Stories

Vassar Remembers a Fallen Hero

Vassar men’s soccer coach Andy Jennings says he saw some special qualities in Robb Rolfing ’00 when he watched him in early practice sessions in his first year in the fall of 1996, “but I could not have predicted how special they would be.” And as Rolfing’s time on the team progressed, his drive to excel and his natural leadership skills transformed him into one of the best student-athletes in Vassar history.

Rolfing was the team’s second leading scorer of all time, and he capped his career in 1999 by scoring the winning goal in the first NCAA tournament game the Brewers ever played.

The traits Rolfing displayed on the soccer field soon evolved in more significant ways. Spurred by the events of September 11, 2001, Rolfing joined the Army in January 2002, and after his first tour of duty in Iraq, he went to Special Forces school, undergoing an intense 18 months of training to become a member of the Green Berets. During his second tour in Iraq on June 30, 2007, Special Forces Staff Sergeant Robb Rolfing was killed by enemy fire while leading his unit on a raid on an insurgent compound in southern Baghdad.

Rolfing’s Special Forces graduation photo, 2005.
Rolfing’s Special Forces graduation photo, 2005. Courtesy of the Rolfing Family.

Vassar has never forgotten Rolfing’s achievements on the field and his heroism on the battlefield. Following his death, fellow soccer player Diego Acevedo ’99 led a fundraising effort to honor his slain teammate’s memory. A flag memorializing Rolfing flies at every Vassar home game, and some of the money from that fund is used to purchase practice uniforms that carry Rolfing’s initials and his jersey number, 11.

Jennings called this tribute especially fitting. “One of the things I loved about Robb was that he was a practice player—he gave it his all in every practice, just as if it were a game,” the coach recalled. Jennings says he takes time before a game or practice session every year to explain to his players why their practice uniforms are inscribed with RR#11. “I give a brief talk about Robb, and our captain reads the eulogy that his commanding officer delivered at his funeral,” he said. “I just want the team to take a moment in time to remember him and the sacrifices he and others in the military make for the rest of us.”

A man kicking a soccer ball during a game.
Rolfing capped his Vassar career as the team’s second all-time leading scorer and scored the winning goal in the Brewers’ first-ever NCAA tournament game. Courtesy of Vassar Athletics.

Jennings left coaching temporarily after Rolfing’s first year to become Vassar’s athletic director, but Rolfing’s new coach, Chris Parsons, saw the same traits in him. “Robb had an inner drive that not a lot of kids at the age of 19 or 20 have,” said Parsons, now head coach of the United States Coast Guard Academy. “He kept his personal workout plan on a 3x5 index card, something you don’t expect from a normal college student. And he had all the intangibles, too, that ability to get his teammates to follow his example.”

Rolfing’s parents, Rex and Margie Rolfing, attended the game when the flag honoring their son was first raised at Gordon Field in the fall of 2007, and they’ve stayed in close touch with Jennings and others in the Vassar community. “Robb chose Vassar because of Andy,” Margie Rolfing said.

She said he knew early in his high school career in Sioux Falls, SD that he wanted to play soccer and major in astronomy in college. “In typical Robb fashion, he made meticulous lists of colleges that had soccer programs and astronomy programs and had an observatory on campus,” she said. “And oh, how he loved Vassar.”

The team honors Rolfing’s legacy with practice jerseys inscribed with his initials and his uniform number, 11.
The team honors Rolfing’s legacy with practice jerseys inscribed with his initials and his uniform number, 11. Courtesy Nick Jallat.

While her son was serious about his studies and enjoyed a work-study job as a tour guide at the observatory, he was also a bit of a prankster, his mother said. “One night before a game the team would be playing at (the State University of New York at) New Paltz, Robb snuck over to the New Paltz campus and painted a big black ‘V’ for Vassar on the field,” she related. “The next day, when they went to the game, Robb discovered he’d painted the V on the wrong field.”

Margie Rolfing said her son had talked about being a soldier ever since he was a boy, but she said the decision to join right after 9/11 was triggered in part by where he was working at the time. “He was an assistant soccer coach at Curry College in (suburban) Boston,” she said, “and when he learned that one of the planes that had hit the World Trade Center towers had left from Logan Airport, he took that personally.”

A group of people stand in front of a statue.
Members of the Rolfing family saw this statue near their home in Sioux Falls SD at about the time Robb was killed in Iraq. Courtesy of the Rolfing Family.

As a college graduate, Rolfing could have entered the Army and the Green Berets as an officer, Margie Rolfing noted, “but he wanted to earn his way from the bottom up.”

Her son’s inner drive to succeed as a soldier didn’t detract from his more whimsical side, she said. “Nobody knew how exactly Robb pulled it off, but while he was leading his unit as a Special Forces staff sergeant in Iraq, he somehow managed to have a ping-pong table delivered to his barracks because he and others in his unit loved the game,” she said.

Margie Rolfing said she and others in her family would always be grateful to those in the Vassar community who have assured that Robb’s legacy is being preserved. She said she’s sure Robb would approve, and described an experience she and others in her family had that continues to be a source of comfort: The family went out to dinner near their home in Sioux Falls on the evening of June 29, 2007 and passed by a sculpture of an angel holding a fallen soldier. “Looking back, with the time difference, it was at that moment that Robb died,” she said.

Posted
November 10, 2021
Alumni