IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The dog who touched hearts all over the world by lying next to the casket of a slain Navy SEAL earlier this month might lead the Iowa Hawkeyes onto the field during a game this season.
Iowa's athletics department announced Tuesday that it will honor Jon Tumilson at one of two home games in November as part of a commemoration of Veteran's Day. The department said it will work with Tumilson's family to determine what role his dog, Hawkeye, might play in the memorial.
Tumilson, a 35-year-old from tiny Rockford in northern Iowa, was one of 30 American soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 6 when their helicopter was shot down during a mission to help fellow troops who had come under fire. It was one of the deadliest attacks on U.S. forces in the 10-year-old war.
Tumilson's Labrador retriever led family members at the funeral on Aug. 19 and then laid by his casket for much of the ceremony. Photos and video of the loyal dog went viral, illustrating what online commentators called his owner's incredible sacrifice and the tight bond between man and dog.
Tumilson, who joined the Navy after graduating high school in 1995, was a big Hawkeye football and wrestling fan. A former Iowa player suggested the dog lead the team on the field for Saturday's game against Tennessee Tech as a way to honor his sacrifice, and fans and commentators embraced the idea in comments on Twitter and other social media.
Tumilson's mother, Kathleen, said Hawkeye was one of her son's best friends and their bond was striking. Her son made it clear he wanted Hawkeye at his funeral -- "He didn't have family; that was his son" -- and the dog did not want to leave his fallen owner's side at the funeral or the cemetery. When Hawkeye went to their home, he went directly to her son's room, she said.
Hawkeye is now staying with her son's friends in Texas, who watched his pet while he was deployed and were designated as the dog's caretakers in his will, she said. She recalled how the Texans once questioned what a "Hawkeye" was when coming to pick up the dog from their home, and she quickly retrieved her Iowa t-shirt to explain.
"Hawkeye was a great pet. He's being taken care of by some wonderful people," she said. "But I just feel bad that so much focus is on the dog. These guys left lots of loved ones and there are so many people that are hurting."
She said she would not mind seeing the dog lead the team on the field if it was done to honor "all the veterans that have sacrificed their lives" in the fight for freedom.
"The main thing should be the sacrifice these men gave to their country," she said. "They left many loved ones behind, including pets."
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said in a statement he's pleased that Tumilson's family has agreed to let the school honor him and other veterans later this fall. But he said the department wanted to wait until November to be respectful of his family and friends who are still grieving and to develop a well-planned event.
"As a fan of the Hawkeyes and the UI football program," Barta said, "I'm certain Jon would expect a solid game plan, one that is thoughtful and thorough and respectful, and well-executed on game day."