Brian Welch was 6 years old when terrorists killed his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Welch.
"He's the greatest man I never knew," Brian says.
Last week, a Navy SEAL team killed the world's most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, the devil behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Naturally, the news took Brian back.
Back to the 1984 suicide bombing that claimed his father at a U.S. Embassy annex near Beirut, Lebanon.
Back to 9/11 and fearing for his mother, Linda, a CIA employee scheduled to work that day at the Pentagon.
And back to Sept. 22, 2001, the day he carried the Stars and Stripes leading Virginia Tech's football team into Rutgers Stadium, 30-some miles from Ground Zero.
Welch didn't unleash a bloodthirsty shriek upon hearing of bin Laden's death. Rather, he reflected.
"You spend your whole childhood trying to find answers," Welch says from Northern Virginia, where he runs a construction company. "I've spent more than a quarter of a century trying to answer the question: Why? And I know the people who lost loved ones on 9/11 do the same.
"I felt I wasn't just carrying the flag for my father, my family and our country, but for everyone (affected directly) by terrorism. It's such a powerful thing that so many people will never experience, and I hope they never do.
"It was a big baton with an American flag on it. I was carrying the baton for so many. It was a very emotional time for me, and it still is. … It was empowering. It was closure for me, in a sense."
We pray bin Laden's demise brought similar peace to his victims. It certainly conjured myriad images: the Twin Towers falling; President Bush on the megaphone; Springsteen singing "My City of Ruins."
All of us paused back then. We were stunned, afraid, outraged, indescribably sad. But eventually life had to resume. And what better way than with sports, our most reliable catharsis?
The drive — flying was out of the question — to Rutgers for Virginia Tech's first football game after 9/11 was like an American quilt. Radio stations played patriotic songs, flags draped Interstate overpasses, travelers greeted one another at rest areas.
John Ballein, Tech's associate athletic director for football operations, knew he wanted the Hokies to carry a flag onto the field. And he knew just the young man for the job.
Welch was a senior linebacker from Oakton High in Northern Virginia. He didn't talk much about his personal story, but at practice the afternoon of 9/11 he was virtually paralyzed, unable to reach his mom.
"I was freaking," Welch says, "so hard that (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster basically had to take me out."
Welch finally connected with Linda that evening — her meeting at the Pentagon had been rescheduled — and rallied later in the week to earn his first career start at Rutgers. Shortly before kickoff, Ballein asked him to carry the flag.
After the Hokies' entrance, the modest crowd of 27,514 stood as a bugler, stationed atop a hill outside the stadium, played Taps. A Rutgers music professor sang the national anthem. The Glee Club sang God Bless America.
At midfield, Welch held Old Glory high, motionless.
"The thought of (Dad) watching me carry that flag, it kind of said, 'We did it,'" Welch says.
What happened next can only be described as providence.
On the second play from scrimmage, Welch intercepted a Ryan Cubit pass. It was Welch's first pick as a Hokie, and he lumbered 27 yards to Rutgers' 1-yard line, gift-wrapping the first score of Tech's 50-0 victory.
"That's the universe," Welch says. "I did nothing right on that play. It was just my moment. I don't even know who he was throwing that thing to."
Only Welch's negligible speed denied him his first collegiate touchdown. But that, too, he thinks was fated.
"People can track you down from behind," Welch says. "Nothing is a sure thing."
Welch, 32, considers the entire day a lesson in humility, which he defines as "the belief in something bigger than yourself."
That belief was at the core of Kenneth and Linda Welch's marriage. Their service to country took them to Iran, South Africa, Cameroon, Ireland, Egypt, the Philippines and China.
Brian recalls the day his dad left the family's apartment in China for Lebanon. Linda was crying, and Kenneth knelt to hug Brian and his 8-year-old brother, Chris.
Kenneth, awarded a Bronze Star for bravery in Vietnam, promised he wouldn't be gone long and would return with gifts.
"That's the one memory I have of him," says Brian, 32.
On Sept. 20, 1984, a truck bomb struck the U.S. Embassy annex in Aukar, killing Kenneth and 23 others. He was 33 years old.
The State Department blamed elements of Hezbollah. Iran, the country of Brian's birth, funds Hezbollah.
Talk about cruel irony.
"But we get busy," Welch says. "We get immersed in life and don't think about it."
Kenneth is buried at Arlington National Cemetery near a Lebanon cedar planted to honor all victims of terrorism in that nation.
Linda works for a defense contractor.
Chris graduated from William and Mary, joined the Army and later a civilian defense contractor. He has served two tours in Afghanistan, the most recent ending in March.
"He's in military intelligence, counter-terrorism," Brian says. "Quite literally, he's trying to follow in our father's footseps."
Brian is married and swamped by work. The font on his business card matches that on his father's tombstone.
"Hopefully he's proud of me," Welch says. "My goal is to change the destiny of my family for generations to come, so my great, great granddaughter can have a car because some big, fat, balding guy wanted her to.
"I owe that to him, to do what he didn't have the chance to."
Welch is young, but oh, what he has seen. Millions shoehorned into a South African township; armed rebellion in the Philippines; his father's flag-draped coffin.
"Some things are taken," Welch says, "but more is given. This is the greatest country in the world. This is heaven on Earth. You dream, and it's possible. I just wish more people could dream, and dream big and go for it, regardless of what happens to you.
"I think that's the biggest thing I learned from this, the sensitivity of life and how little control we have."