By Malcolm Butler
Just a game.
It’s a perspective that players, coaches and fans sometimes forget.
During Louisiana Tech’s season finale against Air Force on Sunday, the game just felt different.
Unlike Saturday night’s battle with Texas where it was easy for Bulldog fans, players and coaches to get heated with the opponent and their fanbase throughout a tightly-contested battle at Disch-Falk Field in Austin, the emotions around Sunday’s game was more of true respect for the guys in the other dugout.
It didn’t mean Tech wanted to win any less.
It just meant there was a different level of admiration for the guys in the opposing dugout based on their commitment to their country.
“When you go into a game with someone you want to hate them,” said Burroughs. “Well, I don’t like to use the word hate. But you sure don’t like them. But you don’t feel that way with (Air Force). Number one you have the ultimate respect for them because of what they stand for and what they do. What those kids go through. It’s just a different animal.”
“It absolutely feels completely different playing those guys,” said Tech senior Steele Netterville. “We have the utmost respect for them and their coaches for what they are sacrificing. Those guys are willing to die for their country and allow us to sleep safely in our beds.”
Numerous times during the two hours leading up to Sunday’s Austin Regional game between the Bulldogs and the Falcons, Burroughs and the Tech staff and Air Force Head Coach Mike Kazlausky and his staff exchanged small talk on the field.
The relationship between the programs started when they met at Alex Box Stadium in February of 2021.
“I met Kaz last year,” said Burroughs. “He gave me a medallion and called me a great American. That’s one of the greatest compliments ever.”
For any great American, the respect for Air Force and their student-athletes is instant. Almost unspoken.
“They are training warriors,” said Burroughs. “They are training guys to go fight for us, and give us the ability to go play baseball and coach baseball or whatever sport. That’s what those young men are going to do. They are going to go off and defend the right for us to stand up for the national anthem and do what we do every day that we take for granted.”
“Their coach mentioned to me the next thing those guys do after baseball is war,” said Netterville. “It gives you a better perspective on the game. We treat it like it is life or death, but those guys are going into battle and that really is life or death. We are so thankful for them. So, it is a little different playing them as opposed to other teams.”
Even the pregame national anthem had a different feel.
“I had always heard how Air Force does it,” said Burroughs. “And last year when we played them I could hardly wait for the playing of the national anthem to watch how they do it. And (Sunday), I did the same thing. I stayed in the dugout so I could look over and see them and watch them. It’s just so impressive.
“You want to be respectful and look at the flag, but its hard to not look over at them and be respectful for how they do it. It’s very impressive. Their players are very impressive. Their coaches are impressive.”
Look no further than the Air Force leader. Kazlausky retired with the rank of major after 20 years of meritorious service with the U.S. Air Force. He was an Academy graduate and baseball player for the Falcons back in his collegiate days. He just completed his 12th season as the Falcons head coach, leading the program to its first NCAA Regional since 1969.
After hearing Burroughs and the rest of the Bulldog coaching staff talk about Coach Kaz and his impressive military career, Netterville said he had to meet him.
“They were talking about what a great guy he is and that he is a stud; a savage,” said Netterville. “He used to fly men into different places. I don’t know the specifics obviously. But I knew I had to meet him.
“I was a little nervous at first because he is a little intimidating obviously. But Coach Burroughs led the way and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a player that would love to meet you.’ So I hopped up there and shook his hand. He took his hat off while he shook my hand. He was unbelievable. So awesome. He isn’t sped up by a baseball game. That’s a fact.”
What did Netterville take away from his conversation with Kazlausky?
“He talked about how there is so much more to life,” said Netterville. “He asked me, ‘Do you have a family that loves you? Are you safe and healthy?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘See that’s what life is all about. It’s not about a dang game.’ He said, ‘We do this to have fun.’”
Although losing to the Falcons was far from fun for Netterville and his teammates on Sunday, Burroughs made sure that the Bulldogs showed their respect.
“Since Covid (occurred), teams don’t really shake hands anymore,” said Burroughs. “It’s just kind of a thing that has gone away. But I was like, ‘I don’t care if we win, lose or whatever … we are going to shake these guys hands.’
“I felt bad for our team because the season was over, but I told our guys to get out of the dugout and shake their hands. It was amazing. As those kids came and shook our hands, they all removed their caps.”
“Their whole perspective is completely different than ours,” said Netterville. “I think that is something we need to, probably, soak up a little more.”