Sometimes in the world of sports the media will use words like “warrior”, or “courageous”, or “hero” and apply them to professional athletes and their games. As we venture into this glorious time of year when spring training ends and the “boys of summer” play baseball on opening day, I want to tell you a story of a multi-million dollar athlete, David Ortiz, who knows the real meaning of the word “hero”.
This story starts in the hallowed corridors of Fenway Park in Boston and ends in Arlington National Cemetary. You’ll want to grab a facial tissue before you read it. Credit goes to Maureen Mullen, who wrote this account of the story for MLB.com.
Fort Meyers, FL. Maureen Mullen
We’re all going to get them. It’s not a matter of if — just a matter of when. Those phone calls, the bits of news that strike from nowhere, turning a perfectly average day into an exceedingly miserable one. They may be a part of life, but that doesn’t make them any easier to take.
On Tuesday morning, Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz got one of those messages. A young soldier he met last summer at Fenway Park was killed last week in Iraq. Sitting at his locker in the clubhouse of City of Palms Park after the morning workout, Ortiz called a reporter over. “I have a story for you,” Ortiz said.
With that he told the story of meeting Spc. Justin Rollins. Within minutes, this mountain of a man — the one with the megawatt smile, whose booming voice precedes him into any room — was reduced to tears.
Rollins, 22, of Newport, N.H., was killed with five other soldiers on March 5 in Samarra, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated near their unit during combat operations. They were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.
“He was such a good kid,” Ortiz said. “He came to Fenway to watch a game, and he wanted to meet me. It was going to be his last game at Fenway because he was going to Iraq. He came by the clubhouse, and I talked to him for a while. He just seemed like he was so full of life.”
So impressed was he by Rollins, Ortiz promised to hit a home run for the young soldier. Ortiz kept that pledge, and for added measure, it was one of his patented walk-off numbers, in the 10th inning against the Phillies on June 24. “I told him at the time that that home run I was going to dedicate to him for going to Iraq,” Ortiz said. “And just today I received a message from his family.”
Clubhouse attendant Jared Pinkos had the unenviable task of delivering the news. “He came in jovial, typical Ortiz, laughing,” Pinkos said. “But this just knocked him out. He started shaking.”
Asked to send something for the funeral, scheduled for Saturday in Newport, with burial on Monday in Arlington National Cemetery, Ortiz has dispatched a white No. 34 uniform jersey, with the inscription, “My deepest condolences to the Rollins family. It was an honor to meet Justin and I will keep him in my prayers. Sincerely, David Ortiz.” He is also sending a ball, to be placed in Rollins’ casket, on which he wrote: “To Justin Rollins, Rest in peace. God bless, David Ortiz,” and another with his autograph as a memento for the Rollins family.
“It’s just so sad,” he said. “He’s a young kid, full of life. Unbelievable, you know. It’s just sad.” Ortiz paused, turned away and grabbed a T-shirt from his locker, wiping the tears from his eyes.
Though it was the first time Ortiz had received a call informing him of the death of a soldier who was also a fan, he is no stranger to the pain of that kind of news. His mother, Angela Rosa Arias, died in a car accident on Jan. 1, 2002, at the age of 46. Her birthday was last week. He also has a friend coping with the loss of his own mother two days ago. The memories brought on by his mother’s birthday, his friend’s loss and, now, the news of Rollins’ death have all hit him very hard, he said. “It just got me,” he said. “I think of the pain coming from his family.”
“I can’t believe he remembered Justin,” said Rollins’ girlfriend, Brittney Murray. “Well, I can believe it because Justin left such an impression on people. But I know that Justin would be very excited right now. I remember him saying that home run just made him so happy, especially since it was dedicated to him.”
Rollins was to have come home on leave in April, on his wish list a trip to Fenway with Murray, who has never been to the fabled park. “That was one thing he said — ‘We have to go to a Red Sox game. I really want to take you to Fenway.’ That was one of his priorities for his leave,” Murray said. “He loved baseball, and he loved the Red Sox. He told me his favorite place in the world was Fenway. It meant a lot to him.”
At his funeral service, Rollins will posthumously be awarded the Army Service Ribbon, the Iraq Campaign Medal Ribbon, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal Ribbon, the National Defense Medal Ribbon, the Army Overseas Service Ribbon, the Army Good Conduct Medal Ribbon, two Purple Heart Medal Ribbons and the Bronze Star with Valor.
“It’s gong to be a long road,” Murray said. “But he lived very passionately, and he passed that on to me. I’m glad to have known him. He believed in what he was doing, and he died doing what he loved.”
Donations may be made to the Justin A. Rollins Memorial Scholarship Fund, payable to the Newport School District, c/o Diane Fisher, 245 North Main St., Newport, N.H. 03773.