Nate Boyer – Green Beret, Texas Longhorn football player, NFL's most improbable prospect – had just finished fixing a sat-com radio in the rear of an M-ATV, light-armored, mine-resistant vehicle. Now he was scrambling to get back to the relative safety of its cabin.
This was July 2014. This was on a thin ribbon of road on the edge of Tagab, a small village in the Kapisa Province of Afghanistan.
This was war.
Boyer was part of the U.S. Army's 3rd Special Forces Group, which he linked up with as a sort-of summer job, leaving major college football where he was Texas' starting long snapper for the field of battle, only to return to the States, and his team, on the eve of preseason camp.
On this day, on the side of that road in Tagab, there were a dozen Americans and 100 Afghan soldiers they'd helped train, running a sweep for Taliban through a collection of mud huts not far from the Pakistani border.
Boyer's convoy of maybe 25 vehicles had come under gun and mortar fire as it approached a town. Chaos ruled the day. The group was left scanning for muzzle flashes in order to target and return fire. Providing cover for medics charging into dirt fields to aid the injured. Trying to gain perspective amid clouds of smoke, courtesy of something burning behind the village walls. This is what Boyer was long used to, battle hardened via years of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was 33 years old and long past panicking.
On his return from fixing the radio in the back of the vehicle Boyer felt a buzz whiz by his ear, followed immediately by the unmistakable crack of a bullet slamming into the side of an armored vehicle, just inches from his head.
"Sniper fire," Boyer said. "Pretty accurate sniper fire."
He quickly sought cover back behind the rear of the vehicle, where an M240 Bravo machine gun, with a small "chicken plate" that could provide marginal protection in a firefight, waited.
He spent the rest of the afternoon there, firing back at the snipers, hunkering down when AC-130 gunships swept over ahead providing close air support. Mostly he offered assistance for various movements as the Afghan soldiers he'd come to consider brothers, engaged in one of the routine, anonymous, no longer publicized battles for a country.
"Big fight," he said of that afternoon. "Pretty chaotic."
Less than two weeks later, as July turned to August and the football season beckoned back home, he once again turned in his combat helmet, climbed on a commercial flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, connected through Dubai, then Washington, then Atlanta before finally landing in Austin.
The next day he reported for his senior season with the Longhorns.
They issued him a different kind of helmet and pads.
– – – – – – – –
For Nate Boyer, the enduring memory from that day was not that a bullet fired with the sole intention of ending his life came so close to succeeding. Nor was it all the bullets with similar intent he sent back.
This may have been the last time before returning to college football that he was nearly killed but it was hardly the first. Back in 2008, working out of Najaf, Iraq, just days into his first run with the 10th Special Forces Group, an IED took out the vehicle directly in front of his.
As Boyer scrambled in the aftermath to provide security, he smelled what he thought was burning chicken from a barbecue only to see a medic scraping ash off the charred torso of an American soldier.
"First week," he said. "I thought, 'OK, this is real.' "
Near-death experiences were part of the job. So what really resonated with him six years and another theater of war later was when the Afghan captain of that mission took shrapnel to his throat and, despite the efforts of American medics, bled out and died.
Boyer, like the Afghans, had grown to respect and love the captain while training, planning and fighting by his side. He was an honest, dutiful man.
"A great guy," Boyer said. "A strong leader. They all loved him."
The U.S. sent a medevac to take the warrior's body away. As it lifted off, stirring up clouds of dirt in an active battlefield, one Afghan soldier, overcome with grief, ran out, dropped to his knees, looked up toward the helicopter and wept at the demoralizing loss while dust whipped in circles around him.
"One of the most powerful images I ever saw," Boyer said. "That was his leader. Even with the amount of death and loss they experience, even as little as they have there, it really is moving to see how much this means to them, to fight for control of their country.
"They build brotherhoods too."
– – – – – – – –
People join the military for any number of reasons. To see those brotherhoods, to aid those brotherhoods, is why Boyer did.
A decade prior Boyer was drifting through early adulthood. He grew up the son of a veterinarian father and a Ph.D., and environmental engineer mother in the affluent suburbs of San Francisco. He eschewed college, however, because he didn't have direction. He was smart and tested well, but his grades were poor. He barely tried. He found himself repeatedly in trouble. He wasn't good at following the path, any path.
