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Tom Pennington/Getty Images Nate Boyer #37 of the Texas Longhorns carries an American flag as the Texas Longhorns take to the field against the Oklahoma Sooners at Cotton Bowl on October 13, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

Big 12 Football’s Green Beret

Nate Boyer's journey from failed actor to Sudanese refugee worker to the Iraq war and, finally, to starting long-snapper for the University of Texas

In a state where love of football is akin to love of country, at a school that might soon fire its head coach, on a team that has only recently begun to show that this season can be something other than utter disaster, everyone, it seems, still loves the guy who carries the flag.

The fans call him a “hero,” except for the fans who call him a “patriot,” except for the fans who call him a “real American,” and, of course, the fans who call him a “real American patriot hero.” Teammates call him “America” or “old man,” depending on their mood, and at least one assistant coach refers to him as “Jason Bourne.” Mack Brown, the beleaguered head coach who has never lost his ability to make you wish he was your grandfather, says of the guy with the flag, “He’s even better than Rudy.”

As for the flag bearer himself, his name is Nate Boyer. He is a 32-year-old, 190-pound long-snapper for the University of Texas Longhorns. He is a failed actor and a damn good soldier, a veteran of the Army Green Berets but a novice on the football field, someone who never even played in high school. He’s not crazy about his nicknames — worst of all “hero” — and unlike the film version of Rudy Ruettiger, he is not here just to inspire or to prove his self-worth.

Instead, Boyer is here, in Austin, a starting football player for one of the most prestigious programs in the country, carrying the American flag out of the tunnel every Saturday, for a simple reason: “It seemed like it would be fun.”

Laura McDowell-Boyer never expected her son to play college football. And never, really, did she expect him to work in Darfur or flop as an actor or live in his car or fight in a war. Laura, after all, has a doctorate in environmental science, and her husband, Steve, has a doctorate in veterinary medicine.

They lived in the moneyed suburbs east of San Francisco. Life was comfortable. School was important. And all of this, to young Nate Boyer, presented a problem. There were the arrests for shoplifting and the slipping grades and the nagging sense that nothing mattered — not his grades nor his arrests nor his feelings of malaise. He worried that he was experiencing only the tiniest sliver of what life had to offer, that his privilege cut him off from the rest of the world. “I knew that I hadn’t done anything to deserve my life — with money, great parents, all of that,” he says. “I felt like I needed to do something to earn what I already had.”

Boyer did not want a college degree, nor did he want the job and the house and the life that would supposedly come with it. Yet his parents’ wishes won out. “Please,” they said, “give college a chance.” Boyer obliged. He moved to San Diego, enrolled in a community college firefighting program, and promptly dropped out. The next semester he reenrolled. He dropped out again. A year was enough. He left San Diego for L.A. Instead of a firefighter, Boyer thought, he’d become a movie star.

He enrolled in acting classes. He scoured local advertisements for potential gigs, and each night he drove his ’93 Honda Civic to Beverly Hills, where he found parking spots in quiet neighborhoods, leaned the driver’s seat all the way back, and went to sleep. Every now and then, he would drive to a park, grab his sleeping bag, and spend the night under the stars, waking at dawn to the sight of seniors practicing yoga. It was, Boyer says, the happiest he’d ever been.

He landed exactly one gig — a Greyhound commercial. Boyer sat in the bus, staring out the window, a look of contentment on his face. In the ad, Boyer’s character was riding home on a visit from college. “A little ironic,” he says.

Soon he found a studio apartment with a Murphy bed and soon after that a job as a babysitter for a family’s 5- and 7-year-old boys. The younger son had autism, so Boyer’s responsibilities included helping him navigate social situations and learn how to make and maintain friends. Soon Boyer met other families with autistic children, and he became something of a freelance babysitting specialist — paid to hang out with five different boys, all autistic, all aged between 5 and 13.

But his showbiz career wasn’t working out. Boyer failed to land any more gigs, and the busier he became with babysitting, the less time he spent in acting class. He lacked the grades needed to attend an elite film school, and over time he realized his future might not be in movies. So he saved money and began wandering. Mexico for a while. Then Europe. And then, in 2004, he flipped open an issue of Time magazine. On the cover it said, “The Tragedy of Sudan.”

Now in his early twenties, Boyer still felt guilty over his comfortable upbringing. “I had this idea in my head,” he says, “that because I didn’t really have any challenges in my life, I had to create challenges for myself to overcome.” This, he says, explains the teenage shoplifting and the lack of interest in school, as well as the appeal of short-term homelessness and the pursuit of an acting career almost guaranteed to fail.

When Boyer opened the issue of Time, he saw a photo essay with images of violence in the Sudanese region of Darfur. Ongoing violence, perpetrated largely by militias from northeastern Sudan, had reached a peak. With mostly Arab fighters slaughtering mostly black Darfurians, the conflict was widely considered a genocide.1 So Boyer, young and adventurous and, he admits, “maybe a little naive,” decided to help. He called around, asking nongovernmental organizations to let him volunteer. Surely, he thought, someone would accept his services. Instead, he soon found out that NGOs value credentials and experience and expertise, of which Boyer had none.

