In SEC country, a Marine keeps his promise

Lt. Kolbe Grell and Cpl. Chris Montgomery with Auburn's mascot, Aubie, before the coin toss. Gameday for Heroes

In the U.S. Marine Corps, in Afghanistan, if you’re asking people to work for you, said Lt. Kolbe Grell, you’re asking them to fight for you. You’re asking them to risk their lives with you. And so while Lt. Grell was the boss, the platoon leader, he knew he had to break the ice.

How? College football. Lt. Grell loves, lives, eats, breathes college football.

“Like most people,” he said.

Like the guys in his platoon. Guys from Texas, Alabama, places where they worship the game. A Nebraska guy gave as good as he got (and a UCLA fan tried not to get left in the dust). You should have seen them during their downtime, going back and forth on who had the best team, the better program, the most passion.

One of them was the biggest Auburn fan any of them had ever met. Cpl. Christopher Montgomery. War Eagle through and through.

This was in 2010. The Cam Newton season. “He was winning every debate we had,” Lt. Grell said.

Lt. Grell is a Texas A&M former student (at Texas A&M they aren’t called alums), and so rabid an Aggie fan he keeps stats on who wins the coin toss.

He was following the rumblings on conference realignment. And he told Cpl. Montgomery that if -- when! -- the Aggies joined the SEC, they’d go to the first Auburn-A&M game together.

“By the time that happened we’d both be out of the Marine Corps,” Lt. Grell said. They’d be home. It’s the kind of thing you dream about during wartime, when you’re far from home.

On Dec. 7, 2010, Cpl. Montgomery was injured in an IED explosion, losing both his legs and severely injuring his left arm. He was medically evacuated to the U.S.

He got to see his beloved Auburn Tigers win the national championship. He watched the game in a hospital bed.

• • •

The Columbus (Ga.)-Phenix City (Ala.) Auburn Club needed a community service project, and since Fort Benning was just down the road, someone suggested they get game tickets for military vets. They got someone who couldn’t make the game that weekend to donate his seats. There. Good deed done.

“It was just supposed to be six tickets and that was going to be it,” said Jana Tarleton. She was then -- in 2009 -- that Auburn alumni club’s president. Now she’s director of the descendent of those six tickets, an organization called Gameday for Heroes, where it's Veterans Day every day.

The nonprofit works to roll out the tickets-and-tailgate red carpet for returning military vets and their families. They’ve made it happen from Notre Dame to Florida State. And of course, most often, at Auburn, where it all began.

Tarleton had just gotten off the phone with a widow who was going to make an emotional journey to see her husband’s favorite team.

It’s a mom-and-pop operation. “She literally does it all from her kitchen table at home,” said Lt. Grell.

Tarleton said she currently has more than 1,000 requests for 52 colleges. It’s growing every day.

“I got tickets to an Oklahoma game,” she said, marveling at the expanding roster. “How weird is that?”

• • •

Cpl. Montgomery recuperated in Bethesda, Md., then was transferred to San Antonio. Lt. Grell, the Texan, visited when he was home for Christmas in 2011. They talked about a lot of things. But, yeah, college football too.

When the new SEC schedules came out, with Texas A&M and Missouri as official members, “I told him, ‘Hey, we’re going to Auburn,’” Lt. Grell said. It would be a promise kept.

Lt. Grell dove headfirst into his favorite A&M team sites and message boards, looking for ways to get it done. One poster in particular sparked his interest: WarEagle044. An Auburn fan who’s a regular on an A&M site!

He emailed the guy: Where are the best wheelchair-accessible seats in Jordan-Hare Stadium?

The guy turned out to be Josiah Greene. He’s an Auburn student and an Army vet. He served in Kosovo, and is currently a sergeant in the reserves.

What kind of guy is WarEagle044? When a member of Auburn’s incoming recruiting class, Shon Coleman, was diagnosed with leukemia, Sgt. Greene raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital by carrying an Auburn flag on road marches in the Balkan mountains.

When he heard what Tarleton was doing with Gameday for Heroes, he immediately insisted on becoming an intern.

When he heard Lt. Grell’s story of the two Marines, one who loved Auburn, one from A&M, who had made a wartime vow to each other to make it to the Oct. 27 game, he was even quicker to pass it along.

Wait, hold on: “What are you doing on their message boards?” Tarleton said.

Well, here’s the thing. As much as he’s an Auburn man, Sgt. Josiah Greene was born and raised in Bryan/College Station, Texas. He has Gig ’Em Aggies in his blood.

He was the perfect guy to make this happen. “He was able to take us going to the game,” Lt. Grell said, “and run with it.”

He rallied A&M former students and Auburn alums, to find tickets, to pay for expenses. To make a dream come true.

• • •

They wore customized jerseys provided by the athletic departments of Auburn and Texas A&M. It was Military Appreciation Day. Gameday for Heroes had somehow come up with some 1,100 tickets, Tarleton said, and filled them all. Many of the veterans were from Texas.

Said Tarleton: “We wanted to welcome them to the SEC.”

Then there was one more surprise. Another jersey, for Josiah Greene. No. 72 -- Shon Coleman. The kid he’d honored with the Auburn flag. The Tiger who’d come back and joined the team.

“He’s a young man that has inspired me in ways I can not put into words,” Sgt. Greene said.

In front of 85,000, they went out to midfield, among the honorary captains for the pregame coin toss.

“I played high school football,” Lt. Grell said. “I was getting fired up.”

Cpl. Montgomery was wearing an Auburn jersey, and the players were all around him, high-fiving him.

Cpl. Montgomery doesn’t like the spotlight. He wouldn’t be interviewed for this story. “But you could tell it meant a lot to him,” Tarleton said. “He’s such a huge Auburn fan.”

Lt. Grell said not to dwell on his friend’s injury. You could guess that he’s a combat vet by looking at him. “Wherever we walked around people were thanking us,” Lt. Grell said.

A 6-year-old girl came up to him, as they made their way through the tailgate, and thanked him.

But what happened to him, “That’s just a snippet of it,” Lt. Grell said.

No, the real story is that he’d made it. That he was making it, day by day. It was that they were there, at that game, the way they’d talked about, the way they’d promised each other when they were in the middle of a war, a long, long way from home.

They were at the first game between their teams, Auburn and Texas A&M.

As they gathered at midfield, Lt. Grell looked at Aggie captain Steven Terrell and couldn’t help himself. “This is pretty awesome, huh?” he said. And Terrell agreed.

As the honorary captains gathered there, everyone in the stadium knew just how awesome it was.