So he worked as a deck hand on a sport fishing boat in San Diego for a while. He trained to be a firefighter before changing his mind. He went to Hollywood and took a shot at acting. He appeared in just one television commercial, for Greyhound.
One day in 2004, moved by a Time magazine account on the horrific genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan, he decided to go help. He couldn't find a relief organization that would take him though. He had no credentials and those groups have seen too many well meaning people show up amid the suffering, the depravity and the hardship and just quit, begging to fly home.
Undeterred, Boyer decided to go uninvited, assuming someone wouldn't turn him away if he was actually, physically there. He flew to N'Djamena, Chad, which borders the Sudan, and somehow talked his way onto a United Nation's flight that eventually led him to the sprawling Tulum refugee camp.
The Catholic Relief Services put him to work. There, in one of the worst situations on the planet, fleeing into a region everyone else was fleeing out of, Nate Boyer's life changed forever.
"So oppressed it's unbelievable," he said. "You're spending time with orphaned kids. Their fathers are off fighting or already killed. Their mothers have all been raped. I can't even imagine some of it.
"Helping people in a developing country like that, seeing all the things they don't have that we all take for granted," he continued. "I didn't do anything to earn that, I was just born an American. I felt a responsibility to help those that didn't have that choice, that didn't have any choice."
He could have joined up full-time as a relief worker and approached the problem that way. He could have come back to the States and tried to raise money. He could have done a lot of things.
Instead, a high school interest in the military was rekindled. The core of the problem, the most pressing issue he felt, was the need to win the war. It was the war that caused the refugees, the murder, the rape, the hopeless orphans. He was a young man. He could fight.
A week after returning to the States, he enlisted in the Army with the purpose of joining the elite Special Forces.
"It's unconventional warfare," he said of the Special Forces' unique purpose. "We go link up with the indigenous people, we work with them, we train them, we do everything with them and then we go fight with them. That was more appealing to me than just joining the Army.
"I read a lot about it. I wanted to be really hands-on and I wanted to be with those people and understand what was going on, not just politically. What can I do to actually help them?
"Every deployment I ever went on there are struggles and frustrations and you think, 'What am I doing out here, what are we trying to accomplish?' But at the end of the day when you look back on the people you work with, the relationships you build, they become your brothers in arms too, even though they are from another country.
"Big picture-wise, politically, I don't know anything about that," he continued. "I am not a political person. I can't stand politicians for the most part. But I know what we do when we are there as far as the Special Forces go. There is nothing like that, fighting for each other ...
"It's as human as it gets."
– – – – – – – –
It was 2008 and Boyer was 27 years old as his initial time with the Army was winding down, just as America's offensive missions in Iraq were too. He'd decided it was time for college.
He'd played high school basketball and baseball but never football. He loved the game however and decided if he was going to college, he was going to walk on with a team.
He stands 5-foot-11, weighs 200 pounds and by his own estimation is not a great athlete. He is a Green Beret though, which meant he was athletic enough and unquestionably tough. It wasn't just the combat missions, but completing the Special Forces training schools and its qualification course, where 150 dedicated men entered but only 11 finished.
"It's just about going as hard as you can at all times regardless of the pain you are in, mental and physical," Boyer said. "And you're in a lot of it. You're tired and you're hungry. It sucks. But you just get so much out of it. Getting through a mock POW camp after you just did survival training and you don't eat anything and you're just depleted of all hope and rest and nourishment, you're just beat. You make it through that you know you can't be broken.
"I know now there is nothing I can't handle. I may not survive it, but I won't quit."
So he figured he could handle college football. Under the searing Iraqi sun he began running through training drills he studied from YouTube. And he decided if he was going to play college football, why not walk onto the best team?
At that time, the Texas Longhorns were a powerhouse. They won a national title in the 2005 season and would play again for it in the 2009 season. The G.I. Bill at the school was excellent. Boyer had been to Austin and loved it. Besides, the Longhorns felt like the military's favorite team, so much burnt-orange paraphernalia hanging in camps across Iraq.
He didn't consider the long odds of joining a program that routinely landed top-five recruiting classes and had an endless well of Texas high school players begging to walk on, meaning even practice squad spots are at a premium.
He gave no thought to going to a lower division or less-prominent major conference school where his chances of actually playing would increase. He does things to the fullest. He doesn't just volunteer at a local soup kitchen. He doesn't just join the Army. He goes to Darfur. He becomes a Green Beret.
