MANHATTAN, Kan. - The 1st Infantry Division's soldier of the year is used to standing in front of a crowd. After the numerous boards he endured on the way to the title earlier this year and the subsequent public events, Cpl. Aaron Duncan knows his way around people.
Still, appearing in front of more than 50,000 college football fans Nov. 2 was a bit daunting as he was recognized during Kansas State University's Fort Riley Day game against Iowa State. Soldiers from units across the post participated in the game, whether manning static displays outside the stadium, presenting unit colors during the pre-game activities, playing in the halftime show or leading the team onto the field as the "Big Red One's" command team, Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk II and Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston, did.
Duncan was on the sidelines during the game's second half and recognized for his accomplishments before he tossed T-shirts into the crowd. Duncan, a medic assigned to 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, didn't expect the opportunity.
"It was amazing and humbling," he said. "I couldn't even hear what the announcer said completely because of cheering."
The annual military appreciation game has long been a visible sign of the one-of-a-kind partnership between the university and the military community just down the road. Local sponsors teamed to not only provide hundreds of free tickets for Fort Riley soldiers, airmen and their families, but also host a free tailgate celebration before the game. A limited Fort Riley Day ball cap came with a visit to the tailgate.
The team showed its appreciation to the Fort Riley military community with a specially designed helmet - a rarity in the tradition-heavy team. The helmets featured a camouflage pattern inside the Powercat logo. It was the first modification of the K-State helmet since the current design was created for head coach Bill Snyder in 1989, according to information provided by the athletics department.
"K-State Athletics' partnership with Fort Riley is unique and special and fits perfectly with our vision of being a model intercollegiate athletics program," John Currie, director of K-State Athletics, said. "Our coaches and student-athletes have the highest regards for the men and women of the Big Red One and Fort Riley."
The game was a great opportunity for soldiers to do something many don't get: attend a Big 12 football game, Lt. Col. James (Dave) Lander, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, commander, said during his appearance on the "Powercat Gameday" radio show before the 2:30 p.m. kickoff.
He and Command Sgt. Maj. Todd Nibarger, the battalion's senior noncommissioned officer, talked about Fort Riley and the division's unique relationship with the university. Units at Fort Riley partner with a K-State athletics teams or organizations, a program that solidified in the last decade.
The "Black Lions" of the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, are partnered with the football team and, as Lander and Nibarger discussed on the radio show, both organizations have spent time visiting each other at the university and on post. More military training and physical training visits are planned for the off season, Lander said.
About 200 Black Lions attended the game, Nibarger said. A group of 20 received special ball caps featuring the Black Lions and the Kansas State Powercat logos, and got seats near the sideline. After every K-State score, the soldiers performed pushups in the end zone with the team's mascot, Willie the Wildcat.
The group was kept busy during the Wildcats' 41 to 7 victory over the Iowa State Cyclones.
The Black Lions' honorary senior noncommissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Ian Field, attended the game with his father, mother and sister to help the Wildcats and Cyclones with the pre-game coin toss. Field is a 9-year-old from Saint Joseph, Mo., who joined the Black Lions' ranks in the spring of 2011 through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Field was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disorder that involves rapidly worsening muscle weakness, according to past 1st Infantry Division reports.
Field has visited Fort Riley several times for battalion events, including his 2011 enlistment and promotion, and was asked by Army officials to help represent the Black Lions at the military appreciation game. He was carried onto the field by 1st Sgt. Brandon McGuire, his original squad leader and now senior noncommissioned officer of the Commanding General's Mounted Color Guard.
Spc. Lewis Williams was another Fort Riley soldier who got a unique opportunity to stand on the field in front of the state's most loyal football fans. Lewis, a Long Beach, Calif., native assigned to Fort Riley as a paralegal, carried a flag representing the garrison during the pre-game activities. He sat in one of the military sections after his role in the festivities was complete and watched the entire game.
This was the first time Williams attended a college football game and said the experience made him a K-State fan.
"I love it - the support, the school spirit," he said
Williams has been stationed at Fort Riley for two years and said he enjoyed events like the military appreciation game and the outpouring of support from the university.
"It makes me want to get involved in the school more," he said.
Standing in front of the cheering crowd was awesome, Williams said, and he could "feel the energy."
"It is clearly evident the great citizens of the Flint Hills region are huge supporters of the military," Funk said after the game, "and the soldiers of Fort Riley truly appreciate it."