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PHOENIXVILLE — The idea hatched by Phoenixville Area High School football coach Bill Furlong in June came to fruition Friday night in a celebration of current and former U.S. service members in the Phantoms’ first Military Appreciation Night.
A large turnout of men and women representing the various branches of the armed services turned out to Washington Field. Wherever the eye turned, it was met with red, white and blue to go along with the usual Phantom purple.
“It just brings a good feeling in me,” said Mike Speck, a member of borough council who is also vocal about his time as a Marine.
The Phantoms seemed to respond to Speck’s good feeling, scoring on a touchdown reception from Chris Demey to Ryan Pannella on their first series against the Exeter Township High School Eagles.
Kate Endres drove the concept with the help of other parent volunteers, the local VFW and the American Legion, as well as Lou Beccaria and his Phoenixville Community Health Foundation.
“This is what I hoped it would be,” Endres said.
Originally, Furlong got the idea for an appreciation night after getting in touch with former players, Ben Dutka and Joe Galie, both of whom now serve in the military. Galie was also a star at Ursinus College.
Taking cues from last year’s “Play for the Cure” game, in which Phoenixville football players wore pink jerseys to show support for cancer patients, Furlong wanted a night to celebrate the military.
He got that night Friday.
Before the game started, veterans and current service members, as well as Phoenixville district staff and local dignitaries formed a “Tunnel of Valor” to welcome in the charging Phoenixville football team.
Veterans from conflicts ranging back to World War II waved flags and cheered as the young men clad in black and purple went streaming by.
An honor guard made up of veterans marched to midfield carrying flags for the national anthem. Following that, Donny Jackson, a Phoenixville football player, in full uniform and pads, strode out to the 50 yard line and played “Taps” for those that lost their lives in the service of the country.
“Seeing people come up to these people and thank them for their service…” Endres began to say before getting choked up.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be tonight,” said David Gautreau, of the Phoenixville borough council.
Gautreau’s father, who was out of town, was a veteran of World War II and was wounded by a land mine during the Battle of the Bulge.
“Well, it’s nice to see a football game, but these are our real heroes,” Gautreau said, looking at the men in varying garrison or veteran baseball caps around him.
Phoenixville’s cheerleaders were decked out in military khaki for the game, wearing American flag bandannas across their heads. Some of the Phoenixville football coaching staff wore camouflage shirts or Army T-shirts.
The band got in on the act as well. In addition to playing the national anthem, each one of them wore a red, white or blue T-shirt.
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-19), Congressman Jim Gerlach (R-, state Rep. Warren Kampf, and Chester County Commissioner Ryan Costello all came out to show their support.
Mayor Leo Scoda got a huge round of applause as he was introduced at halftime.
School board members Paul Slaninka, Ken Butera and Joshua Gould also were on the field for a halftime ceremony honoring veterans. They were joined by Alan Fegley and Regina Palubinsky, the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the district, respectively.
At halftime, a ceremony was held in which veterans and current service members stood out on the field and received a standing ovation from fans on both the Phoenixville and Exeter sides.
Endres said the veterans and service members were all just supposed to walk out onto the field en masse, but they instead organized themselves and marched neatly onto the field.
“They’re still military to the core,” Endres laughed.
“We are blessed this evening to be recognizing the men and women who have served our country,” Phoenixville Area High School principal Craig Parkinson said during the halftime ceremony.
Between the third and fourth quarters, Danielle Vallino, a Phoenixville High School student, led the crowd in a rendition of “God Bless America.”
Fegley, smiling as he stood among veterans before the beginning of the game, said everything came together for him when he heard the final plans for the night.
“There’s such a sense of pride,” Palubinsky said. “There’s such an excitement.”
The success of Friday night’s event left little doubt that Furlong’s hope will turn to reality and Military Appreciation Night will become an annual event.
“It was really an honor to have these men and women here,” Endres said. “They’re so proud to have served in the military.”
(Story was originally published on www.pottsmerc.com.)