"If I am going to walk on somewhere I wanted it to be a challenge, a great program," he said.
So Texas Football it was.
– – – – – – – –
"It's probably the most unique story in my 42 years of coaching," said Mack Brown, then the coach of the Longhorns and now an ESPN analyst.
Here's a guy approaching 30, with no experience playing football, no idea what position he should play (he thought wide receiver, was quickly steered to safety, but wasn't nearly athletic enough to succeed at that) and he'd just come off active duty.
The coaches immediately loved him. You name it; Boyer did it. Who doesn't want a Green Beret around?
He redshirted his first year, just practiced. In his second season, he got in once on kick coverage. His main purpose was motivating everyone else, playing scout team in practice and racing out at home games carrying the American flag.
"Guys would be complaining during two-a-days and I'd stop practice and say, 'Nate, why don't you come up here and tell us about Iraq,'" Brown said. "That'd be the end of that."
Brown figured that would pretty much be it, though. Boyer could be on the team as long as he wanted. He was bringing in straight-A's. He carried himself with class and dignity. The guy would just never be a contributor though.
Then Boyer walked into Brown's office in the spring of 2012, after his redshirt freshman season. The Longhorns were losing their starting long snapper, a thankless, yet extremely precise and challenging job. Boyer told Brown he was going to become the long snapper, a way to help the team.
"Have you ever long snapped before?" Brown asked him.
"No," Boyer said.
He'd never even played center before and weighed 80-100 pounds less than the position generally commands. And that wasn't the half of it. Boyer told Brown that he was again going to take his final exams early and leave Austin for the summer, rather than stay and work out with the team.
College hadn't curbed his interest in serving, so he'd joined a Special Forces unit in the National Guard that would allow him to go overseas for three-and-a-half months, returning just before the start of preseason practice.
"He told me he was going to bring a football with him and practice long snapping," Brown said.
The coach was, to say the least, skeptical, yet supportive. Boyer went back to the military for the summer, working in Greece, providing security for national elections and engaging in joint internal defense and counter-terrorism with the Greek Navy Seals.
It was important work, but not what Boyer was seeking. He thrives on challenges and covets the most intense situations – in this case, that meant Afghanistan. "If someone has to be in danger, it might as well be me," he reasoned. The problem was maneuvering through military bureaucracy and hooking on with the right Special Forces group.
Regardless, he spent the summer in Greece long snapping, slowly getting the hang of it. He returned to Austin, impressed the coaches and was named the starter. Brown rewarded him with one of the program's 85 coveted full scholarships, the ultimate sign of his value. He was a practice dummy no more.
"In three years, he never had a bad snap," Brown marveled. "Not one."
His chief advantage? No nerves. You've been through daily firefights in Iraq and there is no such thing as a pressured snap against, say, Iowa State.
"The stage doesn't bother me," he said.
– – – – – – – –
After a victory over Baylor that fall, the Longhorns had a visitor to the locker room, Navy Admiral William H. McRaven, a UT graduate who is credited with organizing and executing Operation Neptune Spear, which took out Osama bin Laden. (McRaven coincidentally became the chancellor of the University of Texas System this week).
McRaven and Boyer spoke, with Boyer explaining his unique situation with the National Guard. McRaven asked if there was anything he could do for him.
"Honestly, I want to go to Afghanistan," Boyer said.
"Done," said McRaven, a man more than capable of cutting through red tape.
By spring of 2013, Boyer was assigned to the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, back into the belly of the beast.
– – – – – – – –
It's great to be a scholarship football player at Texas. There's a lot of work between training and classes, but for the most part, you're living a dream. It's even better in the summer, when demands lighten. "It is the good life," Boyer agreed.
If there was ever a time for a guy to not volunteer to go fight the Taliban in some far off mountain range, this would seem to be it. Especially when he'd already served his country – winning a Bronze Star in Iraq – so admirably. Boyer saw it differently.
"I thought of it this way: If I, someone who wants to be there, doesn't volunteer, there may be someone there who doesn't want to be there," Boyer said. "Maybe he's got a wife and kids and God forbid something happens. If something would've happened to my body, I knew I could handle it.
