By BRIAN CUNNIFF
The idea started when Lance Bailey was simply shown a sample of a football jersey.
It morphed into what will now be a massive celebration of the military and first responders, as well as a fundraiser for New Jersey Run For The Fallen, when Lower Cape May Regional High School hosts its “Military Appreciation Football Game” Friday at 7 p.m. against Lindenwold. A festival ahead of the game will honor members of the military and first responders beginning at 5:30 p.m.
“We were up for getting new jerseys this year,” Bailey, the head football coach at Lower, said. “We had some vendors in, and one of them showed me this alternate jersey (featuring camouflage and military emblems on the sleeves) and a light bulb just went on in my head.
“I started making some phone calls. … We wanted to make this not about us but about something bigger than us.”
Bailey eventually reached out to Eileen Kreis, a Township of Lower employee who’s also heavily involved in the planning of the annual New Jersey Run For The Fallen, a event held each September during which a team of active military members runs close to 200 miles over four days to honor every New Jersey service member who died in support of the Global War on Terror and other wars and conflicts. The run, which is scheduled to begin next Thursday, begins in Lower Township and ends in Holmdel. The runners briefly stop each mile to honor an individual fallen service member and make short stops at local schools.
Bailey has also worked with Carolina Panthers tight end Colin Thompson, a Cape May resident who serves as a consultant for the Lower Cape May football coaching staff. Thompson was able to get star teammate Christian McCaffrey involved, the all-pro running back signing three commemorative Lower Cape May jerseys that will be up for auction at Friday’s game. Thompson also signed a jersey for the auction.
McCaffrey is already heavily involved in supportive measures for the military through his foundation. The signed jerseys feature the number 22 to signify the average number of active military members and veterans who commit suicide each day in this country.
Jersey, hats and other items will also be on sale at the event. Food trucks will also be on hand. Donations can also be made at the event and will also be accepted at any time through Venmo to @NJRFTF. All proceeds will go to the New Jersey Run For The Fallen.
“What’s really exciting is that the main thing here is raising money for the New Jersey Run For The Fallen,” Thompson said. “There’s going to be a game going on and a great event going on but what we wanted was for this to be a carnival-like atmosphere where we’re raising money, but we’re also celebrating active-duty military men and women, the veterans and all of our first responders.
“This is an unbelievable collaboration with Lower’s team and the New Jersey Run For The Fallen. The area of Cape May is very patriotic, especially with the Coast Guard being there. This is a wonderful thing. We’re fortunate to be able to raise money for a great cause.”
The pre-game festivities will also feature the landing of a Black Hawk Helicopter right on Lower Cape May’s campus next to the football field. An army jeep from World War II will also be on display.
New Jersey Run For The Fallen plans to have a trailer on site that features pictures of many of the fallen service members from New Jersey.
“The Run For The Fallen honors those lost in more recent conflicts but we also honor those from New Jersey who died in every war and conflict,” Kreis said. “Hopefully everyone who comes out can stop by the trailer and look at the pictures honoring everyone. The faces are all different. They’re 18 years old, 50 years old. Men and women. All different races and ethnicities. And every single one of them has a story.”
In addition to active members of the military and veterans, members of police, fire and emergency medical services departments from across the area will be on hand, as well as representatives from Cape May County S.W.A.T. and the New Jersey State Police.
At approximately 6:30 p.m., all active military service men and women, veterans in attendance and first responders will be asked to line the field ahead of the National Anthem. The color guard from the U.S. Coast Guard base in Cape May will take part in the ceremony. A moment of silence will be held to honor the 13 service members killed in Afghanistan last month.
“When we saw this opportunity, we felt like we needed to give back and get involved,” Bailey said. “There was already a relationship established between the school and the Run For The Fallen so this seemed like the perfect marriage to bring it all together. With the run being next week, it was good timing, too. And we wanted our kids to experience something like this and witness it all.”
Thompson won’t be in attendance, of course, as the Panthers are set to play the Cowboys Sunday in Dallas. But he knows what the event will mean to the community.
“This is different than just supporting your local high school,” Thompson said. “This is supporting all those fallen military members from across the state. It’s also a great night to bring the community together. How many times can you go to an event and have multiple police departments, multiple fire departments and all types of military there? It’s great to be able to support a great cause and raise money, all while celebrating community at a time when we really need to do things like this.”