Football, among all American sports, carries the most warlike connotations. Blitzes. Deep bombs. Every game a battle. Every athlete—with helmets, padding, and a pursuit of physical prominence—a warrior. After Pat Tillman, the former NFL safety who died in Afghanistan in 2004, the game’s been inextricably linked to warfare in a way other American sports simply do not know.
And Nate Boyer can attest. Boyer can look at the football and warfare, and compare the complexities, the shared sense of duties, of goals, of protecting a teammate while the enemy continues its onslaught. He understands the complexities of both, because Boyer, unlike his other teammates—and unlike most who’ve ever played the game—has had the chance to be involved in both.
Indeed, Boyer, 31, has likely the most profound story of winding up with the Longhorns’ football program as anyone you’re likely to find. His story’s found outlet from the Austin American-Statesman to ESPN, and is, according to head coach Mack Brown, “the most unique story I’ve ever seen.”
It began, it would seem, 11 years ago. The day the towers fell, and the Pentagon burned, and a field in Pennsylvania spewed smoke and ash into an early sky. On Sept. 11, 2001, Boyer awoke to his mother on the phone, informing him of an attack on American soil. Boyer, 20 at the time, had already been leaning toward joining the Army. The sights and sounds on 9/11 were the final push he required.
After returning from a spate of relief work in Darfur, which was then suffering through the worst of the janjaweed’s assault, Boyer joined the Army in 2004. However, he was not content with merely serving in the infantry. Instead, he went for the Special Forces. “I wanted to be in the Army but I wanted to do that with the best guys around me. I’m going to learn more from people who are the best at what they do,” he told ESPN.
Passing the grueling physical tests, Boyer worked his way into the Special Forces and soon landed in both Okinawa, Japan, and Colorado. However, he didn’t merely serve—Boyer was the youngest soldier ever to have been brought into to the Delta Force, which focuses on counterterrorism and special missions. Boyer was then transferred to Iraq, heading over at the war’s height and, within his first week, being forced to watch a fellow soldier succumb to a bomb.
Boyer earned a Bronze Star during his service, but, like much of his work overseas, does not speak about it.
Upon returning stateside, Boyer elected to enroll at Texas because, as he said, he “wanted to be part of a great university.” He had, however, never played football. He was still in top physical condition from his service, and, as he said, he wanted to see “how far [he] could go.” And so, in mid-2010, Boyer stepped onto the football field and outran, out-lifted, and out-hustled almost all the other—and far younger—would-be Longhorns who attempted to walk onto the team.
Checking the depth chart, Boyer noticed that there was a dearth of snappers on the squad. At only 5-11 and 190 lbs., Boyer saw a position fit for him.
Through rote repetition and a belief that he could simply outwork any competition, Boyer trained himself into perfecting the position. And last week, that work paid off. Transitioning to short-snapper, Boyer held for seven field goals and extra points in the Longhorns’ 45-0 trouncing of New Mexico. ‘Grandpa,’ as his teammates know him, had played a key role in the team’s biggest victory of the young season.
But despite any comparison to his past work, Boyer will long remember the life he’d previously lived.
“Your worst day here is better than their best day there,” Brown told the Statesman. “[Boyer] says, ‘You have no clue and I don’t want to hear you griping. When you are at war you need to know what the guy to the left and right of you are going to do and you need to trust them.’ He said ‘At war, they die if you make a poor decision. So understand we are talking about a game here and not life or death.”
Photo courtesy Texas Athletics.