"When one of your guys goes down or gets shot," he continued, "the first thing you think of is, 'Why did that have to happen to him, why didn't that happen to me?' Which is weird. The normal response is, 'Thank God that didn't happen to me.'
"Your whole purpose on a mission is protecting the guy next to you. It's never about you … I [wanted] to go back and serve, to deploy. I know how good I am at my job and I know how I can relate to [the Afghans] regardless of language barriers."
– – – – – – – –
So off he went, into the hottest of the hot spots. Nejrab. Logar Province. The Village of Afghanya. Kabul. Danger was confronted. Bullets and bombs flew. Bonds were made, with Americans and Afghans alike. Meaningful aid and assistance was provided. "America has the means to absolutely change the world if we do desire," he notes. For 14 weeks a college football player on a major team was in the middle of major combat.
And then the calendar turned and it was back to school and sports. Boyer said he flipped the switch and came home, only some of his teammates even fully aware of what he'd been doing.
"I don't feel that shock of returning to America anymore," Boyer said. "They are just two different parts of my life, two different places."
He remained sharp by using every spare minute he had either working out, doing drills or humbly practicing his long snapping, often in a dirt field with nothing to snap at. He'd stretch out his legs, hang his head between them, grab a ball in the dust, snap it, watch it land, run over, get it, stretch out his legs again, hang down, grab the ball in the dust and snap it back … over and over.
"It's not very efficient," Boyer joked. "Just sitting there in the middle of a dirt field. And the ball wound up so torn up and dusty."
It was, well, a bizarre and somewhat comical sight, particularly in rural Afghanistan where no one had ever seen football, let alone this bizarre intricacy of the game.
"The Afghan [villagers] would come out and watch," Boyer said. "They come down and want to see the ball. It was 'Afghan TV.'"
Back in Austin in the fall of 2013, Texas struggled and Brown was forced out of his job. Boyer had grown close to his coach and wondered if the new guy, Charlie Strong, would be cool with a starting specialist going off for live combat before his senior season.
"Once I explained," Boyer said, "he had my back."
Not that he hurried to tell Strong about how he'd almost been killed by a sniper a couple days before the start of camp.
"No," Boyer said with a laugh, "I didn't talk to him about that."
– – – – – – – –
Boyer's college eligibility is up. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and a master's degree in advertising. His time in the National Guard ends in February and he is retiring from the military. He is looking to begin a career in the film industry and has an internship set up with famed producer Peter Berg.
It's time to start the rest of his life. Well, almost. He wants to take a crack at the NFL.
"At this point," Boyer said, "why not?"
He holds no illusions about how the league views him – "over-aged and undersized." Still, one of the core values of the Special Forces is to find a way. He knows he won't be drafted. He just wants a camp invite, a rookie tryout, something, anything, where he can prove himself.
He's in Charleston, S.C. this week participating in Saturday's Medal of Honor Bowl, one of a slew of talent evaluation all-star games this time of year. He said feedback has been great, with lengthy conversations with scouts from a number of teams. He knows he doesn't check all the boxes the NFL is looking for. He does check ones they've never considered though.
"How does a guy who never played in high school get a starting position at the University of Texas?" Brown said. "You can't do that. And how could a guy leave each summer and go to Afghanistan and come back and play? You can't do that either."
Boyer deflects that kind of praise. He's exceedingly modest. He never mentions his Bronze Star, the military's fourth-highest honor, or any other recognition he has received, because he doesn't believe that's the point. He was there to help those who needed help, extending, in his mind, America's greatness.
At Texas, he would answer any question one of his teammates had – most were fascinated, but he wasn't walking around sharing war stories. He did just a few media interviews while he was at Texas and none since he returned to fighting in Afghanistan the past two summers.
Making the NFL, he says, shouldn't be about what he's done. It's about using what he's done to beat the odds.
"I am going to work as hard as anyone you've got at any position, even if I'm just a long snapper," he promised.
Here in these days of transition, a rare moment for pause after a decade of action, the whole thing is humbling. A long-haired kid seeking direction takes a scattershot trip to Darfur, which leads to the Special Forces, which leads to the deserts of Iraq, which leads to football fields of Texas, which leads to the mountains of Afghanistan, which leads to playing in front of NFL scouts, which leads to this, to now, to who knows?
Nate Boyer, an American soldier, an American hero waiting for a chance, waiting to write the next chapter of a truly American story.