It was 6:30 in the morning and Carolyn Pearson was at the blue-topped kitchen island in her home on Parker Drive. The secretary at Piqua High School was making a sandwich for her lunch. Her husband Randi was awake but still in bed.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” she said the other evening as she stood at that same counter and quietly — and painfully — relived that early October morning in 2007:
“There was a knock at the door and I wondered who in the world could be here this early.”
She remembered looking through the living room, toward that wooden front door flanked by narrow, full-length windows.
“All I saw was an arm with Army stripes,” she said in little more than a whisper. “Oh my God, right away I knew what it was. I said, ‘Rand, it’s Sam!…It’s our Sam!’ “
The oldest of their five children — 28-year-old son Army Spc. Samuel Pearson, once a football standout at Piqua High who also played at Otterbein University and then joined the U.S. Army Reserve, assigned to the 376th Finance Company, 88th Regional Readiness Command — was six weeks into his deployment in Iraq.
The Pearsons opened the front door and there stood a U.S. Army captain and a chaplain.
“They came in and I remember hearing the words ‘we regret to inform you…’ and the rest was a blur,” Randi said. “You just go into shock…like it’s not real.”
“I remember saying ‘I thought he was in a safe place?’ ” Carolyn said.
Randi nodded: “I said, ‘He wasn’t outside the wire. He said he wasn’t going to be going outside the wire.’”
‘A regular guy’
Carolyn remembers from the time Sam was a little boy “he just couldn’t wait to be a Piqua Indian. He always loved sports and he just wanted to play for our teams. We’d take him to all the football and basketball games and he just dreamed of the day he’d be able to play for the Indians.”
The Pearson family has long been connected to Piqua High.
Sam’s grandfather, Richard Pearson, played football for Piqua in the 1940s, later coached there and served as a school administrator. Randi was a standout quarterback for PHS in the early 1970s before going on to play at Ohio Northern. In later years he served as the football team’s statistician.
An uncle was a track coach at the school. Carolyn works in the main office. And Sam’s brothers — Rich, John and Andy — were all Piqua quarterbacks. His sister Laura ran track, swam and was a cheerleader. Other cousins, aunts and uncles made marks at the school, too.
“They’re just a great family,” said Piqua football coach Bill Nees. “Randi and Carolyn have got a recipe how to produce outstanding children. Every single one of those kids was a huge contributor to the school.
“And Sam, he was just a regular guy, quiet and unassuming, but someone who did everything right, even when no one was looking.”
But when he was in the spotlight, especially on the football field, Sam especially shined. An undersized tight end (as well as a backup quarterback and defensive back), he caught 15 passes for 243 yards and five touchdowns as a senior.
His most memorable play came at Wertz Stadium when he snared a 50-yard TD pass from his brother Rich that provided Piqua’s only score in a 7-5 victory over West Carrollton.
After graduating in 1998, he went to Otterbein, played two seasons for the Cardinals and got a degree in economics. Following college, he had a couple of jobs in the area, including one in Beavercreek, before deciding to return to school to get a master’s in accounting.
To help pay for the venture, he joined the Army Reserve in September 2006, went through basic training and ended up being called to active duty in the spring of 2007.
After three months of training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, he came home on leave for three days in August.
“That’s the last time we saw him,” Carolyn said. “On August 28, he deployed from Wisconsin to Kuwait for two weeks and then flew into Baghdad on Sept 12.”
He had an office job at Camp Liberty at the Baghdad airport and on Oct. 10, he and five other soldiers were working a double shift when they stopped by the dining facility to get some take-out food.
As three soldiers waited inside for their meals, Sam and two others returned to their vehicle just as Iraqi insurgents fired 17 rockets from a nearby abandoned school. In all, 40 soldiers would be injured that evening and two would be killed, Sam and Staff Sgt. Lillian Clamens.
Of the two other soldiers with Sam, one, Sgt. Dale Cherney, lost his left leg, right eye and part of his spleen. The other, Sgt. Larry Kubbins, took shrapnel in his leg.
“We’ve been in contact with some of the first responders from that night and from what we understand, the rocket hit about 10 feet away from Sam,” Randi said. “He just had two little shrapnel wounds in his back. But one of those pieces nicked his aorta and he bled out.”
Embraced by Piqua
When Bill Nees — who played his high school football at Lima Senior — took over the Piqua program 22 years ago, he said he learned something that he especially appreciated because he’s also a history teacher:
“You only have to be here a day and you realize something unique about Piqua. They are very proud of their (sons and daughters) who have made a name, especially ones in the military like Don Gentile and William Pitsenbarger.
Gentile was the World War II fighter pilot who shot down a record 26 enemy aircraft, a feat that put him in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Pitsenbarger was the U.S. Air Force para-rescue jumper who flew more than 300 missions in Vietnam and was killed defending wounded comrades, an act of heroism that won him the Medal of Honor and the Air Force Cross.
Piqua similarly embraced Sam Pearson when his body was flown into Dayton from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware five days after his death.
The funeral service was at St. Paul’s Evangelical and Reformed Church in Piqua, and when the Pearson family came out to go to Forest Hill Cemetery, they found the Piqua football team, in uniform, lining the parade route.
“That was a tough day for those guys,” Nees said as he stood at his classroom desk the other day, his voice suddenly welling with emotion. “I thought them having something like that for support would comfort them a little bit … all of us, we just did what we could.”
