Mayor Joe Riley described the tragic events of June 18, 2007, as "difficult to fathom." On that day four years ago, nine of Charleston's bravest lost their lives in the tragic Sofa Super Store fire. Four years later, this haunting event is one no local public servant has forgotten. And though an interim commemorative marker is in the works and should be completed by the anniversary this summer, due to under-funding, a lasting memorial has yet to be completed for the Charleston Nine.
Fortunately, a group of those who serve every day are committed to honoring the nine's memory and ensuring that service members families are always well cared for. They're known as the South Carolina Commanders and they're Charleston's only National Public Safety Football Team. They play for fun and fight for the fallen. Their mission: sportsmanship, commitment, teamwork, and charity. All of the money they make from their games gets split down the middle: half goes to the team to cover travel and uniforms and the other half is donated to the Fallen Heroes Fund.
"A lot of it is because we love to play football, but for me and others it is the chance to help out other public safety guys," says Derek Carr, an Isle of Palms fire fighter and defensive end for the team. "We all know the dangers of the job and that any of us could be hurt on any given day. I play because it might be me or my family that needs that help someday."
Comprised of roughly 25 area fire fighters, police, EMS, and military personnel, the Carolina Commanders are one of 26 semi-pro National Public Safety Football League (NPSFL) teams in the nation. They play full contact and adhere to the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. So make no mistake, this is action-packed ball.
Some players have football experience, some don't. Some have been in their respective public servant positions for years. Some just started. Yet, all of them give up their weekends and evenings without pay to practice, travel and play in order to raise money for a worthy cause.
For a city that's an equal opportunity sports team supporter (see: Lowcountry High Rollers), you'd think Charleston would be bananas for the Commanders. However, that has not been the case. The team has struggled to get the word out and has had to cancel two home games this season due to lack of support. Why aren't they feeling the love? Three words: location, location, location.
A fire truck sits in the parking lot of Baptist Hill High School. It's a surprisingly warm March day. The fragrance of fresh hotdogs wafts through the air and from over the chain link fence an announcers voice rings out.
Here in the rural community of Ravenel, off Highway 17, the Commanders have found a place to play. It's clean, kid friendly environment and parking isn't an issue. Plus, the price is right. Baptist Hill High rents out their stadium to the team for a reasonable $500 a game. The stands are sprinkled with around 100 or so attendees. Family members sit in red Commanders T-shirts. Kids run back and forth between the stadium, concession stand and dueling jump castles. A DJ encourages fans to buy raffle tickets to win a Camaro. The scene is a picture of modern day Americana. And it would be ideal if it weren't for the fact that it's all taking place a good 30-minute drive from the fan base the Commanders are attempting to cultivate — metro Charleston.
"We called colleges and high schools around the city, but it's like an act of Congress to get these fields," says Coach Urie Smalls, a 30 year veteran of the Charleston Police Department. "I wish we could get beyond it being about who you know."
Smalls grew up downtown. He played football at Burke High School before attending Bethune-Cookman University. When he returned home he took up coaching in earnest. Be it the Carolina Twisters, Pop Warner teams, or his more recent venture with the Charleston Splash — name an area team and Smalls has likely had some involvement with them. His passion for the sport is palpable and his dedication unwavering.
"This team means a lot to me. It gives me a chance to stay connected with the guys and know the latest stuff happening on the streets," Smalls says.
The first season Smalls was able to secure the Old St. Andrews High Stadium, a relatively central location. "I used to be the school resource officer before I retired in December from the City of Charleston Police Department," says Smalls. However, this season due to the Academic Magnet soccer games, the Commanders weren't able to rent the field.
"Baptist Hill is being very gracious with letting us use their spot," says Carr. Carr and his wife Melanie have been instrumental in drumming up support for the team. "If we could get the community behind us it would be great," says Carr.
A big part of that, he knows, is finding a better location to play, but as his coach says, that's no easy task. In their hunt for a field this past year, they approached dozens of schools including the Citadel.
However, the rental price was far too high for the Commanders. Given the military and service connection, members of the team were disappointed the Citadel couldn't cut them a deal.
"If we gave them a deal, then we'd have to give everyone a deal," says Lt. Col. Paul Plunkett, senior associate athletic director at the Citadel. Plunkett says that the rental fee per game at the school is generally between eight and ten thousand dollars. "This is a 28 million dollar facility," Plunkett says. "Once the team gets bigger and better, we could talk about it."
