As the 12-year-old players in Ottawa National Little League (ONLL) unfurled, and firmed their grips on an enormous American Flag, a respectful hush came over the crowd. And, as those gathered collectively turned toward the flag, the colors of the United States where honored with solemn remembrance, reflection, and recognition for those who have passed.
Those moments of silence came amidst the thrill and excitement of opening day for this local Little League located nearly 90 miles southwest of Chicago, in Ottawa, Ill., population 20,000. The players, members of the Board of Directors, league volunteers, and families pause as the mammoth 40 by 60-foot flag enveloped the outfield at Varland Park.
“Knowing that the kids, local veterans, and people from around our town all look forward to seeing the giant flag on opening day is really nice, and has become a special part of our league’s ceremonies,” said Tony Bianchi, League President.
The flag was donated to the league in 2012, by former ONLL Board member Mark Mezel in memory of Maj. Louis C. Zucker Jr., the cousin of Mr. Mezel’s late father, Thomas.
Maj. Zucker frequently flew F-106 fighter jets while deployed in Vietnam. At the time of his death, he was assigned as a Forward Air Controller (FAC), piloting an unarmed single-engine Cessna to assist with First Infantry Division combat missions. On March 20, 1968, he and another FAC pilot, Capt. Bruce Couillard of Minnesota, were shot down by enemy ground fire and died when their planes crashed.
Some years ago, the thought came to Mr. Mezel, a graduate of Ottawa National Little League, that a huge flag in honor of Maj. Zucker’s memory would be a welcome addition to the opening day ceremonies. To make the presentation even more significant, the league’s Board of Directors, that included Mr. Mezel, decided that the 12-year-olds beginning their last season in the Little League Major Division, and Board members not coaching or managing a team, would be bestowed with the honor of displaying the flag.
“People have come to expect to see the flag as part of the opening ceremonies,” said Mr. Bianchi, an eight-year Little League volunteer, in his fourth year as League President. “Our Board thought it would be really cool to have all of the 12-year-olds take the flag into center field. With only about 200 kids in the league, the average number of 12s per season is around 20 to 25, which gives each player the opportunity to hold the flag.”
The flag unfurling is followed by the presentation of the local color guard, playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, and ceremonial first pitches. “There are a lot of grandfathers and other veterans standing by the dugout throughout the ceremony,” said Mr. Bianchi. “We invite them to participate, but they’d rather express their patriotism by simply watching as the players respect the stars and stripes.”