Ryan Kriskovich didn’t have a particularly illustrious sophomore campaign for the Richland High School football team, but he made one of the biggest plays in the Bombers’ most important game of the season.
Traditionally, Richland has one of its captains lead the team onto the field before games with a U.S. flag in hand, but players are introduced individually — in numerical order — in lieu of running onto the field together before Washington’s state championship contests.
So that left the flag bearing honors on Dec. 3 to Kriskovich, a wide receiver/defensive back who wears No. 2 for Richland, since he would be the first Bomber to have his name called and speed across the Tacoma Dome turf minutes before his team kicked off against Camas.
But the flag Kriskovich carried across the field was no ordinary star spangled banner, because it was no ordinary week in the home of the state’s football championships. The Class 4A title game took place three days after officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez, who had served the Tacoma Police Department for 17 years, was shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance call.
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The flag that Kriskovich carried featured one blue stripe — meant to symbolize the thin blue line that police embody — as a sign of solidarity with the TPD.
“Coach (Jeff) Muai told me that this flag has this blue stripe on it for the Tacoma police officers and the Tacoma Police Department,” Kriskovich said. “It was an honor to do that. It was pretty cool that they chose me to carry out the flag and represent our country, the police department of Tacoma and everyone.”
While the subtle gesture went unnoticed by many, Kriskovich said he received ‘atta boys’ from several Camas Papermakers when the two teams shook hands at midfield.
“They came up to me and said, ‘We like what you’re doing with the flag and representing our country, and we respect that from you guys,’ ” Kriskovich said.
Muai is one of the Bombers defensive back coaches and was Richland’s School Resource Officer (SRO) for six years before transferring to the street crimes unit earlier this month. He’s worked for the Richland Police Department for almost 10 years.
One of Muai’s friends from WSU is an officer for the TPD who worked closely with Gutierrez. When news of Gutierrez’s death broke, Muai decided he would leave leave for Tacoma a day before the rest of the Bombers (Thursday, Dec. 1) so he could figure out a way for the Richland football team to show its support for the TPD.
“Somehow I wanted to find a way to honor Officer Gutierrez during that state playoff game,” Muai said. “One of the things coach (Mike) Neidhold always preaches is representing something bigger than ourselves. It’s not always about us as a team, it’s about our community. It’s about the veterans who died before us because otherwise we probably wouldn’t have the honor of putting on our uniforms and our helmets.
“It helps these boys know that it’s not just about us all the time. Sometimes we’ve got to worry about us, but we’ve also got to worry about our community, we worry about those we love. It’s bigger than just us.”
Before leaving the Tri-Cities, Muai borrowed the blue-striped flag from the Hanford High School SRO, then later picked up Tacoma Police Department hats that the Richland coaching staff would wear during team warmups.
Gutierrez’s death was especially close to home for Muai, who grew up in Tacoma, is a member of the Fraternal Order of Police — which presides over ceremonial proceedings for fallen officers — and is a fellow police officer,
“Any day of the week, we don’t know what incident is going to come up, so when I go out the door, I kiss my kids, I kiss my wife and I tell them I love ’em,” Muai said. “Because it might be the last time.”
For Kriskovich, a few weeks of perspective has allowed him the opportunity to realize just how important his gesture was to the TPD and the city of Tacoma. And that he’ll jump at the next chance to show respect for his community and country.
“It would be an honor to do something like that again,” Kriskovich said. “If they asked me to do it again, I’d jump up and raise my hand to do it. I’d love to do that.”