No one would take him, so Boyer decided to go alone. He booked a flight to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, which borders Darfur to the west and hosts many of the region’s refugees. He arrived in the middle of the night and walked outside the airport. The heat of the day still lingered, weighing on Boyer as taxi drivers swarmed him. U.N.? NGO? Which hotel? He had no organization, no hotel reservation, no idea where to go or what to do. He went back inside. Surely, he thought, someone in the airport could tell him how to get to the camps.

Commercial flights within Chad were infrequent; flights to the camps were virtually nonexistent. The only way to reach the refugee population was either by land or by a United Nations humanitarian plane, used to funnel relief workers to and from the capital. Boyer asked around until he found a thin Chadian man who spoke fluent French and broken English. The man held a clipboard with the manifest of a 5 a.m. flight to Abéché, the largest refugee camp in the country. Boyer wanted to get on that plane, but seats were reserved for relief workers. There was no room for a freelance volunteer.

Boyer told the man he worked for Doctors Without Borders, and the man asked for documentation to prove his affiliation with the group. “I was mugged during my layover in Paris,” Boyer lied. “All of my documentation is gone.”

The man considered Boyer — white and 22 and alone, carrying only a backpack with one T-shirt, one change of underwear, a toothbrush, and an old seersucker coat. After a moment, he spoke. “Fine,” he said. “Wait until everyone else boards, and if there’s any space, I’ll let you on.”

The passengers boarded and Boyer waited and, finally, he saw a familiar face waving him aboard. The plane took off, and Boyer looked out the window over the Sahara. By midmorning, they touched down in Abéché.

Boyer figured that once he arrived at the camp, someone would allow him to help. It’s one thing to reject someone when he’s calling your headquarters in the United States. It’s another thing to say no after he traveled 8,500 miles and fibbed his way onto a U.N. humanitarian plane and now he’s standing in front of you, unwashed and unshaven and carrying nothing but a backpack, begging to dig ditches or build tents or do any other grunt work that needs to be done.

The Christian Children’s Fund (now called ChildFund) put him to work, Boyer says, playing with kids, distributing food, and running errands for the organization’s leaders. He became intoxicated by the thrill of being an outsider. “I had this idea that in a Third World country — especially one in the Muslim world — everyone hated Americans or was jealous of what we have,” he says. “I got there and that wasn’t true at all. I was stunned by how generous and giving these people were — people who had lost their homes and their families and everything they had. Where I grew up, people had everything they ever wanted, but you never had the feeling that you could ask anyone for help. It seemed like I was in a place that was the opposite of that.”

At the end of his monthlong volunteer stint, Boyer rode back across the desert in the bed of a truck, standing as they crossed up and over the dunes. After 20 hours, the truck approached the city limits of N’Djamena, and the driver stopped at a checkpoint. The other passengers got out to pee, and Boyer followed. He finished, zipped up his pants, and turned around to see several AK-47s pointed at his head.

The men holding the guns took Boyer into the only nearby building and led him down to the basement. They yelled at him in French and he tried to respond in English and neither understood the other until finally Boyer figured it out: They wanted money. Boyer, however, had none. So they continued yelling and he continued standing in silence, allowing himself to consider the possibility that he might die, until one of the other truck passengers ran down to the basement, grabbed the barrel of a couple of the guns, and told Boyer to leave.

He did. He was fine. The guns, he was told by his Chadian companions, likely weren’t even loaded. He rode back to the capital, boarded his plane, and returned to the States ready to make another major decision. He joined the U.S. Army.

He had a mullet. That was the first thing Adam Clark noticed when he met Boyer. Not only a mullet, Clark remembers, but Boyer also wore tinted glasses, the kind of useless translucent accessory sometimes found on the faces of Bono or Johnny Depp. And he wore these things — this mullet and these glasses — when he arrived in North Carolina for the very first day of basic training. So Clark’s first thought was natural. Who’s this jackass?

Boyer had enlisted through the Army’s 18X program, which guarantees enlistees entry in the Special Forces preselection course for those who can graduate from Infantry or Airborne School. If he was going to join the Army, Boyer had decided, he was going to be a Green Beret. He’d considered enlisting after high school but ultimately followed his parents’ wish to try college. But while Boyer was in Chad, he began thinking about enlisting again, after a local volunteer told him that he dreamed of a day when he, a Chadian citizen, might join the United States Army. “I wanted to be working in the Third World,” Boyer says. “I wanted the challenge of it. I wanted to feel like I was doing something.”

Special Forces operate by their own code within the Army. They focus on unconventional warfare — sometimes carrying out targeted, high-risk operations and often, during this country’s two most recent wars, working closely with Afghan and Iraqi soldiers. The process of earning a Green Beret through the X-Ray program takes about 18 months, during which time soldiers go through a battery of courses and tests.

