By Dave Ongie, Managing Editor
Cross country can be a grueling sport, especially in the late-summer heat. Competing in long-distance races over uneven terrain can be agonizing, oppressive and exhausting.
But when Science Hill boys cross country coach David Nutter addressed his team on Friday afternoon, he had his own way of describing one of the most punishing sports a high school athlete can compete in.
He called it a privilege.
“I still run,” Nutter told his runners as they sat quiet and respectfully amongst the headstones at the Mountain Home National Cemetery. “I’m 40, and I’m still out here grinding because I can.”
On Friday, Nutter arranged for his team to meet at the gates to the cemetery at the end of their training run. From there he led them on a walk through the headstones to a secluded spot in the corner of the facility where a baseball field once stood.
The cemetery contains thousands of headstones, each commemorating its own story of valor, patriotism and sacrifice. However, Nutter brought his team there to show them just one, the headstone marking the final resting place of Senior Airman Benjamin Daniel White.
White was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. The 2004 Science Hill graduate was a friend of Nutter’s before he followed his dream of being a pararescueman in the United States Air Force.
White’s death hit home for Nutter because he remembers White as a fun-loving, adventurous young man from the hills of East Tennessee. As he looked out at his team on Friday afternoon, he was well aware that four of his current runners are in Science Hill’s JROTC program and share the dream White once had of serving his country in the military.
The story resonated with all of Nutter’s runners, but it had an especially deep impact on those four young men.
“To hear about coach’s friend, it gets you a lot because he fought for people he didn’t even know that he was going to be fighting for, and he did it because he wanted to,” said Shawn Shepherd.
The team routinely runs through the VA campus outside the gates of the cemetery. For some of the young men who have family members buried inside those gates, there was already a connection to the place. That was the case for Mick Stokes, who has a grandfather buried in the cemetery.
But after Friday, every young man on Science Hill’s cross country team has a connection to the cemetery thanks to Nutter’s willingness to share White’s story with his team.
“It makes me really appreciate all these people out here and just to get to know another one of these stories,” Stokes said. “It’s meaningful that you now have an attachment to this place.”