A.J. Moline plays defensive end and center for the Big Horn High School football team. The senior also is a wrestler and the son of a former U.S. Marine.
His plan is to join the Marine Corps after graduation.
Moline told Cowboy State Daily that in all those pursuits, he has a lot in common with Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, a Jackson native who died in a terrorist suicide bombing outside of the Kabul, Afghanistan, airport Aug. 26, 2021.
That’s why Moline said he’s honored to wear an American flag on his helmet with McCollum’s name and service information as a reminder of what’s important and honor one of Wyoming’s and America’s true heroes.
“He sacrificed everything,” said Moline. “He fought for this country and allowed me to have the freedom that I have – being able to play football, do wrestling, have this community and the school and such.”
Heroes on Helmets
Moline is one of 13 Rams football players displaying an American flag and the names of McCollum and 12 other Marines killed that day in a suicide bombing attack that also took the lives of more than 110 Afghan citizens during a last-minute scramble by U.S. forces to pull out of the country.
The Heroes on Helmets program was started by Idaho football coach Dave Lindsay, a veteran who in 2015 had the idea to put the names of fallen American soldiers on flag stickers for his athletes to wear on their helmets.
Kirk McLaughlin is the coach for the Big Horn Rams. He told Cowboy State Daily he became involved in the Heroes on Helmets movement after coach Brent Walk with Mountain View High School signed his players up.
“We signed up for it in 2018, and did it for three or four years in a row,” said McLaughlin. “We didn’t do it last year, for whatever reason, but we had some boys that really wanted to do it again this year.”
Honoring Wyoming’s Own
Recognizing the 13 Marines killed in that Aug. 26, 2021, attack includes McCollum, something the players and program wanted to do, McLaughlin said. McCollum’s name and flag being on Moline’s helmet didn’t happen by chance.
“We specifically wanted (the Rylee McCollum sticker) to go to one of the boys who’s sitting here today who’s going to go into the military,” said McLaughlin, referring to Moline. “And then we made sure that our upperclassmen had the other 12 soldiers that died on that same day.”
McLaughlin said his players will participate in an upcoming Veteran’s Day assembly in which they will talk about their soldiers with whom they have much in common.
“(These soldiers) are just extensions of what they are,” he said. “They were just once high school kids playing sports, loving the outdoors and whatever else.
“And that’s what kind of brings this home – they sacrificed everything for us, and we just want to honor them, if even if it’s as simple as putting their name on our helmet.”
A.J. Moline – Rylee McCollum
Moline said he’s very honored to be assigned the sticker representing McCollum, who was just 20 when he died – just a few years older than Moline is now.
“He’s just like me,” Moline said. “He was a wrestler in high school, he loved and wanted to go to the military, just like myself.”
Moline said there was one photo that he ran across in his research of McCollum as a child that stuck with him as a reminder that young Rylee’s life was very similar to his own.
“(I saw this) photo of him playing with his dog,” said Moline. “And he had a little rifle in the grass, just messing around. And it’s exactly how I was – I would be messing with my dog, I played with Nerf guns, doing all this stuff with my brothers.”
Cade Baker – Kareem Nikoui
Senior Cade Baker did more than just research the soldier he was assigned, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, of Norco, California. Baker reached out to Nikoui’s mother over Facebook after learning about how the tragedy of Kareem’s death was compounded nearly a year after the bombing.
“Their mother, Shannon Chappell, she has five kids,” said Baker. “And obviously Kareem passed, but then a year later, almost to the day,one of her older sons, Dakota, actually took his own life because he was struggling to deal with the grief of losing his brother.
“And when I read that, my heart just sank.”
Baker, a safety and a tight end for the 35-member Big Horn Rams team, said he felt compelled to reach out to Chappell to let her know that her son was not forgotten.
“I ended up sending her a picture of the sticker on my helmet,” he said. “And I still have her response (on my phone) where she just said, ‘I love it, and thank you.’”
Baker said he was especially moved by the last moments of Nikoui’s life.
“It’s very inspirational, just those final moments,” Baker said. “Especially how he pulled three families out of that airport, and then went back for a smaller child – and that’s when the bombs went off. He’s just a true, true hero.”
Drew Heermann – Taylor Hoover
“He grew up in Utah, he played football like every other kid,” said junior Drew Heerman of his soldier, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover.
At 31, Hoover was the oldest of the soldiers killed that day in Kabul.
“His coaches said that he was a natural-born leader,” said Heerman, “and that everybody just kind of followed him naturally.”
Heerman said the Heroes on Helmets program reminds the Big Horn players how fortunate they are to live where they do and have the freedoms they have.
“Some kids don’t ever get the chance to play football, whether it’s (because of) a disability or whatever,” he said. “And (the soldiers) being able to fight for our country gives us the freedom to play.”
Heerman said the soldiers’ sacrifice brings into focus a sense of gratitude for a life that many take for granted.
“Every week, coach asks us for a why, like, why do you play this week?” he said. “And I think that every kid on the team has a why right on the back of their helmet.”
Not So Different
All three players commented on how the Heroes on Helmets program has made relevant the circumstances and events that often seem far away from tiny Big Horn, Wyoming.
“Kareem was from Norco, California, and it feels like it’s a long ways away,” said Baker. “But he was only 20 years old. I mean, he’s only a few years older than all of us.”
Baker said that when he and his teammates get caught up in football games and day-to-day lives, the stickers on their helmets remind them that there are young men and women around the world making life-or-death decisions every day.
There’s kids not too much older than us that are risking their lives overseas, saving others,” said Baker. “And that really just puts into perspective that we have to appreciate everything a lot more, and we just have to be a lot more grateful for those people.”