That said, Plunkett emphasizes his appreciation for what the Commanders are trying to do and supports the team, but in reality the Citadel stadium is far too expensive to lend out pro bono.
"I don't hold malice against them," Smalls says in reference to the Citadel. "They don't just see our vision."
That vision, a least for Smalls, is to one day have their own stadium and a devoted following. He looks to NPSFL teams like those in LA and New York City for inspiration.
As legend has it, back in 1972 a police officer and a firefighter were talking in a Brooklyn bar. Pudgy Walsh, the fireman, contented that the FDNY's semi-pro football team was much better than the NYPD's. It sounds like the set up to a joke, but what transpired was the creation of a rivalry akin to that of Army-Navy. Each year New York's Bravest play New York's Finest in the annual Fun City Bowl.
"Pudgy started it all, and it just snowballed from there," says Mike Stackpole, Bravest coach and nineteen year member of the FDNY. Each year hundreds of spectators turn out for the big game.
"In the last 10 years we've given out $300,000 to charities," says Stackpole. "We gave out $100,000 alone the year after 9/11."
On that fateful day, the Bravest Football Club lost 22 of its members — eight active players and staff, and 14 members of its alumni association who were still active firefighters.
"My brother was killed on September 11," says Stackpole, "and his family was taken care of."
Thanks to their success, the Bravest support many charities including the Wounded Warrior Project as well as an organization that supports non-line of duty deaths of public servants.
Stackpole's advice to the Commanders is to keep working to get the community support.
As for the players, the Commanders team is also an opportunity for them to let off some steam.
"It's a treacherous environment and these guys see and deal with a lot of things. When they come out for the football team, they can forget about all that," says Smalls.
JT Hall, a 22-year-old firefighter on Isle of Palms agrees. "It really is a stress reliever," he says. "It's more like going to practice and being round a bunch a guys there for the same reason. You can look past what's going on at work."
Hall plays wide receiver, quarterback, and safety for the Commanders. "I saw a flier and decided to join the team." He played football at Wando High School before joining the force. "I dropped a football and picked up a firehouse," he says. He's one of the youngest members of the team.
For Hall the Commanders is all about the camaraderie.
"Safire's Bar in Goose Creek is the official afterparty spot of the Commanders," says Carr. Within the NPSFL, the hosting teams always treats the away team to a post game celebration. "No matter how heated a game may get, after it is done we all get together for a few drinks, laughs, and 'war stories.' After it is all said and done we are all brothers."
As brothers, of course, the Commanders have a team Mom. Nancy Gilman, the Commanders photographer, first got involved with the Charleston Fire Department the night of the Sofa Super Store fire.
"I was the night shift charge nurse on duty in Roper's Emergency Department," says Gilman. As the fire trucks came in and out of the hospital, Gilman assisted and met about 15 area fire fighters.
"I went to pay my condolences at Station 16 a few days later, and that's how I started to get to know the guys," she says. A simple extension of sympathy evolved into a real friendship. Gilman started taking photos of the guys on duty and with their families, and eventually Coach Smalls reached out to see if she'd like to take some photos of the Commanders. "I didn't think I'd be good at action shots, but my husband gave me a good camera and it worked out."
Gilman rarely misses a practice or game. She's become something of a den mother to the team. Gilman has seen the team from the beginning and documented images upon images of moments on and off the field. One of her favorite photos is from a win the team had last year when they played the Roanoke Rampage in Virginia. "It wasn't until after the game when we were passing around the camera with the group photo that the guys finally realized what the final score had been," she says, "It was nine to zero Commanders." It was like a sign.
"I can't give them enough credit," says Gilman. "They're doing so much for charity and at such a young age."
Even though this has been a tough season for the Commanders, whose record is now 1-3, they will continue to play, no matter the size of the stadium, the crowd, the wins or the loses just as they will continue to put themselves in harm's way in an effort to protect you and me.
"Some people say it is a DNA flaw. We were programmed backwards. Instead of fleeing from danger, we run towards it. I think it is in our DNA, but not as a flaw," says Carr. "Most public safety and military will tell you that at some point they had an uncontrollable feeling to serve the people."
The Commanders is just an extension of this call, albeit a much more fun one. Rather than rushing burning buildings or chasing the bad guys, they're rushing yards and tackling opponents. And the best news — no matter who is victorious on the field, the good guys always win.
Their next game will be on May 14 in Charlotte. The summer season starts June 4, schedule and home game location to be announced. To find out more about the team and how you can get involved visit commandersfootball.com.