Jordan Rodriguez 12, son of Ms. Amber McKain of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command
Jordan Rodriguez 12, son of Ms. Amber McKain of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command

Ever wonder what it would be like to run onto the football field of your favorite college team with 63,000 fans cheering you on? As part of the University of Louisville’s Salute to Service program, UofL was able to make that a reality for nine children of local military members, ranging in age from 5 to 12.

In 2021, the Kickoff Kids for UofL home football games were all children of local military members. They had the important job of retrieving the tee after the game’s opening kick. While the 2021 edition featured Kickoff Kids from U.S. Army families from Fort Knox, next year the program will expand to include children from the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Marine Corps and the Kentucky Air National Guard.

This initiative is part of UofL Athletics’ wider Salute to Service program. The program shows recognition and appreciation to the institution’s more than 1,000 veteran students and approximately 10% percent of staff and faculty who are veterans, as well as to the local military community.

“We are thrilled that so many veterans are fans of the UofL football program. The Salute to Service program is a way to keep our veterans and their families involved in our games and in the community. We owe our veterans a huge debt of gratitude and this is our way of saying thank you,” said Rocco Gasparro, UofL’s associate sports information director, football. 

One of the cornerstones of the Salute to Service programs is UofL Football’s annual open practice event for veteran student, staff and faculty. This group is afforded a behind-the-scenes tour of the football facility, including Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy. The group then attends practice and meets the coaching staff and players. It culminates with attendees being provided tickets for themselves and up to three guests for the military appreciation football game, where the veterans are recognized on-field.

A separate component of the program sees a veteran student, staff, or faculty member identified as the Salute to Service Honoree for home football games. The honoree and guests receive tickets, are invited to the President’s pregame tailgate, and then the honoree is recognized on the field.

The annual military appreciation game is also part of the program, featuring numerous activities and events recognizing and celebrating members of the Armed Forces and veterans. In 2021, the honorary captain for the game was an active-duty U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant who is a UofL Online Student chosen from amongst dozens of nominations. The individual who sounded the team’s train horn was an active-duty U.S. Army Sergeant First Class from Fort Knox. She was nominated by her chain of command for superior performance.

Each year, Athletics distributes several hundred tickets to the veteran students, staff and faculty and the local military community for the military appreciation game. This year’s military appreciation game coincided with the retirement of Lamar Jackson’s number 8 jersey.  

Expansion of the Salute to Service program to include military children as Kickoff Kids comes on the heels of the football team visiting Fort Knox this past summer. While there, they conducted the Field Leadership Reaction Course, competed against the U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s E-sports team, and signed autographs for the local community.

Salute to Service has also since spread from just the football team to numerous other teams, including men’s and women’s basketball. Both teams host a specific Salute to Service-themed game, and both recognize a veteran student, staff, or faculty member at select home games. The men’s team also hosts an open practice event, where veterans tour the facility, meet players and coaches, and then attend practice. Like football’s event, these attendees are provided tickets to a subsequent game for themselves, and guests and they are recognized on-court.

“We are proud that many veterans choose to make UofL home. The sacrifices they make every day for our country and all of us cannot be overstated, and we are honored by their presence on our campuses,” said UofL President Neeli Bendapudi. “The Salute to Service program is one small way we recognize and celebrate our veteran community, and hopefully contribute to our strategic goal of making UofL a great place to work.”