The front line: flag and football

Members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem as others stand during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Hanging on the walls of his nicely kept home, James Mullendore has a lifetime of stories. A walk through the basement and his three decades plus officiating college football and briefly in the NFL is apparent with the game balls, posters, watches, rings and memorabilia filling the walls.

“This picture was in every sports page in America when Penn State went 13-0. That picture was taken at the Michigan, Penn State game in 1993. It was the first time Michigan had ever played Penn State,” Mullendore said as he looked at the autographed magazine page framed on his wall. “Joe Pa [Paterno] is telling me there, he’s saying “Mully, we’ve played 1,000 games, we’ve never had crowd noise called.” I just said, ‘You have now coach.’ He sent that picture to me.”

Up the stairs and down the hall, there’s a much different feel in the room of collectibles. Mullendore sacrificed much more for what hangs on the wall.

“That’s an SKS, it’s the rifle that the Vietcong carried and it was a long day in Cambodia but I was able to survive that day and that’s the trophy that I brought back from them,” Mullendore said.

Inside a shadowbox chest are his Bronze Star and Purple Heart, along with a number of military honors that tell the time of his days on the front lines of the Cold War in Germany and the rice fields of Vietnam.

His two worlds are separated by more than just the stairs and hallways that divide them in his home, it’s in the tone of his voice.

“You do the football because you enjoy it and it’s a pastime. I did that because I was asked to do it,” Mullendore said. “I did it for my country. It wasn’t for me or my family, it was for my country. I still have a lot of respect for everything we do and that was a large part of it. Even though it was four years, it was a very meaningful four years and it still means a lot to me today.”

The flag and his country are what still means a lot to him today. That was evident in his post to Facebook on Tuesday after nearly 200 NFL players knelt in protest before their games during the playing of the national anthem.

“The Jaguars and Ravens were in London and they got two-thirds or more of the players kneeling during our national anthem and then stood up for God Save the Queen, that absolutely disgusted me,” Mullendore said.

His post was concise. It didn’t point blame or call names, it asked for respect. He says that’s what the flag deserves, that’s what he fought for in Vietnam.

“The flag and the national anthem are not part of football, they’re part of us. That’s what we are and when they go take one knee and say, I’m disgusted or this doesn’t mean anything to me, that’s not what I fought for. That’s not what I was brought up learning. I respect the flag and I respect our national anthem,” Mullendore said.

He says football is no longer a game, it’s an entertainment industry. And now it’s a political chip.

“He should’ve just kept his mouth shut. Let’s be blunt about it. He didn’t need to say that,” Mullendore says about President Trump’s tweets regarding the NFL and the national anthem. “He sort of has thrown the gasoline in the fire.”

Mullendore agrees, he fought for the right of Americans to express their First Amendment rights. He believes everyone should be able to do so, but he argues not at the expense of American patriotism.

“Get a billboard. Set up a question and answer session. Call a meeting of police and provocateurs and say, ‘let’s talk this out. I don’t agree with what you’re doing,”” Mullendore offers as alternatives. “But don’t denigrate the flag. Don’t denigrate the flag.”

Mullendore says he loves his country. He risked his life every day for two years in the war zones of Vietnam. He was the only survivor of a helicopter crash over Cambodia that earned him the Purple Heart. He was jeered and spat on, called a baby killer and worse as he returned from his duty in the war back in 1971. Yet through all of that, he believes this is a cause worth fighting for. That America is great because of the option to view things differently.

He knows that his opinion is his own and there are others who do not agree with him. But for over 240 football games, he stood at the 50-yard line, hat and hand over his chest and listened to the chords that Francis Scott Key wrote hundreds of years ago. He says he may have a different experience when it comes to the flag, but it stands for the same thing for all Americans.

“It has always meant a lot to me,” Mullendore says as he talks about the flag. “But it meant a lot more to me when I got back and was able to reflect on where I’d been and realized that I could’ve been born in a country like Vietnam if my parents were Vietnamese. What a terrible place to live. I mean, you come home and you have running water and you have electricity, you realize it’s the greatest country in the world.”