He might have been more comfortable in his Brigham Young University football pads, but here Rob Saunooke sat in a dark blue suit, about to receive a national Shining Example Award, looking self-conscious as he chatted with his wife, who sat to his left on the dais.
This was Saunooke's afternoon, and the man sitting on his right said as much, but retired Rear Adm. Alan Shepard was obviously more used to this sort of thing.It was Saunooke who was getting the attention of Shepard, America's first human in space, as well as that of Denis Healy. It was Healy's job to make sure the former BYU Cougar center got everything he had come for: grip-and-grin photographs of Saunooke posing with Healy's wife, along with a Shining Example Award plaque, a desk-sized check for $5,000 and a selection of products from Turtle Wax Inc. of Chicago, of which Healy is president.
"Rob is just the kind of young man whom we believe all America can admire and let serve as their own shining example," Healy said. He went on to explain how Saunooke, now 24, had saved eight children during America's Freedom Festival at Provo parade last July 4. Someone had thrown a firecracker under two horses pulling a wagon in which the children were riding. They bolted, throwing the driver, 74, from the wagon.
Saunooke, who lives in Provo, had run into the street and waved his arms to divert the horses' attention. He threw a shoulder into one, grabbed a handful of reins and dropped down, forcing the horses to carry his 255-pound body along.
"It was pretty much all reaction on my part," Saunooke said later in an interview. "My most vivid memory is hearing those kids screaming for help. I knew I had to do something, and my 17 years of football training just kicked in."
By now, an audience had formed beneath the Picasso statue in downtown Chicago's Daley Plaza. Shepard told them how someone like Saunooke becomes a hero in the eyes of an astronaut.
"It's different in the space program," Shepard said. "We recognized there was a danger when we volunteered, and we had a chance to prepare ourselves psychologically. But Rob didn't have that opportunity.
"He saw the situation, saw the danger and saw immediately what he could do about it and he responded - he did it."
The president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Ron Coleman, Fullerton, Calif., was a judge of entries for the Shining Example Awards, as were Shepard; Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service agent whose body protected former President Reagan from a bullet; and Rocky Bleier, the Purple Heart veteran of Vietnam who went on to become a star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coleman told the audience that he had noticed the recommendation of Saunooke among the hundreds of entries.
"People like Rob are distinguished by their ability to make a decision and by their ability to make a commitment," Coleman said.
"They say to themselves, `If I don't act now, things are going to get worse.' "
Then it was Saunooke's turn to talk. Although he is scheduled to attend law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., next fall, he proved himself to be of few words.
In his best aw-shucks manner, Saunooke, one-quarter Cherokee, told the audience how "fantastic" it was to be in Chicago and how "gratifying" it was to receive such an undeserved award, but he would accept it anyway, "on behalf of all those people who have gone out of their way to help their neighbors, their families, their friends and even people they don't know - total strangers."