Will Huff remembers the day he met Pat Tillman, the former star football player for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The meeting took place in 2003, while both men were serving in Iraq during the Enduring Freedom campaign. The next year, Tillman was killed in action.
"He introduced himself and we talked about football," recalled Huff, a graduate of the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point who is now Towson University's deputy director of athletics. "Anyone who has been touched by Pat Tillman has been inspired."
For Huff, 49, who was the captain of Army's football team and was deployed for nearly five years in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 24-year military career, serving his country and leading West Point's football team have been twin honors.
After his career in the military, giving back to veterans, especially veterans who have participated in athletics, is a priority, he said — a priority he is fulfilling in part through his spearheading of Military Appreciation Day, which will take place during Towson University's football game against Elon College, at Johnny Unitas Stadium, on campus, Nov. 5.
During the game, a military village, with exhibitors such as the Red Cross and the USO, will provide information for veterans and their families. Active duty service members, veterans, and Department of Defense employees will receive complementary admission to the game along with free admission for three guests.
"There are a lot of similarities between athletic teams and military units," said Huff, who was a star lacrosse, football, and wrestler in high school on Long Island. "Growing up, sports has had a tremendous impact. I aspired to be a cadet-athlete."
At Towson, Huff has organized military appreciation days in order to bring together the university community with veterans and their families. To date, military appreciation days have been held for men's lacrosse, basketball, and football.
"Military appreciation days are very inclusive," said Huff. "It's also a way to show how Towson honors graduates who are veterans or who are serving in the military. It's our opportunity to celebrate the service and sacrifice of current and past military members."
Nearly 300 current Towson students are veterans. According to the university, Towson waives application fees for veterans.
Huff says the Nov. 5 event is especially important to him because it is scheduled so close to Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Honoring a legacy
The Nov. 5 game is also important to Huff because Katherine Turner, the widow of Army Sgt. Maj. Wardell B. Turner, a four-year letter-winner who played defensive back for the Tiger football team during the late 1980s, will attend.
Wardell Turner entered Towson on an athletic scholarship and earned a degree in management. He played primarily on special teams in his first three seasons before becoming the team's starting strong safety as a senior.
In November 2014, Wardell Turner was killed in action in Afghanistan while serving in a NATO role advising Afghan security forces. He was the only native Marylander killed in combat that year. Turner, who is buried at Arlington National Ceremony, was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and three Meritorious Service Medals, among others.
In 2015, to honor Turner's legacy, the Towson football team created the Wardell Turner Scholarship. The $70,000 scholarship was awarded to Monty Fenner, a safety from Chesapeake, Va. The university's goal is to build the endowment level to secure an enduring legacy, Huff said.
"I already knew who Wardell was when I got the scholarship," said Fenner, 21, whose cousin played professional football for the Seattle Seahawks. "This scholarship is bigger than I expected. When I walk around campus, people who went to school with Wardell come up to me and tell me about their memories of him."
To ensure that everyone on the football team knows about Wardell Turner, Towson football coach Rob Ambrose, who played on the Tigers football team with Turner, takes the team to Arlington National Cemetery to visit Turner's grave.
"There are so many service men and women whose individual accomplishments have been forgotten," said Ambrose, who was a freshman on the football team when Turner was a senior. "He was like a big brother to me. Wardell will never be forgotten."
"This scholarship keeps my husband's legacy alive," said Katherine Turner, whose son, Devin, was deployed at the same time as her late husband. "It means someone else can go to school."
Katherine Turner said that her husband always had a "pay it forward" attitude: "He would always tell our children: always leave the world a better place than you found it."
Being a military spouse wasn't easy, admits Turner. Moving from base to base with five children was challenging, as was her husband's deployments. Still, she is proud of her husband's service and how Towson University has continued to keep her husband's memory alive.
Turner, who now lives in Texas, said she is excited to travel to Towson to attend the Military Appreciation Day football game.
"My husband would have been humbled by the scholarship," she said. "He truly left a legacy."