why we're able to have a football game on a Saturday afternoon.
"These veterans have put their lives on the line for us," he added.