1. Sports

USF Bulls' Jonny Sitton remembers a brother lost in Afghanistan

TAMPA — Saturday, when the stands grow quiet as the national anthem is played before USF's football opener at Raymond James Stadium, Jonny Sitton will think of his brother, Matt.

For the past three college football seasons, that was always a moment when Sitton would pray for his older brother, for his safety as a staff sergeant in the Army Rangers stationed in Afghanistan. And Saturday, as Sitton mourns his brother's death, less than a month ago while serving his country, he's thankful to be back home, surrounded by his families.

"This is where my home is," he said. "Not only home with my family, but with my brothers on the team. This is where I feel like I belong."

Jonny, a speedy redhead among the Bulls' smallest players at 5 feet 8 and 175 pounds, is the athlete he is today from a lifetime of trying to keep up with Matthew, four years older and unwilling to let his younger brother win, whether it be baseball, video games or anything.

"Growing up, he would always beat me at everything I did. It pushed me," Sitton said after a morning practice this week. "It was trying to be the best, always giving myself the best opportunity to do great in life."

Matt's best sport at Indian Rocks Christian was baseball, while Jonny starred in soccer, as his younger brother Cody does now as a high school senior. But Sitton wanted to play college football, unfazed by his size as he earned a walk-on spot with the Bulls in 2009.

Being half a world away didn't keep Matthew from following his brother at USF. Watching a grainy, pixellated live stream on a laptop computer, in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night, Matthew would annoy his fellow soldiers, stopping the live feed to back up and spot his brother's No. 31 on the sideline.

Jonny briefly held USF's punt-return job in 2010, but after that season, opted to transfer to Shorter University, an NAIA school in northwest Georgia. In his first game at Shorter, Sitton showed he could star at the smaller level, getting a 70-yard punt return, a 71-yard kickoff return and scoring the Hawks' first points of the season on an 18-yard touchdown catch.

He enjoyed Shorter, but believed he learned more about football at USF, with the bonus of being an hour from home with the camaraderie of his Bulls teammates. He transferred back this summer, unsure if he'd have a spot on the team and accepting he might have to sit out a season per NCAA rules.

Sitton still doesn't know if he'll be able to play this season — he has practiced with the Bulls, but is waiting to hear on an appeal to the NCAA for a hardship waiver, allowing him to avoid the year most transfers have to sit out.

Hardship came indisputably on Aug. 2, and Jonny was home in Largo with his father Steve, a mechanic in fleet maintenance with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, when the family was notified of Matt's death from an improvised explosive device in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. As hard as it was, Jonny couldn't imagine the pain of finding out if he were away from home at Shorter.

"I saw this beamer pull up, and I was like 'Who's that?' I saw them get out, and obviously, you know what's happening, but you don't want to accept it," he said. "It's something I'll never forget. It's just like in the movies. This is me, this is happening to my family. It was really hard, but it was so good I was there with my mom and my dad."

Matthew Sitton, whose military honors in overseas deployments include the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal, didn't need the movies to know the risk he faced in Afghanistan. Last year, Frank Gross, a baseball teammate and friend at Indian Rocks, was killed there, and then another close friend and fellow soldier was killed, literally in front of him, when the jeep ahead of his ran over an IED.

So when Jonny sought to pay tribute to his brother, he chose a tattoo behind his right shoulder, showing a soldier kneeling at a cross. "All gave some, some gave all," it reads. "My brother, my hero." It was the same tattoo, in the same place, that Matthew had gotten after his friend's death.

In the last month, football has given Sitton the escape of normalcy, something to distract his mind from the sadness that might otherwise overwhelm it. The morning after his brother's funeral, he was in Vero Beach, practicing with his teammates.

"I really didn't have time to sit and think about reality, that it was really happening," he said. "I went right into it. Every day, I was go-go-go. I think there was some positives and negatives to that. I stayed busy. My mind was off it. It's hard to know how to deal with it. When is it going to hit me that he's really not coming back?"

His teammates and team chaplain David Lane were much more than a distraction, giving him the comfort of friendship. "Collectively, as a group, everyone has shown a lot of support for me," he said.

"When Jonny went through this, the compassion, the feeling of so many (teammates) there to say, 'We're thinking of you. We're praying for you. Anything we can do for you.' That's what a family is," coach Skip Holtz said. "You have a young man that everybody on this team thinks the world of because of how hard he works, the respect they have for him, knowing what he was going through. His adversity, it plays a role in ultimately bringing this team closer together."

If there was a new perspective to be gained from Matthew's life, Jonny had learned that long before his brother's death. The two would talk regularly via Skype, and Matthew would share details of a paratrooper and sniper's life — interminable stretches of being up for 72 hours straight at times, or sleeping in 15-minute spells on rocks.

"Shoot, I'm complaining about practice, or that it's hot outside. Every night, I go home to a place with AC and a nice bed," Jonny said. "He came back from one training episode and he had lost 37 pounds. ... Until you deal with something like this, you take what we have for granted, our freedom. You don't even think about it."

Saturday, whether Sitton plays or not, Steve will be in the stands, cheering for the Bulls and his son. Jonny's mother, Cheryl, who also works for the Sheriff's Office, will hurry over with Cody after his soccer game; sister Jessy and her family may attend, and perhaps Matt's wife, Sarah, and their 9-month-old son Brodey as well.

Jonny will put Matt's initials on his jersey, on his helmet if he plays, somewhere as a small tribute. The national anthem will play, and he will think of his brother, sadly and proudly.

"That's going to be different now," he said. "That might be a hard time. ... We know he's with the Lord now. We know we'll be with him again. Having that peace continues to drive us to keep going. For me, he has driven me and motivated me all my life. He wants me to succeed, to do the best I can in everything I do."