Not so random acts

 

September 6, 2017

Tennessee Titans/Donn Jones Photography

Tennessee Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews, left, is presented a flag by Air Force Master Sgt. Trae Clark prior to the Titans' preseason game against the Chicago Bears in Nashville.

CLOVIS - Trae Clark believes in random acts, and he does them whenever he can. But he thinks the act he just finished Sunday wasn't random at all.

The intricate series of events that put a jersey in his hands and Air Force-flown flags in two others, Clark said, all came together for a reason.

"This is all God," Clark said. "This started at a Bible study."

The Tennessee Titans website and social media accounts include clips of a flag presented to receiver and former Clovis High athlete Rishard Matthews before the Titans' preseason game against the Chicago Bears.

The whole story starts in Clovis, swings halfway across the world and ends in Nashville to show how tragedy and kindness can bring people together.

Clark, now a master sergeant in the Air Force, is 14 years into his military career and nearly four years into his current assignment at Cannon Air Force Base.

The Nashville, Tennessee, native was serving in the 318th at Cannon. He was first sergeant for the squadron, and ran the pre-flight checklist on a March 14 training exercise flown by Capt. Andrew Becker, Capt. Kenneth Dalga and 1st Lt. Frederick Dellecker.


The exercise ended in a crash that claimed all three airmen, and Clark was in a haze for weeks after the event. He shared the story at the next Bible study, while admitting he didn't feel like being there that night.

In that same Bible study was Cal Fullerton. While he was experiencing professional triumph, having recently ascended to head football coach at Clovis High, he was also suffering loss. Less than two weeks before accepting the position, Fullerton's brother-in-law, Heath Bennett, suffered an aneurysm. The condition went quickly from, "He'll be out of the hospital in two or three days," to brain-dead. The family cut off life support, and Bennett died Feb. 10.

Bennett was known in the local pilot community, and Fullerton admitted when news first hit of a crash at Clovis Municipal Airport, he prayed it didn't happen to anybody in his circle.

That prayer was answered, until a stranger at Bible study said he didn't want to be there that night.

"He got to talking about it, and it touched my heart," Fullerton said. "He was always wearing Tennessee Titans stuff. I still didn't know him very well - we didn't talk after Bible study that night - but I knew I needed to do something for him."

Fullerton coached Matthews during the receiver's junior year in Clovis, and always kept in touch after Matthews left Clovis for California. Fullerton called with a simple request: I'll buy a jersey, you sign it and send it back. Matthews didn't know any details about Clark, but he'd do anything for Fullerton. He insisted on handling it himself, and a jersey was in Fullerton's hands a few weeks later.


Over those weeks, Clark went to funeral services at Cannon and across the country for the fallen airmen. At Becker's service in Michigan, he learned Becker's widow started a movement called #RandomActsforAndy based on the power of a random act of kindness.

He experienced it in May, when a guy he barely knew presented him a signed Matthews jersey in Bible study.

"I didn't know anything about Cal," Clark said. "I didn't know he was Coach Cal. For him to do that, it lifted my spirits up."

The night Clark received the Matthews jersey, he flipped through his Titans calendar and saw Matthews was the featured Titan in March, the month of the crash. Suddenly, things didn't feel so random.

Clark thought of repaying Fullerton. He remembered the Titans often worked out at nearby Fort Campbell in Kentucky, so he secured a summer workout for Clovis football players.

Clark thought of repaying Matthews, who sent the jersey himself instead of handing it off to team staff. Then he remembered a Memorial Day story that featured Matthews discussing his late brother.

Christopher Ruiz was a 10-year Marine veteran, and was a military contractor aboard a a C-130 that crashed Oct. 2, 2015, in Afghanistan. He was less than four weeks away from returning to California to be with his family.

Ruiz and Matthews were technically stepbrothers, but Matthews said the guy who kept him grounded during his college career and early NFL days is as close to a blood relative as it gets.

"My dad was military, so he was pretty strict," Matthews said. "I just remember us trying to come up with clever ways to get out of the house, stay away longer, have fun. It would always work for him, but it would never work for me."

Christopher was also really good at football, Matthews said, but gave it up early in high school to pursue the military path. His brother took his military commitment seriously, but still managed to be the person who could make you laugh on the darkest days.


The crash is still difficult for Matthews to handle, nearly two years later. Ruiz, through no choice of his own, left behind Matthews, high-school sweetheart wife Lorelyn, son Carter and daughters Brooklyn and Aria.

"We both took different paths in life, and we weren't as close as we know we should have been," Matthews said. "We were getting closer, and this whole thing happened. We were close when it happened, but we were definitely living two different lives."

Unbeknownst to Fullerton and Matthews, Clark got to work. He bought two flags and sent them with deploying airmen. One was flown in Iraq in honor of Fullerton, the other in Afghanistan in honor of Ruiz.

Fullerton's flag was presented during Clovis two-a-days, along with an undisclosed gift from Becker's widow to replace team equipment.

For Matthews' presentation, Clark was going to the game anyway, and a fellow squadron member from Nashville knew a girl who handled community coordinator duties for the team.

The Titans loved the pitch from Clark. The team kept the presentation secret, and on game day asked Matthews to help honor a military family. Clark introduced himself as the random guy from Clovis who got that signed jersey, and it became apparent it was Matthews' family being honored.

"All of that hit me at once," said Matthews, who now texts back-and-forth with Clark and is planning to mail a few more packages. "I didn't think I would ever see the person I got that jersey for. I was thankful for him, people like him and his family. They show during the darkest times, there's always light."

Clark plans to continue doing #RandomActsforAndy, because his flight commander's memory deserves to endure. But what started with a jersey and ended with a flag never felt random.

"You don't know what impact you can have on somebody else's life," Clark said, "or the impact they can have on yours."

 
 

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