I grew up in a modest, middle-class neighborhood in a suburban, Midwest college town. From barefoot barbeques in the summer, to football dominated autumn Saturdays, I grew up in an amazing place. I grew up in the United States of America. One thing I have come to realize is the extent to which Americans take our freedoms for granted. This is an easy thing to do when we have always had it. We say the right things and celebrate holidays the right way, but it is impossible to fully grasp what our freedom means unless we are forced to live without that freedom.
I have been lucky enough in my short life to have traveled all over the world. I have lived in four countries on three different continents. However, I never fully understood what it meant to be an American until something extremely important happened in my life; I joined the Ohio State football team.
I was born in the country of Brunei Darussalam to a Malaysian mother and a father from the steel mining hills of western Pennsylvania. How all that happened is a different story for a different day. Brunei, however, is a country complete with a sultan and limited personal liberties. In short, Brunei is about as far from America as one can get.
I lived in Malaysia, a beautiful country located on the equator that combines the beach, rainforest, and mountains in a country the size of New Mexico. Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures, with huge Chinese, Indian, and native Malaysian populations. However, throughout my youth, Malaysia was an under-developed country, yearning to catch up to its first-world counterparts. It was not uncommon to take a dirt road back into a village to visit family members who lived in a stilt house in the middle of rice padi fields without running water.
I even lived shortly in Australia. Australia is a lot like the USA, except everyone talks in a really cool accent and there are kangaroos in place of squirrels. There also isn’t football, so how cool can it really be? (Side note: Australia is awesome) Despite my travels and experiences, it took me joining a great organization under the tutelage of a wise man to put it all into perspective.
Jim Tressel made damn sure that we knew what it meant to be an American. The reminders were literally endless. I came to find this out as a scared, 18-year-old kid on my first day of camp. We were handed a binder called The Winner’s Manual and told to open to the first section, titled, “The United States of America.” When I say first section, I mean page 1-7. I mean first section as in BEFORE the section titled, “Ohio State Football.” I can assure you that teaching us what our country was all about was at the top of the list of Coach Tressel’s priorities.
We had the honor of interacting with the troops, both domestically-based and abroad. The most inspirational and hardest hitting moments were those in which a wounded soldier would come to our practice to share the day with us. They would thank us for our time, and it was almost comical. These men and women risked their lives so that we could continue playing a game that we loved, and they’re thanking us?! No sir, no ma’am, thank YOU.
My favorite moments with them were when they told us that their only slice of home while overseas was being able to watch the Buckeyes on fall Saturdays. Being able to help them in any way was amazing, but being able to give them the feeling of home while abroad is so humbling in every possible way.
Game day was when it always hit me that I was the luckiest kid in the world. I would stare at the flag being raised in Ohio Stadium while TBDBITL played the National Anthem before kickoff. I remember moments where I would get lost in the blue sky behind the flag thinking about my family in Malaysia and around the world that I rarely got to see. I thought about the troops in combat who would give anything to trade places with me. I could have easily been one of them, sweating through the unbearable Middle Eastern heat under the same blue sky, wishing I was in the Horseshoe watching the Buckeyes. I was the lucky one. I got to wear the jersey and kick a football a few times in front of 106,000 of my closest friends. The whole staff would remind us before we ran on to that field that we were the privileged ones. From Tressel to Jim Bollman to Luke Fickell, it was drilled into us that we were playing for something so much bigger than ourselves. We were playing for our families, our state and our country.
Thank you to everyone out there who has made every Independence Day possible. I am damn proud to be a Buckeye, and damn proud to be an American.