Bowl Game Brings Back Memories Of Otis Tolbert, A True American Hero

Tolbert Dedication 9/11

Editor’s note: David Coulson will be bringing fans an insider’s look throughout the weekend on Appalachian State’s first bowl-game experience, check often for updates and also follow his posts on Twitter @DavidCoulsonFCS.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — It is a brisk morning, with 30-degree temperatures in this city as the dawn breaks on Appalachian State’s first-ever Football Bowl Subdivision postseason game.

It is 6 a.m. locally and it is still over 10 hours before the Mountaineers take the field for the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl at 5:30 p.m. in a game that will be televised by ESPN.

Most Appalachian supporters are still sleeping off an evening filled with celebration, but a trickle of behind-the-scenes warriors are already hard at work to get last-minute details like ticketing accounted for.

Nearly 5,000 Mountaineer fans are expected to be in the stands at the Crampton Bowl by the time the game kicks off.

A lively tailgating scene is expected to begin taking hold of the stadium in the hours ahead.

This will my first bowl game in over 30 years.

My last bowl experience was at the 1982 California Bowl as my alma mater Fresno State hosted Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green in one of the most thrilling finishes in bowl history.

Trailing by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, Fresno State scored 22 points and rallied to pull out a 29-28 victory in the final seconds.

But it was the post-game celebration that I remember more.

My first newspaper job out of college was at a small, weekly publication called the Lemoore Advance.

Home of the largest Naval Air Station on the west coast, about 45 minutes from my hometown of Fresno, Lemoore was a town that revolved around its military traditions and farming.

A young man from a military family named Otis Tolbert had made his mark as a hard-charging fullback on the Lemoore High School football team the year before I arrived in town.

Tolbert moved on to Fresno State and was soon switched to defensive end. He wasn’t a star, but was still an integral part of a Bulldog squad that finished 11-0-1 in his junior season of 1982 and was ranked 17th in the UPI Coaches Poll.

Star status was earned by a pair of receivers who went on to become record-setting receivers in the NFL, Henry Ellard and Stephone Paige, and by the starting quarterback, Jeff Tedford, who made his mark as the head coach with the California Golden Bears.

Over the course of numerous interviews, Tolbert and I had became friends before that memorable California Bowl.

In the Bulldog locker room after the California Bowl miracle, Tolbert did something that no other athlete has ever done for me. He shared his bottle of celebratory champagne.

After finishing his football career in 1983 and earning his degree, Tolbert followed his deep family tradition and joined the Navy.

He was serving as a Lt. Cmdr., assigned to Rear Admiral Richard B. Porterfield, the director of Naval Intelligence, at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorists crashed the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 into his office.

Tolbert, just 38 at the time and a married father of three children, was one of 125 people killed in the Pentagon on that horrible day.

He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Tolbert was further honored when a portion of California State Highway 98 running through his hometown from Lemoore High School to Lemoore Naval Air Station was named in his honor.

Ever since the tragedy of 9-11, every time I hear the Star Spangled Banner played at games, or other events, my thoughts immediately snap back to Otis Tolbert.

As I attend my first bowl game in 32 years this afternoon, there is little doubt what I’ll be thinking about as the national anthem is played. It will be on Otis Tolbert, a true American hero.