Truck driver father drives to see sons play
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Truck driver father drives to see sons play

Matt Rochell played at Air Force and Isaac Rochell at Notre Dame

Photo: Matt Rochell with his mother Gina and father Steve

My Football Matters story for the National Football Foundation

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Imagine the pride Steve Rochell feels rumbling down the nation’s interstates at the wheel of his 18-wheel semi-tractor trailer on weekends he’s delivering to a destination near a college football game that features one of his two sons.

“I live the year for those 12 weeks of the football season,” said Steve, who added his wife Gina prefers to watch on television from their McDonough home about 30 miles south of Atlanta.

“She gets too nervous at the games,” he said.

Rochell describes himself from humble beginnings in Arkansas as one of 10 children, but he and his wife have guided their sons to bright futures. Both landed football opportunities at prestigious American universities out of Eagles Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, Ga.

Older son Matt Rochell received an appointment to the Air Force Academy and finished his career for the Falcons as a three-year starting offensive tackle last season. The 6-foot-3, 270-pounder graduates in May as an Air Force 2nd lieutenant and will serve in space operations at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. He also has plans to attend law school.

Younger son Isaac Rochell was a Notre Dame junior second-year starting defensive lineman last fall. The 6-3 ½, 285-pounder was fifth on the team in tackles with 63, including 7.5 for a loss. He will play his senior year in the fall, graduate in December and then train for the NFL Draft.

Other than the 2013 season when Notre Dame played at Air Force for a convenient family reunion when Matt was a sophomore and Isaac a true freshman, Steve spends the year choosing which games to attend.

But the 2015 bowl season schedule unfolded perfectly for him combine work and two games in four days. Air Force played Cal on Dec. 29 in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Tx., and Notre Dame faced Ohio State on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Az.

Steve found a load of chicken meal (ground up chicken for dog food) to be picked up by Dec. 28 in Hanceville, Ala., and delivered by Dec. 31 to the Nestle Purina plant in Flagstaff, Az. The contract only said he had to be on time. It didn’t say anything about not stopping in Fort Worth for a football game.

“It was a little bit stressful to make everything on time,” he said, “but it was worth it.”

Rochell pulled out of his Georgia home on Sunday night, Dec. 27 with his 18-wheeler. He drove 218 miles to arrive at his Hanceville destination early on Dec. 28 to have his trailer loaded.

He rumbled the next 712 miles across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and into Texas before he arrived in Fort Worth in time for the Dec. 29 game that began at 1 p.m. Central Time at Amon Carter Stadium. He found a safe parking spot for his truck and began walking to the stadium.

Then he was back on the road driving across Texas and New Mexico and into the Arizona mountain terrain to Flagstaff. He made the 912-mile trip with enough time to turn his truck toward the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

For the year, thanks to bye weeks and the two bowl games, Steve saw Air Force play seven times and Notre Dame six. Most weekends he flies to games if he can’t find a way to combine work with pleasure.

His wife flew with him to Colorado Springs for Matt’s final home game as an Air Force senior on Nov. 14 over Utah State. They also drove together to South Carolina for Notre Dame’s Oct. 3 game at Clemson, sitting through the pivotal contest for both teams in heavy rain fueled by Hurricane Joaquin.

Steve enjoys watching his sons equally, but he admits he gets more emotional at Air Force games.

Six years ago Air Force wasn’t recruiting Matt yet when Steve picked up a military load in Colorado Springs to be delivered in Juneau, AK. He saw from the highway the Air Force Academy on the mountainside and started dreaming.

“I was thinking, ‘Lord, I only want the best for my sons, and it would be so great if one of them could go to a school like that,’ ” Steve recalled. “Doggone it if my son doesn’t end up getting recruited by Air Force and he’s about to graduate. I always tell my kids, ‘If you don’t believe it, you’ll never achieve it.’ I never told Matt that story until years later. My kids say, ‘Dad, that’s just another one of your stories.’ ”

He hears similar comments from others.

“People think this is a story I like to tell, but I still tear up every time I see Matt run onto the field with his Air Force teammates,” he said. “The average person has no idea what these kids have to go through as full-time students, playing football and their military training. These are the brightest and most special people in our country. These are the people that protect us when we sleep at night, and my son is one of them.”

Steve’s special pride in Isaac is how humbly he handled the recruiting game as a highly touted 4-star prospect with offers from Alabama on down. His focus was academics over football.

“He made his trip to Notre Dame and committed,” Steve said. “Some of these kids fly around like they’re politicians with no intention of playing for the school. Isaac didn’t take all those trips he could have. He knew what he wanted.”

With Matt serving the first of his five-year military commitment, next year Steve can devote himself to attending Isaac’s Notre Dame games. The Irish play their regular-season finale at USC. Maybe Steve can pick up Matt at his California base on the way to Los Angeles and the Coliseum.

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I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light

-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom spent the bulk of his career in San DIego writing for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has covered NCAA Tournaments, Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, the NBA Finals and the World Series in a career that included writing for Voice of San Diego, the San Diego Hall of Champions and He contributes to the Detroit Free Press, Raleigh News & Observer,, and the National Football Foundation's Football Matters. He won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003. USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter presented its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans. It explains Duffy Daugherty's pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer: "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in."