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03-16-07, 07:13 AM #1
Serving His Country, Then Serving His Team
March 16, 2007
Serving His Country, Then Serving His Team
By PETE THAMEL
NEW ORLEANS, March 15 — At Marine boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., Rich Young could handle 4:30 a.m. wake-ups, three-mile runs and 10-mile hikes lugging a 75-pound pack on his back.
What bothered him were sand fleas, which would burrow under his skin.
“It’s not quite like a bee sting, but it feels close to that,” Young said. “If you swing at them or scratched them, they’d make you do push-ups or yell at you.”
Young is a 26-year-old, 6-foot-5 swingman for North Texas with perhaps the most meandering road to the N.C.A.A. tournament of any player. Young served four years in the Marines after graduating from high school in Farrell, Pa., and did missions in Iraq, Kenya, Kosovo and Djibouti.
After all he has seen and experienced, Young promises that he will not be intimidated Friday, when 15th-seeded North Texas plays No. 2 seed Memphis.
“I don’t think we have anything to lose,” Young said.
Young’s coaches and teammates credit his maturity and leadership as two reasons that the Mean Green stunned the Sun Belt by winning the conference tournament as a No. 5 seed. Young has started at times, but his primary role is to come off the bench and create havoc, initiating steals, rebounding and sinking put-back baskets.
Young relishes his role, much like his teammates and coaches enjoy having him on the team.
“His sense of presence and no-nonsense attitude have helped our team,” Coach Johnny Jones said. “He’s done a tremendous job with our team because of his attitude. He’s never let us down.”
After joining the Marines with his brother, Brandon, in 1999, Young survived boot camp and was shipped to Kosovo in 2001, his first time outside the United States. He spent a few weeks there on a peacekeeping mission.
From Kosovo he went to Kenya, where the Marines worked together with the Kenyan Army to help people find water. From there, he went to Djibouti, where the job of the Marines was to quell terrorist activity. Young said some bombs went off there, but he and his fellow marines were not hurt.
Young said he has seen the Coke Zero commercial that has been playing frequently during college basketball games where a man proudly declares that “the capital of Djibouti is Djibouti.”
“It’s pretty funny,” he said.
Young’s most dangerous mission came in Iraq in 2003, when the Marines were in charge of securing a volatile area in southern Iraq known as “Ambush Alley,” where American convoys heading north to Baghdad were being attacked.
“We took fire there,” he said somberly. “I saw people get killed by snipers. I remember the children and the destruction. I remember the children were happy to see us and ran up to us and asked us for food.”
After his four-year stint in the Marines ended, Young returned home and ended up at Eastern Oklahoma State, a junior college. Young had been a decent high school prospect; he said he got offers from Division I schools like Youngstown State.
He got a shot at Eastern Oklahoma because he was part of a package deal with his cousin, Joe Holmes, who transferred from North Carolina A&T.
James Voight, the former coach at Eastern Oklahoma and now the coach at New Mexico Junior College, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he took Young “sight unseen” in order to get his cousin.
Holmes never panned out, but Voight’s gamble on Young hit the jackpot.
“As things turned, it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my 11 years as a head junior college coach,” Voight said. “He was a freebie basically. He was a very good player, and on top of that he was a very good person.”
Young then went to North Texas. He said he has had little trouble fitting in with his younger teammates. Ben Bell, a junior guard, said they think of Young as a big brother.
Bell said that Young rarely talks about his military experience. Bell said one of the few stories that Young told him was that they did not shower often while on missions. Instead, they would wipe their body with baby wipes.
Young, a leader who is known to be very quiet, prefers to blend in more than talk about the past. And this week, what he is really excited about is the future.
“I’ve really relished this opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we can still build on our moments.”
IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY LATE HUSBAND, SSgt Roger A. Alfano, USMC
ONE PROUD MARINE
Once a Marine...Always a Marine
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