By Tommy Romanach
Often times, sports fans use the term “hero” loosely, confusing the stars they see on the field with the men and women in the military who do so much to protect our daily lives.
Last Friday night at Tiger Park, there was no confusion.
Nearly 1,000 fans came to Tiger Park Friday to attend the sixth annual Red, Rock & Blue Celebrity/Sorta Celebrity Softball game, as LSU stars of new and old teamed up with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team in an event with all proceeds going to Louisiana military charities.
Friday marked the first year Red, Rock & Blue included the WWAST, a team comprising of veterans and active duty soldiers who lost limbs post September 11, 2001, and now compete nationwide against able-bodied softball teams. Although it was the first time the veterans competed in the Baton Rouge event, it wasn’t long before they won over the crowd.
“No matter what town we go to, you see the reason why we play,” said Phillip “Randall” Rugg, a member of the WWAST. “The reception and patriotism we see here and other places are why we go out and play.”
Few people embodied the feeling of the event like Rugg, catcher and infielder for the WWAST and a Monroe, La., native. Rugg brought his entire family to the event, all LSU fans and all amazed Rugg got to play against the players they grew up watching.
In 2003, Rugg was part of the First Tank Battalion of the First Marine Division and one of the first people sent into Iraq. According to Rugg, he may have been the first amputee of the war, too. Five rocket-propelled grenades hit the vehicle Rugg was traveling in, taking out half the vehicle almost instantly. Rugg would have his right leg saved, but was forced to amputate his left leg, with nearly all of the bones in and around his ankle missing.
“After you lose a limb, you kind of question whether you would be the same or not,” Rugg said. “Can you do the same things and all of that? So being around this team gives you a certain strength. It’s constant therapy.”
In March 2011, Rugg heard about a weeklong camp held by WWAST founder David Van Sleet for amputee veterans at the University of Arizona in an effort to teach the vets softball. As someone steeped in athletics his entire life, it took Rugg less than a minute to decide he had to go.
“The guys on that team are the true heroes of the world.”
– Corey Webster, former LSU & New York Giants cornerback
– Corey Webster, former LSU & New York Giants cornerback
That one week of softball became the inception of the WWAST, a team that has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and on “Real Sports” with Bryant Gumbel.
Getting this team to Baton Rouge is just another step for Red Rock & Blue President Jacques Doucet, known by many as a sports reporter for WAFB in Baton Rouge. Doucet could be seen Friday night pacing throughout Tiger Park, taking care of everything from player introductions to keeping the games on schedule.
The softball game was first inspired by MTV’s “Rock N’ Jock,” a TV series in the ‘90s featuring famous musicians teaming up with professional athletes. Doucet has seen the event grow every year, culminating with the game being played in Tiger Park for the first time.
“To have it in that park, one of the two or three best softball parks in the country, is something else,” Doucet said. “It displays an incredible atmosphere and it’s something the fans are sure to enjoy.”
Doucet’s softball game dates back to 1994, but it was only six years ago when he began to think of a possible charity host.
It was then that Doucet talked to one of his best friends who had served in Kuwait in the early ‘90s. The friend suggested with the platform Doucet had, he could donate to a charity, and they ultimately decided to send proceeds to The Blue Star Mothers of Louisiana and The Support Our Troops Organization.
The Red Rock & Blue organization also consists of concerts at The Varsity Theatre before the game to help benefit the charities as well. Doucet takes pride in not only benefitting the military, but also benefitting those locally.
“Nothing against the national people, but we have never been about mailing a check out to someone we are never going to meet in person.” Doucet said.
The softball game is played in late June because it is the “offseason” for Louisiana sports according to Doucet. His job at WAFB is almost a 365-day job, and the small breaks provide him the opportunity to make the game happen.
Despite the narrow time slots, Doucet claims he never stops thinking about the event. Red, Rock & Blue is a second job to him, a chance to put on something he takes immense pride in.
“I feel like you get out of it what you put into it, and I’m not bragging but I think about this almost every day of the year,” Doucet said. “I either think about something or make a phone call for someone. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Red Rock & Blue.”
Friday night consisted of two games — the first with red and blue teams, consisting of former athletes and local celebrities and Wounded Warriors, and a second game between a Louisiana Sports All-Star team against the Wounded Warriors team.
Led by Doucet, the Red team edged out the Blue team for the fifth time in six years in game one, 21-20, while the Louisiana All-Stars won the second game in a blowout.
The game featured well-known LSU athletes from a variety of sports. From baseball players like Ryan Theriot and Jason Williams to softball players like Simone Heyward to gymnasts like Rheagan Courville, every part of LSU athletics was well represented.
Corey Webster, a former LSU cornerback and a two-time Super Bowl champion, said the outpouring of athletes is just them giving back to the place where each player got started. Coming back home to some of his first fans is one of Webster’s favorite reasons to play in the game.
As Webster said that, he was quick to point out his biggest reason play in the game was the respect he had for Wounded Warriors team. For most of the night, the crowd agreed with Webster’s sentiments.
“The guys on that team are the true heroes of the world,” Webster said. “They allow us to walk around and be safe and sound in our country. When you get the opportunity to play alongside people like that, there’s no way you can turn it down.”
For Rugg, the entire experience around athletes he’s grown up watching has been something to treasure. He and Van Sleet recall meeting former LSU football player Ricky Jean-Francois at a game earlier in the year and actually helped him become a participant in Friday’s game.
But the biggest thing both members of the team have found is the human quality in each player they meet. Their team of amputees and the LSU athletes participating may be from the general public, but above all, they are still human.
“We have old guys, we have guys in college, we have guys that are divorced, we have guys that our fathers and we have guys that are going to be fathers,” Van Sleet said. “We are all walks of life and this team is no different from anyone else. We have feeling and heart. We have the same passion for the game.”