Twelve year-old McLean resident Will Thomas had a mission over Labor Day weekend.
Inspired and touched by the memories of the 17 Navy SEALs killed in an Aug. 6 helicopter attack and crash in Afghanistan, Will asked the McLean community to rally behind him as he attempted to shoot 17,000 baskets in his driveway.
"Will put his ball down and came inside at 10 p.m. Monday (his school night bedtime), having made 20,317 baskets in 50 hours of shooting over Labor Day weekend," his dad Bill Thomas reported. It was raining.
Dubbed “Operation Hawkeye,” after a fallen SEAL's faithful Labrador retriever, Will’s mission raised money for the Navy SEAL Foundation — an organization that provides immediate and ongoing support and assistance to the Naval Special Warfare community and their families.
“I thought it would be nice to something to help the SEALs,” Will, who just started the seventh grade at Longfellow Middle School, said. “It will help me improve as a basketball player, and help improve the lives of the families of the SEALs who passed away.”
His first pledge came from his parents, who guaranteed one penny for every shot he made up to 17,000 baskets, and double that if he made more.
After an email campaign, and trips posting flyers around McLean, pledges began to come in from family and friends, military servicemen and women, and perfect strangers. In a little over two weeks, Will managed to raise about $31,000.
Then came the hard part. At 3 p.m. on Friday, Will started shooting baskets in his driveway. Although Will is a competitive basketball player and one of the premier members of his McLean Select Basketball team, he and his family knew the long weekend would be extremely strenuous.
“If I start losing sight of the goal,” Will said on Friday before he began shooting, “I will think about what the SEALs had to go through, and what their families are enduring. That will help me stay on task.”
For much of the weekend, his father, a lawyer and former basketball player himself, was out in the driveway with his son, keeping track of Will’s progress with a clicker.
“It will be a question of him deciding how much time he wants to put in,” Thomas said before the first basket. “At some point he’ll have to decide, have I done enough? Or is there such thing as enough?”
Thomas saw his son’s athletic and mental endeavor as good practice for what might come in his adult life. “Stuff like this happens in the real world,” Thomas said. “People put other people on their backs and carry them.”
In this spirit of camaraderie and unifying support, Will and his father were very conscious to include the McLean community as much as possible. Helped by Will’s involvement in both McLean basketball and Little League, the Thomas family successfully reached out to a large net of people.
“Everyone can identify with the sacrifice that the SEALS have made,” Thomas said. “And a lot of people know Will. We emailed about 100 households, and only a small percentage declined to contribute. It says something about the confidence and regard they have for Will.”
Will’s Spring Hill Elementary School teacher made a pledge; so did his sister’s basketball coach. “It’s a community effort,” Thomas continued. “It’s about McLean and Will, and how they are doing what they can to support the SEALs.”
As part of their efforts to garner more support, Will and his father pitched their cause to a group of like-minded people at a Military Appreciation Dinner at the Old Brogue in Great Falls last week. The monthly dinners are organized by Bob Nelson, a Great Falls resident and real estate agent with Keller Williams. Nelson and a loyal group of attendees have raised thousands of dollars for military support organizations since the gatherings began in 2010, so they welcomed Will with open arms.
“I was immediately taken by what Will was trying to achieve and wanted to show my support of his efforts by introducing him to everyone who attended the dinner," Nelson said. “After hearing what Will was planning, I made a personal pledge to donate to his efforts and encouraged everyone who came to the Military Appreciation Monday event to do the same.”
Nelson, whose brother is a retired SEAL, commended Will’s efforts on behalf of American servicemen and women. “He is a very impressive young man who has taken on an interest in community service beyond his years,” he said.
The younger generation took interest, as well. “My friends have been really good and supportive,” noted Will. “Lots of people who I didn’t even know have been giving me words of encouragement and contributions.”
After a holiday where he did nothing but eat, sleep, text updates to friends, and shoot baskets, Will is not only proud of his achievement but is taking away valuable some lessons. “It helped me open my eyes to how many people are willing to sacrifice time or money for a good cause,” he said.
P.S. The Navy SEAL Foundation established a special account this afternoon, so that donations can be placed by either check or through online donation. That's the word Will's dad sent us Tueday night. The Thomas family has no connection to the Seals, except a desire to help.
Anyone wishing to donate to the Navy SEAL Foundation in connection with Operation Hawkeye can email Bill Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.