Riley Howell Was an American Athlete, and Will Always Be an American Hero

Riley Howell
AP Photo/Skip Forman

When I read about these mass shootings, often I consider what I would do if confronted by a gunman. This is what guys think about.

Would I hide behind a desk begging for the gunman to just move on to another room—‘We’re all dead, I swear to God, just go! There are people all over the place who haven’t been killed yet, go get them!’  That’s certainly a reasonable option. Would I God forbid, cower in the corner curled up in a ball? God, I hope not, but what do I know? Would I bum rush the shooter hoping to wrestle the weapon away and save countless lives? I’d like to think that I would, but I’m a betting man, and I . . . I don’t know the odds.

Riley Howell was given that choice on the UNC Charlotte campus on Tuesday.

As other kids rushed from the room to save themselves, Riley charged the gunman. He likely knew he was finished, but figured better that than sit idly by and watch a massacre. Riley’s death brings to mind the stories I’d read about when I was a kid. Stories of Marines charging machine gun nests and soldiers jumping onto grenades to save their buddies’ lives- stories of real heroes.  They used to teach kids about heroes like that when I was a kid.  Not the kind of “heroes” we read about today.

I’m looking at you Caitlin.

Riley Howell is a hero in the truest sense of the word. A kid who had it all but sacrificed himself to save others. His name will take its place in the pantheon of true heroes. Guys like John Robert Fox, Alfred Vanderbilt, Kyle Carpenter and Robert Hibbs. You can thank your local school system if you don’t recognize any of those names. It’s also why you can only name 2 people, at most, who walked on the moon.

How lucky was Riley Howell prior to April 30, 2019? He was a 21 year old, good-looking kid from a great family who had already found his soulmate in high-school sweetheart Lauren Westmoreland. He was strong and athletic and had one of those wry smiles that make you think he’s figured something out. That’s a lot to sacrifice. Yet he did it.

I wonder what he was thinking as he stormed the killer? Was he pissed off? I hope so. Maybe he thought, “WHOTHEF*CK! does this guy think he is?”

Or did he have a sort of resigned annoyance about his fate? Sort of a reluctant hero, “Gawd dammit, now I gotta go charge this nutty bastard. Well, this is what’s happening.”  ….I’m probably gonna get shot and killed too. Damn. I have a lot to live for…”

Or was it just pure instinct? A man doesn’t bemoan his fate. A man acts. It’s his job.

Riley was an accomplished soccer goalie, so I imagine he charged the gunman like he was going for a crossed ball on a corner kick. Riley was shot at point blank range, so he was right on top of the monster when he died.

Rest in Peace, Riley. Job well done.

Follow Dan Redmond on Twitter @danfromdc