Bin Laden's death brings back memories of dad, 9/11 for former Hokie Brian Welch

Brian Welch was 6 years old when terrorists killed his father, Army Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Welch.

"He's the greatest man I never knew," Brian says.

Last week, a Navy SEAL team killed the world's most notorious terrorist, Osama bin Laden, the devil behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Naturally, the news took Brian back.

Back to the 1984 suicide bombing that claimed his father at a U.S. Embassy annex near Beirut, Lebanon.

Back to 9/11 and fearing for his mother, Linda, a CIA employee scheduled to work that day at the Pentagon.

And back to Sept. 22, 2001, the day he carried the Stars and Stripes leading Virginia Tech's football team into Rutgers Stadium, 30-some miles from Ground Zero.

Welch didn't unleash a bloodthirsty shriek upon hearing of bin Laden's death. Rather, he reflected.

"You spend your whole childhood trying to find answers," Welch says from Northern Virginia, where he runs a construction company. "I've spent more than a quarter of a century trying to answer the question: Why? And I know the people who lost loved ones on 9/11 do the same.

"I felt I wasn't just carrying the flag for my father, my family and our country, but for everyone (affected directly) by terrorism. It's such a powerful thing that so many people will never experience, and I hope they never do.

"It was a big baton with an American flag on it. I was carrying the baton for so many. It was a very emotional time for me, and it still is. … It was empowering. It was closure for me, in a sense."

We pray bin Laden's demise brought similar peace to his victims. It certainly conjured myriad images: the Twin Towers falling; President Bush on the megaphone; Springsteen singing "My City of Ruins."

All of us paused back then. We were stunned, afraid, outraged, indescribably sad. But eventually life had to resume. And what better way than with sports, our most reliable catharsis?

The drive — flying was out of the question — to Rutgers for Virginia Tech's first football game after 9/11 was like an American quilt. Radio stations played patriotic songs, flags draped Interstate overpasses, travelers greeted one another at rest areas.

John Ballein, Tech's associate athletic director for football operations, knew he wanted the Hokies to carry a flag onto the field. And he knew just the young man for the job.

Welch was a senior linebacker from Oakton High in Northern Virginia. He didn't talk much about his personal story, but at practice the afternoon of 9/11 he was virtually paralyzed, unable to reach his mom.

"I was freaking," Welch says, "so hard that (defensive coordinator) Bud Foster basically had to take me out."

Welch finally connected with Linda that evening — her meeting at the Pentagon had been rescheduled — and rallied later in the week to earn his first career start at Rutgers. Shortly before kickoff, Ballein asked him to carry the flag.

After the Hokies' entrance, the modest crowd of 27,514 stood as a bugler, stationed atop a hill outside the stadium, played Taps. A Rutgers music professor sang the national anthem. The Glee Club sang God Bless America.

At midfield, Welch held Old Glory high, motionless.

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