There is no one on the Sulphur Springs Wildcats’ roster with No. 31. Yet, on the T-shirts that the Wildcats and many fans are wearing, the player holding the flag is wearing No. 31.
That would be former Wildcat and U.S. Army Ranger Tanner Higgins.
Higgins, 23, was killed April 14 while conducting combat operations in Logar Province, Afghanistan. He died of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with small arms fire. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Hunter Army Airfield, Ga.
Higgins, who played defensive back for the Wildcats during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, was a 2007 graduate of SSHS. When his body was brought home for burial, schools let out so that students, teachers and staff could pay respect to Higgins, who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
When the SSHS coaching staff was deciding on this year’s theme, three words kept coming to mind: character, discipline, passion. In turn, that sparked a connection between Higgins’ life and what the coaches are trying to instill in the players.
“We didn't set out to make a Tanner theme shirt,” head coach Greg Owens explained. “As we were thinking about our shirt for the season and our theme for the year, it just kind of came about. When you talk about character, discipline and passion, those are the kinds of things Tanner embodied.
“The more we thought about things, the theme of everything we’re trying to accomplish mirrors that,” he continued. “Athletics is not as serious, but sometimes there are parallels between that and the military.”
The front of the shirt has the words, “Defend the Prim,” alluding to Gerald Prim Stadium. The back has the slogan, “If it’s important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse.”
The players are also wearing 31 on the backs of their helmets.
“It’s given us an opportunity to tell these kids — some of them knew him, some didn’t — it gives us the opportunity to tell them what Tanner embodied,” Owens explained. “He was a 100-percent kid, wide-open all the time, and whatever you said do, he had a can-do attitude. He had the attitude that he could overcome anything. Those are things we talk about, and it gives us a door to talk about what he represented for our program and for the Army Rangers.”
That, in a nutshell, was explained by Col. Michael Foster, the Commander of 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, who said, “Sgt. Higgins epitomized the Ranger Fire Team Leader, and was admired and respected by everyone. A skilled warrior, who always led from the front, he is a hero to his family, 1st Ranger Battalion and our nation.”
A further tribute will ensue when Higgins’ jersey and photo will be put in a shadowbox and hung on the wall of honor inside the Multipurpose Facility alongside former SSHS professional athletes like Forrest Gregg, Damione Lewis and Keenan Clayton.
“I think its an appropriate way to honor him,” Owens said. “We can’t bring him back, but we can sure remember what a great person he was.”
It will also be a tribute to other SSHS graduates who are currently serving or have served in the military. Owens said he’s always impressed by the soldiers who return to Sulphur Springs after joining the military.
“We’ve got some kids serving right now,” he said, mentioning a few names like Dillon Verner, Nolan Henly and Jonathan Carlisle. “They are drawn to the discipline part of it, the competitive part of it. So many of them come back in full uniform and they have accomplished something great. They are serving our country and putting their life on the line for us.”
Owens would never think that athletics and soldiering are the same thing, but there is a parallel between what coaches are trying to instill in students and what the military instills in soldiers.
“When you start talking about character, discipline and passion, and the Ranger creed,” he acknowledged, “it’s a lot of things we’re trying to instill in kids here.”
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