Young kids from a Piqua Catholic school waved flags as they stood alongside aging World War II veterans on the funeral procession route. Other people held signs, balloons, flowers, anything to show their love and support.
Sam was buried atop a grassy knoll at the far end of the cemetery near Franz Pond. That night the Piqua Indians — wearing black No. 10 decals on the backs of their helmets — played at rival Sidney, which held a stirring tribute, as well.
After that season, no other Piqua player has been issued Sam’s No. 10. And each year since, Nees gathers his young troops and gives them a little history lesson, telling them who Sam Pearson was and about the ultimate sacrifice he made.
St. Paul’s erected a flag pole and a plaque in his honor and part of Ohio 66 has been renamed the Cpl. Samuel F. Pearson Memorial Highway. A couple of area schools and a Piqua family have planted trees in his name, neighbors now line the street with American flags on Memorial Day and, for a couple of years, Brian Penny, another Piqua vet, held a cornhole tournament to fund a scholarship.
And not long after Sam’s death, the Pearson family had an under-the-radar meeting with then-President George W. Bush at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
“He couldn’t have been more gracious and kind,” Carolyn said as she led the way into the front room to a table that held three framed photos of the family with Bush. On the wall above was a portrait of Sam in uniform. Nearby was the case holding the American flag that once draped his casket.
Although the family praises the people of Piqua for being “wonderful,” it was only natural that life eventually moved on for everyone else while Randi and Carolyn remained grounded in their grief.
“For a long time we didn’t want daily life to go on,” Randi said. “We joined a support group — the Miami County chapter of Compassionate Friends — and that helped. It’s an organization for bereaved parents and we developed some friendships there.
“And we went to a regional meeting of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors), which is strictly for military losses.”
As they were wending their way through their loss, their youngest son, Andy, informed them he was joining the Army Reserves.
“We were out here in the yard doing some work when he told us and my heart stopped beating,” Carolyn admitted. “For a moment I thought, ‘I can’t go through this again.’ But how do you say no to a 24-year-old man who says he wants to serve his country? He said, ‘Mom, I have to do it.’ He had such strong feelings, so I knew he had to do it.
“But it still was a tough year, a tough couple of years actually, especially when he deployed to Afghanistan.”
Randi agreed: “We just held our breath. He was a combat engineer and his mission was to go out and clear the fly routes of IEDs.”
Andy returned home a year ago in April. “We are very proud of him and in a way it’s helped us move ahead,” Carolyn said. “You never forget your loss, but you can keep living, too. We were able to breathe again.”
A chilly challenge
When Joe and Holly Mikolajewski opened their No Mercy CrossFit gym in Piqua, they knew they also wanted to give back to their community.
Both of their dads served in Vietnam and they said the CrossFit organization, which has affiliates around the world, is especially intertwined with military concepts.
“A lot of the best-known CrossFit workouts are named after soldiers who have died,” Joe said. “We knew we had a fallen soldier right here and we saw this as a way not only to honor him, but to help the youth in our community.”
Last year the Mikolajewskis decided they wanted to start a Sam Pearson Memorial Scholarship Fund, so they contacted the family.
“That’s what made it so wonderful,” Randi said. “Joe and Holly didn’t know Sam. They are just good-hearted people and they wanted to give back to the community. In the process they have also rekindled the memory and spirit of Sam. I can’t say enough about what they are doing.”
CrossFit held a charity workout challenge last year and raised $2,100 to launch the program and Piqua senior Luke Karn was awarded the initial scholarship.
This year Joe wanted to expand the effort and make it a renewable scholarship, so along with the CrossFit challenge — participants pay a small fee to go through a vigorous fitness effort on Memorial Day — they partnered with the Can’t Stop Running sporting goods store in Piqua to host a 5K Sam Pearson Memorial Day race (to register go to www.speedy-feet.com or call 937-418-1455) .
The events really got a boost when one of the No Mercy trainers, PJ Wead, decided to post a Cold Water Challenge on Facebook to promote the scholarship fund.
He called out five people to either make a donation or plunge into a body of cold water in Sam’s name. That idea went viral and soon people across the Miami Valley and around the nation were posting videos of their cold water exploits.
Eventually a donation component was added and more than just getting the word out, the effort became a fund-raising tool.
Videos of the Sam Pearson Cold Water Challenge have surfaced from Alaska, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, California and even Paris. People have jumped into swimming pools, farm ponds, canals, rivers and hot tubs.
A Cleveland gym has informed Mikolajewski that it will have a Sam Pearson Memorial Day event as well and send the funds to Piqua.
The other evening at the Pearson home, Nees and Chip Hare, the former University of Dayton basketball player who is now the athletics director at Piqua High, showed up to make another fund-raising plunge as they more or less cannon-balled into the family’s backyard pool.
“This is all pretty crazy,” Carolyn said as she stood back at that kitchen counter. “We’re amazed and humbled by what has happened here. Our son hasn’t been forgotten and now other young people are being helped in his name. It’s a pretty wonderful thing.”
Just then, an unexpected visitor showed up, but unlike seven years ago it did not come with a jarring knock at the front door. It was one of Randi’s old high school football teammates and he had his swimming trunks on.
He, too, was there to take the Cold Water Challenge.
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.