The Ultimate Good Guy With a Gun

October 29, 2018 in News by Ken

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Stephen Willeford had just taken a bite of chocolate cake when the stranger approached. It was a warm evening in August, and Willeford was eating at Baldy’s American Diner, just a few miles from his home in Sutherland Springs. He was in a dark corner of the restaurant, out of sight of other patrons in the main dining room, but the stranger and his wife happened to pass by on their way to the restroom.

When the man spotted Willeford, he lingered for a few seconds, staring.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said. He looked to be in his late thirties and was wearing a faded U.S. Marine Corps T-shirt. “I just have to say, you look really familiar, and I can’t figure out how I know you. Can I ask your name?”

Willeford is the sort of guy who blends into most crowds. At 56, he’s balding, a little stocky, and moderate in height, about five feet, seven inches. He is gregarious by nature, almost jolly, which is apt, because he sports a scruffy white Santa Claus beard. His kids used to tease him because he seems to know someone everywhere he goes, and even when he doesn’t, he makes fast friends with strangers. But these days—ever since last November, when media crews from around the world descended on his tiny hometown, the latest ground zero in a mind-numbing string of mass shootings across the country—he knows all the quietest corners of his favorite restaurants. His life barely resembles the one he had before.

“My name is Stephen,” he said, his voice gentle and slow.

The stranger pondered this for a moment, but nothing clicked. “May I ask what it is you do for a living?” By now the man’s wife had emerged from the restroom and stood beside him, puzzled.

It had been nearly a year since that awful November morning, and Willeford’s name and photo had appeared in news stories around the world. The president of the United States had praised him during a press conference and later shaken his hand. A Fox News pundit had thanked God that he “came in and stepped up to the plate and was courageous.” Strangers had sent gifts worth thousands of dollars and invited him on exotic, all-expense-paid trips. Other strangers invoke his name daily while arguing on Twitter. He’s become a coveted public speaker. In May, he appeared before thousands at an NRA convention. Recently, when he addressed a crowd of roughly two hundred at a church near Dallas, more than twenty men lined up to shake his hand and pose for photos.

It had all come to feel like a surreal, never-ending dream.

“I’m a plumber,” Willeford said to the stranger, smiling.

This seemed to be all the man needed. “I thought so,” he said. “I know who you are.” Then he turned to his wife. “Honey, this is the guy who stopped the bad man.”