Brandon Tillmon allowed himself a moment during a photo shoot to stop, look and soak in the sights in front of him as the sun set and vibrant colors painted the Blue Ridge Mountains on Veterans Day.
The Liberty University senior linebacker stood under the nearly 45-foot-tall granite arch that serves as the entrance into the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford and was amazed at the sight in front of him. He saw the sculptures directly below his vantage point that represented the soldiers’ movement across the Normandy beaches in the Allied Forces’ invasion in World War II, and his eyes shifted up just a bit to the massive curved wall not far behind with the plaques lined with the names of the 4,413 Allied and American troops who died on D-Day.
Tillmon breathed in the history and began reflecting on why he was there for this particular photo shoot: to honor the memory of the Bedford Boys.
Tillmon and the Liberty University football team will sport a special LU logo on their helmets for the program’s annual Military Appreciation Game on Saturday against New Mexico State at Williams Stadium.
Twenty-one of the “Bedford Boys” will be honored with their names and images being incorporated into the logo on the helmets for the 2 p.m. game. The front bumper of the helmet will sport a National D-Day Memorial logo and the back of the helmet, which normally reads “Flames,” will instead read “Bedford Boys.”
“It definitely, definitely gives you something to want to play for, especially for the men and women who sacrificed their lives and fought for this country to be able to allow us to have our freedom,” Tillmon said. “[Playing in the memory of the Bedford Boys] makes it a little different about [this particular game]. It makes you want to go a little bit harder, a little bit faster.”
Tillmon, who is from Lexington, South Carolina, was chosen for this particular photo shoot on Veterans Day because two of his cousins — Luis Arce Jr. and Brittany Arce — served in the Air Force.
He learned the story of the Bedford Boys hours before the photo shoot.
It allowed him to fully appreciate the scene in front of him and the story of the 35 soldiers from Bedford that participated in the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, and the 19 who were killed during the fighting on Omaha Beach.
“It definitely goes to show heroism and patriotism, being able to sacrifice for your country, and coming from a small town near Lynchburg, you don’t think of things like that,” he said. “It just goes to show you there’s a lot of history out here.”
Military-themed college football uniforms debuted in 2008 with the annual Army-Navy game, and the theme has spread throughout the sport in the decade that has followed.
The most commonly used designed is the American flag in the logo on the helmets, which Liberty sported for five straight seasons through 2017.
Camouflage uniforms and designs, similar to the ones worn in the ’08 Army-Navy game, also are popular among programs. Liberty used a camouflage design in its LU logo on the helmets for last season’s Military Appreciation Game, also against New Mexico State.
LU head athletics equipment manager Chris Dunfee and his assistant, Ryan Carr, began brainstorming possible ideas for Saturday’s Military Appreciation Game late last season, and the two kept circling back to honoring the Bedford Boys on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Their previous boss, Mike Morris, grew up in Lynchburg and was well-versed in military history in and around the Hill City.
“We kind of did this just knowing the history and things like that from him,” Dunfee said. “The Bedford Boys was something that came up and something we wanted to kind of look into and do some research on and see where we could take it.”
Dunfee worked closely with the National D-Day Memorial and Jennifer Thomson, the genealogical librarian and educational director at the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library, to identify the members of the Bedford Boys to honor. Once they settled on the 21 soldiers (the 19 killed on D-Day and two who died from injuries or later during WWII), Dunfee worked on securing photos from both locations that Schutt Sports could incorporate into the logo on the Liberty helmets.
“That was the thing that kind of took us the longest is to kind of make sure we get images that would work,” Dunfee said. “This is where Schutt Sports, the company that made the decals for us, was a huge help because basically they had the mock-ups for this, they had our LU from some other things that they had done for us.”
“They look great and it all comes down to what they’re doing down there.”
Dunfee’s inspiration for the design came after watching Football Championship Subdivision program Lafayette play Army last season. The Leopards sported a special helmet design for the matchup with the Black Knights that was played the day before Veterans Day.
Lafayette asked members of its team to choose someone close to them who has served or is serving in the military and supply a photo of that person. The photos were incorporated into Lafayette’s logo — an uppercase L — on the team helmets to honor their military service in conjunction with Veterans Day the following day.
“I thought it was a fabulous idea,” Dunfee said. “That was one that we saw that really sparked our interest of the pictures and how good they looked on the decals.”
A pair of Division II programs, Northwest Missouri State and Minnesota Duluth, also have sported images of military veterans on their helmets for military appreciation games this season.
NW Missouri State honored family members who have served in the military with patriotic helmet decals and names on their jerseys, and UMD wore special decals on the helmets that included a photo of a military veteran.
Both teams incorporated the images on the front of the helmet above the facemask.
“Whether it’s the 75th anniversary or the 74th anniversary [of D-Day], you can’t ever, to me, honor our veterans and the people that served our great country enough,” Flames Head Football Coach Hugh Freeze said.
This Military Appreciation Game has special significance for LU junior linebacker Tyron Staples. The Bedford native grew up routinely visiting the National D-Day Memorial during field trips as a student at Bedford Elementary School, and he fondly remembers relatives of the Bedford Boys frequently visiting the classroom, reading to the students and stressing the importance of the sacrifices made by those members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division.
“Having [Liberty] show love and gratitude toward my actual hometown is really amazing,” Staples said. “It’s really speechless because those guys and their families, they deserve so much recognition for the amount of braveness and courage that they used to do what they did.”
Staples attended the 75th anniversary ceremony at the National D-Day Memorial in June and met with relatives of the Bedford Boys and others who served in World War II.
“It was special. It was amazing to meet relatives of the families and just shake hands with people that were involved in that,” he added. “Like I said, it brought light to Bedford, and I really and truly love my city. Anytime we get light or any type of attention shown toward us for positive reasons, it’s amazing. I’ll probably never forget about the Bedford Boys for what they’ve done in expanding Bedford, Virginia.”