On my daily walk more than a decade ago in Knoxville, I saw a sign at a small shopping center near our house that read: "Vietnam Wall replica," with an arrow pointing the way.
I wanted to see it, or so I thought. It was down the road a bit in an open area, and I walked that way. The closer I got, the more choked up I was.
I couldn't do it. By the time, I got close, I couldn't hold back the tears.
I knew I couldn't look at the name on Panel 34E, Row 24: Henry Lee Prather III.
People who were Woodlawn High School fans in the '60s, my schoolmates, know him. So do LSU and North Louisiana fans from that time.
Those who were close to him will never forget him.
Let me capsule this: Grandson of the longtime Northwestern State College basketball coach and then school president. All-State quarterback 1964, Class 3A (biggest class in Louisiana then). Strong arm in a pass-oriented offense, not fleet but fast enough and a tough runner when he did run. Star basketball player (forward or guard). Star baseball player (catcher or center field). Track and field athlete (good discus thrower). Smart, strong build, ruggedly handsome, popular with everyone especially the girls). Went to LSU on a football scholarship, starting QB on the freshman team (1965), backup QB for the Tigers in 1966, played sparingly. Dropped out of school, joined the Marines, sent to Vietnam. Dead a year later.
Died in Vietnam.
For five years -- two in junior high, three in high school -- Ken Liberto and Trey Prather were teammates in just about every sport. I was the manager/statistician, saw almost every game they played. We were tight.
Ken was one of my best friends in high school; I didn't run in Trey's group, but we were buddies. Ken and I spent many hours at Trey's house between our junior and senior years, watching Woodlawn football films.
They were planning for a big senior year together as the quarterback and wide receiver combo, and that's what they had. Both made first team All-State.
We wanted Trey to join us at Louisiana Tech, but LSU's pull was too powerful for him. Who knows all the reasons LSU didn't work for him.
What we do know is that the news in January 1968 was devastating. Marine PFC Prather, two months after going to Vietnam, stepped on a land mine while on patrol in the Quang Nam area. One leg was amputated below the knee at a Da Nang hospital. Two days later, he was gone.
I was a student assistant in sports information at La. Tech. Calling in a story on a Sunday night, I got the news in a phone call to The Shreveport Times. Walked across the street to a dorm and broke the news to Liberto and Jon Pat Stephenson, our other four-sport teammate at Woodlawn who was two years older.
A memorial service at Woodlawn and the funeral services, in the church and at graveside, were a week later. We were there together -- Ken, Jon Pat and I. It's the saddest funeral I've ever attended.
Trey Prather's story is one that has fascinated me. I always thought of doing a book or series of stories, have mentioned it to many people. I have done a number of interviews, and considered the process of how to write a book.
But I'm going to do it through this blog. This is one of the reasons I began this blog -- to write about Trey Prather. If it were a book, it would be called Fallen Warrior (suggested by my friends Cindy and Ron Marrus).
Had another friend, another Woodlawn teammate, Warren Gould, ask me how Trey's story would be pertinent to today's world. Thought about that a lot. Here's my answer:
Trey was the most dynamic, fiercest competitor I have ever been around. And when you consider how competitive and skilled all-around athletes such as Billy Laird, Jon Pat and Tommy Spinks were at Woodlawn (and Tech), that's a real compliment.
Trey gave it his all at every moment, and he, unlike the others, literally would fight. I saw it often.
I love competitors. So he was an inspiration for me, and I'm sure he was for others. Not kidding, I think about him every day. And I have lots more to say about him. Hope you'll indulge me.
Still haven't seen the Vietnam Wall, either a replica or the real Wall in Washington, D.C. Some day ... http://thewall-usa.com/info.asp?recid=41527