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What it Means to Serve: The Story Behind the Photo

What it Means to Serve: The Story Behind the Photo

Best runs across the field holding an American flag aloft

The electricity in Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium was in mid-season form. 86,112 fans stood with anticipation as the Sooners prepared to take the field against Texas Tech. Military Appreciation Day – held this year on Oct. 30 – brought out even more optical appeal for the pageantry-quenched stadium.

By now, many have taken notice of the image shared on OU social media of the Marine adorned in his Dress Blue Bravo uniform, leading the football team onto the field and proudly carrying Old Glory. The Marine at the center of the iconic photo is Gunnery Sergeant Bruce Best, Assistant Marine Officer Instructor at the OU Naval ROTC.

For Best, the moment was a great opportunity that came with some unscripted pain.

Having someone running onto the field with the flag wasn’t even a part of the pregame itinerary. It was an idea solely from Best when he approached OU Athletics with the idea earlier that week.

Best smiles for a photo in his office

“I know other schools have someone carry the flag onto the field and I thought it would be awesome to show our love and support,” explained Best.

Best was given the permission he sought. Now all that was left was to run onto the field with the players when the time came. Except his left leg had other plans.

“I haven’t told many people this but, I actually ruptured my soleus calf muscle about a minute before we started running,” Best said. “It just snapped while I was standing there. I thought it was a cramp so I tried stretching it while we stood waiting.”

So the man many OU ROTC students refer to as “Ole Salty Gunny” pressed through the pain, and 86,000 fans were none the wiser.

The signal was given, and Best began running with the football players close behind.

“I didn’t hear a single person. I didn’t see a single person. All I was thinking was, ‘Don’t trip, don’t fall, get to the end, don’t show weakness,’” he explained. “It was the most painful run I’ve ever had.”

And that look of determination you see in the picture?"

“That was pure aggression and pain,” recalled a chuckling Best.

That attitude of supporting and serving the collective good are inherent traits to those who serve in the Marines and other branches of the military.

“Just because I have a little boo-boo on my leg doesn’t mean I can’t show my support for the unit in some way,” he said. “I just thought, ‘Be a Marine.’ It was meaningful in that way."

Best and the football team emerge from the tunnel onto the field

Best’s career with the Marine Corps spans two decades. He joined the Corps in 1999 where he would eventually serve during Operations: Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom – an experience where he would encounter combat. After being honorably discharged in April 2007, he quickly re-enlisted later that year and would eventually be selected as a drill instructor at OU, joining in 2019.

Best’s love for sports goes back to his younger years. Prior to a career with the military, the idea was to play professional baseball. Once life happened, Best was left to ponder his future. Until the Corps called.

“They actually called one day,” recalled Best. “They told me about the Reserve program. I did that and actually really enjoyed the military lifestyle.”

Once that took off, Best knew he had passions he could continue: teaching and the Marines.

“I knew I wanted to be a drill instructor early on,” Best said. “I love teaching. I love being a Marine. One of my goals was to become a drill instructor. After that, everything has been all blessings.”

Best seated at his desk for an interview

The love for teaching came from Best’s wishes to not only help mold future Marine officers but to also help others succeed as maturing young men and women.

“I don’t want people to struggle,” Best said. “I get the opportunity to do what I say, to practice what I preach. We’re not here to create robots. We’re here to create human beings and help teach them about life.”

Oklahoma’s pride and passion for its military personnel active and retired appealed to Best when he was deciding where to continue his career in instruction.

“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” explained Best. “There is a pride and a sense of community at OU. My students tell me all the time about people coming up to them and telling them, ‘Thank you for your service,’ and it is odd to them because they’re young and they feel they haven’t done anything yet. But that’s what you get here. An appreciation for service.”

Those young men and women are but another reason Best enjoys his position.

“That’s what’s amazing about it,” Best said. “You have 18- to 19-year-olds who give up their freedoms to protect the freedoms of others. They are not always able to fully immerse themselves in the stereotypical college student lifestyle and they do that as a choice – to allow other people the ability to do those things.”

As Best enters into his third year at OU, the drill instructor now immortalized through photography has another goal to accomplish – to graduate from OU next spring with his bachelor’s degree in organizational management. Whatever may come for “Ole Salty Gunny,” he will always have that photo.

“It was awesome as a student, as a military member and as someone who loves the game of football,” Best said. “To combine all three of those, and to be on the field with the team representing the Marine Corps – it was an awesome feeling.”

By Brady Trantham, Photos by Travis Caperton

Article Published:  Wednesday, November 17, 2021