Cross country meet in 11th year of honoring Shanley graduate, soldier killed in Iraq
There was a wretched silence when the question was asked. Fargo Shanley-Oak Grove-Park Christian assistant cross country coach Greg Falde remembered being at West Fargo's cross country meet when two former runners told him. Shanley assistant cross country coach Courtney Banister came home from work and saw it on the news. Shanley head cross country coach Chris Foerster had just moved to St. Paul and gotten married a couple weeks previous when Falde called him to tell him.
But when Suzanne Nelson was asked what she remembers about Aug. 29, 2007, the day Staff Sgt. Andrew Nelson, her son, was killed in Iraq, there was a hopeless silence. It wasn't a matter of finding the words. The words were unreachable.
"Too much," Suzanne said. "No mother should have to go through that."
Suzanne had just talked to Andrew about what he was going to do when he got back from his third tour of Iraq. He had also done one tour of Afghanistan. The 22-year-old 2003 Shanley graduate was trying to decide which college he was going to study engineering when he returned home that spring.
Tuesday, Sept. 11, will be the 11th year of the Andrew Nelson Metro Classic cross country meet at Lindenwood Park. Andrew played football, ran track and was a captain for the cross country team at Shanley. He was the anchor of relays because coaches knew he would pass the runners he shouldn't at the very end of the race, just like he'd do when he was the fifth scorer at cross country meets.
"One time he was running hurt and he knew he was the fifth runner and he continued to race, so the score was the lowest it would be," Falde said. "He'd hold off people that were faster than him somehow."
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Andrew died in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, while on foot patrol. He was with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division when insurgents attacked his unit.
"He learned from his father that you learn more by listening than talking," Suzanne said. "He was dedicated to doing well in school, and he loved helping other kids learn. He had some good teachers and mentors, who taught him how to study well, but he listened. He loved being able to listen to learn things rather than talking."
Suzanne didn't want to sign the papers for Andrew to enlist when he was 17. He warned her that he was just going to do it when he was 18 and didn't need her signature.
His grandfather served in World War II and his father in the Korean War, both with the Navy. Andrew's grandfather was on the USS Lexington, which was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942. More than 200 sailors died, but he survived, stranded in the water for hours helping his shipmates. Remains of the aircraft carrier were found recently in March.
Falde served in the Air Force for 20 years. Andrew talked to him about the military as a sophomore. Falde could see Andrew being good for the military. He was an Eagle Scout, finding the most joy in mentoring the younger scouts. He was always well groomed, in shape and respectful.
Falde wore his military uniform to his funeral.
"It was the way he carried himself," Falde said. "You could tell he was built for the military."
A year after Andrew's death, Falde and Jaclyn Petik, who was the Shanley cross country coach at the time, went to Suzanne in tears to ask if they could name their cross country event in his honor. Andrew would've wanted no part of it, but Suzanne was so touched by it, all she could do was nod in agreement when they asked.
"I was honored to know that they thought that much of him to rename the meet," Suzanne said. "Andrew would not like it at all. He was not one to seek glory. He wanted to be kept in the background and not be pointed out. He'd be there to support you, but not out front. I'm really honored that they do that. I really love to see the kids run for themselves because that's how he did it, to better himself. It was never about him though. It was always about the team and doing your personal best."
Foerster coached Andrew in track and cross country. He had just moved to St. Paul when Andrew died. On Sept. 7, 2007, the day Andrew was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, Foerster walked outside of the new school he was teaching at just in time for a military plane to fly overhead.
"I'm not sure if that was for him, but I felt like he was there with me," Foerster said. "He was heavy in my heart that day."
Banister knew Andrew for 15 years, meeting him in second grade. They ran cross country and track together. Her parents always trusted Andrew with her, starting from the T-ball days when he would talking to her even though she was "the girl" on the team. He motivated her during cross country season when she was more focused on volleyball. Now, she's coaching runners.
When Andrew came home from a tour, he invited people over to see pictures of where he had been and what he did. Banister had just been studying in London for three months. Andrew made sure she stayed after, so he could see all her pictures. That's something she'll never forget.
"He wanted to make sure I felt special and wanted to listen to my experiences," Banister said. "He had a great, positive attitude, a great love for others. He was proud to serve his friends, family, country."
Banister helped get a plaque, featuring an engraved photo of Andrew, up at Shanley. It's still there today, as some teachers purposely walk young students by it.
"You don't ever think something like that will happen," Banister said. "It seems like life stood still for him. We think of him as 22 when we're all getting married and having kids."
American flags will be everywhere at Lindenwood Park on Tuesday. Suzanne has only missed one Andrew Nelson Metro Classic. She will be there on Tuesday.
"It's a good day, but it's an exhausting day for me," Suzanne said. "It's good to see all the kids and parents."
On Tuesday, people will remind all the runners who Andrew was and what he stood for. Suzanne hopes they listen.
"His joy was in giving back and learning to better yourself and share your knowledge and taking care of others," Suzanne said. "We see that in a cross country meet, especially when like that one girl couldn't make it to the finish line and someone else picked her up. That's what's it's all about. That's what Andrew would've done, help people make it across the finish line."