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Will Thomas In the first year of his program, Will Thomas shot baskets for 50 hours, sinking 20,317 baskets and raising $50,000. (Michael Rivers)

Hoops for Troops

A Virginia teen plays basketball to raise money for families of U.S. soldiers

By Jennifer Marino Walters | null null , null

Will Thomas was only 12 when a U.S. helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011. Thirty American servicemen—all of them special-operations troops—were killed. Seventeen were Navy SEALs. (The SEALs are one of the most elite military units in the world.) It remains the largest loss of life for Americans in a single day during the war in Afghanistan.

When Will, who is from McLean, Virginia, heard about the tragedy, he vowed to help honor special-operations troops and their families. He thought the best way to help would be by doing something he loved—shooting hoops. Will decided to ask people to donate money for each basket he sank.

“It [would] help me improve as a basketball player, and [it would] help improve the lives of the families of the SEALs who passed away,” Will told reporters.


Will set a goal to sink 17,000 baskets over Labor Day weekend in 2011. Then he started collecting donations. The first came from Will’s dad, who pledged to donate a penny for each basket Will made. As word spread, donations poured in from family, friends, and strangers.

When the holiday weekend arrived, Will began shooting baskets at 3 p.m. that Friday. Friends, neighbors, and even local reporters came to watch him. By Monday evening, after shooting hoops for 50 hours (even in the rain), Will finally decided to stop. He’d made 20,317 baskets—surpassing his goal of 17,000—and raised $50,000.

But Will wasn’t finished yet. He decided to create more basketball challenges to raise even more money. That’s how his basketball project, Operation Hawkeye, was born.


Will named his mission in honor of Hawkeye, the loyal pet dog of one of the SEALs who was killed. Will completed his second challenge on Labor Day weekend of 2012. He sank 3,317 three-point baskets in 34 hours of shooting, raising another $30,000.

During Will’s third challenge, last February, he sank 2,017 three-point baskets in 15 hours of shooting. That event raised more than $19,000, bringing Will’s total amount raised to nearly $100,000—just by shooting baskets!

Will is certainly not alone in his mission. Today, basketball teams from every level of the sport—including nearly every NBA team—support Operation Hawkeye. So do many other organizations and companies, such as Nike. With their help, Will hopes to move closer to his goal of recruiting 31,000 supporters and raising a total of $310,000. He plans to complete his fourth Operation Hawkeye challenge later this summer during Labor Day weekend, with even more to follow.

“We will remember [our fallen] heroes,” Will wrote last September. “And we will rally around the loved ones they left behind.”

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