MANHATTAN — Robert Ricks is an Army major stationed at Fort Riley. He is the operations officer for the First Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, and he has seen action in almost every recent war the U.S. military has been a part of. He was there for Desert Storm, he’s been to Iraq three times and he served in Afghanistan.
He loves his job and the service he provides his country. But not every day is perfect. Like everyone who works for a living, he sometimes needs a pick-me-up.
One thing that provides motivation: Kansas State athletics. A short drive to Manhattan, or turning on the TV for a K-State basketball game and seeing the crest of his fellow soldiers on the Wildcats’ jerseys, is all it takes.
“It’s awesome to see those guys on the field and on the court are playing with a part of you and your unit on their uniform,” Ricks said. “It pumps you up. It makes you feel good about what you do and it gives you more incentive to go out there and work as hard as you can.”
Lt. Col. Scott Nolan has experienced the adrenaline rush first hand. K-State athletics once inspired the entire First Battalion, 7th Field Artillery Regiment while it was deployed in Iraq. During a moment of down time in 2010, they were able to watch ESPN’s “College Gameday” live as they filmed inside Bramlage Coliseum. During the telecast, their unit’s partnership with the Wildcats was mentioned and their crest was shown up close.
Talk about a shout-out.
“The emotions spread like wildfire,” Nolan said. “Here we are in Iraq, watching them play on their way to the NCAA Tournament and they mention us on ‘Gameday.’ It was so great. We really appreciated it. We felt like in some small way we were part of the team at that point. We felt like we were supporting them in Iraq and they, in turn, felt like they were supporting us in Manhattan. I think we have a really special partnership.”
There is no shortage of Fort Riley soldiers who feel the same way. One of the perks that come with being stationed so close to K-State is the relationship they have with the athletic department. Many of the base’s regiments are partnered with K-State teams — from football to club sports — and support each other. Fort Riley soldiers enjoy discounted tickets to games, get to participate in designated military days on campus and interact with players and coaches regularly.
Once a year, each regiment will invite its partnered team to the base and let student-athletes see what a day in the life of a soldier is like. Each team then invites its partnered regiment on campus for a day where soldiers get to watch practices or games, and, in some instances play with the teams.
Nolan, who originally pitched the idea of partnering with the men’s basketball team to former coach Frank Martin and was often invited to bring soldiers to closed practices and speak with players, is now a battalion commander and his unit is partnered with the club soccer team. They recently helped the Wildcats host a spring soccer tournament. Nolan brought more than 100 soldiers, in full uniform, with him, and took in the action.
At halftime of one of the games, every soccer player walked into the crowd and thanked the soldiers by shaking their hands.
“That was really, really cool,” Nolan said.
Ricks’ unit is partnered with the K-State rugby team. While not as glamorous as some of the bigger sports on campus, he says his fellow soldiers like the relationship because they often get to play with the team.
There are few things they enjoy more.
“Wherever you go there is always a former rugby player,” Ricks said. “The tournaments we’ve helped with at K-State have gone very well. Hopefully we will have a battalion team soon. One thing we want to do is give the K-State rugby club another team to scrimmage.”
Col. Mike Morgan, who is the commander of the first combat aviation brigade at Fort Riley, regularly interacts with the K-State volleyball team. He is a big fan of coach Suzie Fritz and thinks his soldiers can learn as much from student-athletes as they can from other soldiers.
He points out that a K-State volleyball player faces a stressful schedule. Not only must they develop their athletic skills, but they have to tackle schoolwork while traveling.
“Selflessness, professionalism, loyalty, team unity … they have it all and are at the top of their games,” Morgan said. “We use the same team skills in what we do.”
K-State players would laugh at the statement. They each recently toured Fort Riley, and were blown away by what soldiers face.
They saw helicopters up close and even got the chance to be a pilot in a flight simulator.
“We got to go through the ropes and see how difficult it was to manage those machines,” said Kathleen Ludwig, a K-State junior. “I think I killed us three times. It was terrible, but it really emphasized what they do and how much time and attention it takes to do their job.”
“It really put things in perspective,” said Tristan McCarty, a K-State sophomore. “Our lives don’t compare to theirs. Their job is to keep us free. We get to play a sport. We are all so thankful for what they do.”
Most universities support the military in some way, but few do so as much as K-State. Both Ludwig and McCarty said they couldn’t have experienced their visit to Fort Riley had they played volleyball elsewhere, and think they will appreciate Memorial Day more than they ever have because of the visit.
Still, it took time for Fort Riley and K-State athletics to build the partnerships they have today. Though Fort Riley is located 12 miles west of campus, and K-State has long shown respect to the military, it wasn’t until the Wildcats men’s basketball team built a relationship with a military unit that the two sides became so close.
When Nolan approached Martin about a partnership, the only other such partnership between a regiment and a team existed with football. Now, the practice has become so popular that if a battalion tries to partner with a K-State team, there is little to choose from. Most club teams and cheerleading groups have military partners now.
All of the partnerships were initiated by Fort Riley, but K-State is completely receptive. K-State basketball pays for military crests to be sewn on its jerseys, K-State baseball sometimes wears a camouflage uniform to pay respect and coaches and players are often seen wearing military hats and clothing.
“They really lean forward to do it right and are so appreciative of the soldiers and the sacrifices they make to provide our country freedom,” Morgan said.
Soldiers at Fort Riley respond by wearing K-State apparel whenever they can, both on base and in duty.
They are partners, after all.
“It is kind of understood that K-State is our team,” Nolan said. “That’s rare. Everyone in the military is from all over the country. The local team is not always the favorite, but everyone around here has taken K-State into their hearts because of this partnership.”