Statesboro High School will celebrate the 15th anniversary of their 2001 state championship football team at halftime during tonight’s game against Tattnall County — but the players and coaches from that team will say they’ve come to celebrate something more than a championship.
“This is all really for Chester McBride,” said Kenny Tucker, the offensive coordinator of the 2001 state title team. “Of course we all want to come out and celebrate, but the real reason we’re doing this is to honor Chester McBride.”
Anyone who was a part of the Statesboro football community at the turn of the 21st century knows who Chester McBride is. The 30-year old special agent staff sergeant was killed during his third tour in Afghanistan this past December after sacrificing his body to save the lives of his battalion from a suicide bomber.
The story of his death alone is enough to chill your spine — it’s the kind of story you make movies about. His heroics are mind-boggling and they’ve been properly honored by the city of Statesboro and the United States military.
But Friday’s celebration isn’t so much about Chester McBride the military hero — it’s about Chester McBride the teammate, friend and student. It’s a side of him that can get lost in the shroud of his military service — and it’s the side of him that his teammates and coaches remember most.
“Friday you’ll see just how much Chester meant to this community and this team,” Tucker said. “We have former players flying in from Washington state and Colorado just to be here for the occasion.”
Matt Smith, who’s now the head coach at Portal High School, was on staff at Statesboro High School when McBride was a springy, enthusiastic cornerback. As an assistant offensive line coach, Smith admitted he couldn’t name half of the defensive backs on the team, but one cornerback stood out on the field and in his classroom.
“He was always one of my best students, athlete or not,” Smith said. “He always stood out with that smile of his. It seemed like he was always smiling.”
Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington, who was the defensive coordinator on the 2001 championship team, knew McBride on a deeper level. In Penningtons’ eyes, the former Blue Devil will always live on in his mind as more than a football player.
“He was a very humble person,” Pennington said. “He stayed true to his convictions and it made him a model player and citizen on our team.”
McBride was a major contributor as a starting corner on a fearsome defense that included future NFLer Jeremy Mincey and future Auburn Tiger Josh Thompson. Surrounded by so much talent, it was always going to be hard for McBride to stand out as a good player in his own right.
But as referenced by his coaches and friends — this issue never phased McBride. It didn’t get in his way following his graduation from Statesboro High School in 2003 or going into his freshman year at Savannah State University. McBride would be one of the many players who got the opportunity to walk-on and play for the Tigers, as is the case for many HBCU’s.
When told the news of the death of one of his former players, former Savannah State head coach Theo Lemon was saddened but not surprised.
“That’s who he was,” Lemon said. “Putting his life on the line to save someone else? I don’t think he could have left this world any other way.”
Lemon, who was the head coach for the Tigers during McBride’s senior year in 2006, said the scrappy cornerback from Statesboro left an impression on him that still remains instilled in his mind 10 years later.
“As a coach you fall in love with him, you want all 11 players to be like him,” Lemon said. “He loved this game. Had he been just a little bit taller or a little faster there’s no doubt in my mind he could have gone somewhere bigger.”
Following his graduation from Savannah State, Cum Laude it should be mentioned, McBride enlisted in the Air Force. The decision was and to this day is still confusing to his mother, Annie McBride — who urged her son to look elsewhere for employment following college.
“I asked him over and over — why,” McBride said. “I told him ‘you’re smart… you can go wherever you want.’”
McBride had told his mom he wanted to get his master’s degree and that joining the armed forces would help him pay for it — as his family certainly couldn’t foot the bill by themselves. McBride had high aspirations and the Air Force just seemed to be the way for him to achieve those goals.
McBride served in the Air Force despite having multiple back surgeries to repair alignment issues he had suffered playing high level football all his life. Despite those shortcomings McBride had left such an impression on his peers in the military that it caught the eyes of the FBI — who had a job lined up for him when he got home.
“I kept praying for him not to go, and it would work, he wasn’t allowed to deploy again for a while” McBride said. “Then my son came to me and told me to stop praying. That this was something he needed to do. So I did. It was clear how much he wanted to go back.”
It was on that third tour of duty where McBride would leave this earth a hero. Looking back on it, Annie McBride was never resentful of the Air Force or the military because she knew her son was the one who volunteered to go in the first place. Even though she never wanted him to go on that final tour, it was clear to her that her son knew his destiny.
“In the end, I really feel like he loved what he did over there,” McBride said. “He was my hero. From the moment he was born I knew he was special.”
The news of McBride’s death spread quickly through social media, mainly Facebook, and quickly made its way to the rest of the 2001 championship team. Michael Sumner, who was a tight end on the team, said he recalled exactly where and what he was doing when he got the news.
“I was sitting in my living room, and you don’t exactly lose all contact with the guys because the night I found out I went back to see our 10-year reunion picture and I had my arm around Chester and I had never realized that until the day I learned of his death,” Sumner said. “I get chills thinking about it right now. My sister called had me saying she had read he had been killed overseas that night. When I looked on my phone to confirm, it shook me. I lost sleep that night.”
Sumners went straight to Facebook to post a story about Chester, only to find many of his teammates were doing the same thing. Soon enough Sumner’s wall was overflowing with stories of McBride and it became crystal clear to him just how beloved his former teammate was.
It didn’t take long for Sumner to run across his former coach, Kenny Tucker, in his family line of country general stores, Pojo’s. The two would get to talking and reminiscing about their memories of McBride when both realized the team needed to get back together to honor McBride’s memory.
“We started to kick around the idea after talking to some of the guys that we really just wanted to get together,” Sumner said. “We ultimately wanted to get together to show how loved Chester was -- and with it being the 15-year anniversary of our championship it seemed all the more appropriate for us to get together again.”
Josh Thompson, who couldn’t be there for the original 10-year reunion, made a point to be at tonight’s for McBride — knowing the gravity of the game was too important to pass up.
“I was all in the minute I heard about it,” Thompson said. “When I found out coach Tucker was throwing it together I knew it was important.”
The organization of the reunion was quick and easy between former players and coaches. The occasion isn’t going to be a sad one, according to Thompson, but a celebration of McBride’s life.
“It’s going to be a happy moment, not a sad moment,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be a great moment to get all the guys back together to swap stories and remember those old games.”
Thompson is correct in saying tonight’s ceremony isn’t about the mourning of a hero, it’s about celebrating the greatness of one human being.
In a time in this country where people seem to be divided more and more along lines of race, politics and religion — an ex-high school football player of all things will be what brings so many different people together.
Like the number he wore on his jersey, the number one thing people will remember from tonight is how loved Chester McBride was by his teammates and coaches — and how the memory of his life brought an entire community together to celebrate.