So here Boyer was, mullet grown and glasses on, ready to earn himself a Green Beret. Over time, he developed a reputation. He grew his hair. He wore sunglasses indoors. He laced his boots in the wrong direction because he liked the way it looked. Once, during a physical fitness test, he did 127 push-ups in two minutes. When he reported the number, the trainer didn’t believe him, so on the spot, he dropped to the ground and did it again.

“He was so freaking confident that it was annoying,” says Clark. “People looked at him and said, ‘I really want to hate you, but for some reason I just can’t. I really like you.'”

Of the 150 soldiers who entered preselection, only 11 would finish with a Green Beret. Some were disqualified. Most quit. Boyer swore he would never quit but there were moments, like the time he was wandering through the mountains alone, equipped only with a compass and a map and carrying a rucksack, searching for GPS coordinates that he thought he’d never find, when he was certain he would be cut.

He wasn’t. In December 2006, he earned his Green Beret.

So Boyer went to war. One afternoon he got word that an American convoy had been hit by a roadside bomb. He rushed to the scene and found a vehicle in flames — smoke in the air, American soldiers still inside. It smelled like a barbecue, he thought, and for a moment he was reminded of life back home in California, grilling chicken on a summer afternoon. That lasted until he looked down. There in the vehicle was a human torso. It was smoldering and American and dead.

“It’s like it took a second to hit me,” Boyer remembers. “That’s not chicken.”

This was in his first week in Iraq. As for the details of the following months and years, Boyer would rather not talk about it. Not to his mom, who tenses up when she hears of other soldiers’ experiences. Not to his teammates, the younger of whom sometimes ask wide-eyed what it feels like to kill. Not to reporters, eager for tension and drama, poking to see what scars still remain. Not to fans or to friends from around town, who look to Boyer to validate their own political leanings, who want him to say that the wars have been necessary or that they have been unjust. Boyer goes quiet when he hears those questions. “It’s war,” he says. “It’s a shit sandwich. You just eat it.”

So: football. Boyer started thinking about it in 2008, when he began making plans for a transition back to civilian life. He wanted to return to college and play a sport. Even though he had no football experience, he still thought it represented his best shot. Rosters were 10 times larger than in basketball, his primary sport growing up, and even if he lacked the skill set, he knew he possessed other talents that other potential walk-ons probably lacked. “I just figured a lot of football is a willingness to run through a brick wall,” he says. “Just go and go and never stop. That doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, but it does to me.”

So while living at a military base in southwestern Iraq, Boyer developed a routine. In the mornings, he went through standard physical training. In the middle of the day, he trained members of the Iraqi special forces — perhaps at a shooting range, perhaps in sessions focused on close-quarters combat. And in the afternoons, while other soldiers napped or read or called friends and family back home, Boyer searched YouTube for football tutorials. He fancied himself a wide receiver, so he found video of high school receivers coaches running their players through drills. He listened to the coaches ramble on about footwork and balance and positioning and all the fundamentals that Boyer had never learned.

Then Boyer went outside in the raging sun, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees. He backpedaled. He high-stepped. He ran ladder drills — never mind that he had no ladder. He vaulted forward a few yards and then a few more yards to the left or right because he believed that was what constituted a proper passing route. Near the edge of camp, Iraqi guards looked upon Boyer’s strange dance from a watchtower and wondered what the hell he was doing.

After “football practice,” Boyer went inside, ate dinner, and prepared for nightfall. And at night, he left the camp and fought a war.

In January 2010, Boyer watched Colt McCoy and the Texas Longhorns lose to Alabama in the BCS title game. He had decided by then that if he was going to try to play football, he might as well try to play for one of the best programs in the country. He’d been to Austin and loved it. Texas, it seemed, was the perfect fit.

The Longhorns hold walk-on tryouts each winter. UT strength coach Jeff Madden brings together a couple dozen hopefuls and throws them in with the scholarship players’ winter conditioning workouts to determine who has the necessary fitness to spend the year as a glorified tackling dummy. There are sprints and agility drills and up-downs and, often, vomit.

Madden makes a point not to learn anyone’s name during tryouts. Learning a name signifies the building of a relationship, and for most of the guys who come out, their relationship with Madden will end with the first round of cuts. But he had been told to expect an ex–Green Beret named Nate Boyer, and from the first whistle of the first drill, he knew exactly which one he was. “We’re out there, and this guy is flying,” he says. “Every single drill, he’s in front. Every sprint, every cut, everything.”

It’s not as if the other would-be walk-ons were out of shape. Texas has an open tryout policy, which head coach Mack Brown says is befitting of a public university, but most of the players who take the field are former high school standouts, some of whom had offers elsewhere but refused to relinquish their dreams of playing for the Longhorns. Yet Boyer lapped the other athletes in distance runs, blew past them in sprints, and kept up well enough in quickness and agility drills.

Typically, coaches ask for a high school highlight tape and a letter of recommendation from a former coach. Boyer, of course, had neither. Madden didn’t care. “If you can move, you can play football,” Madden says. “If you can cut, if you can run, you can play. And this guy’s an athlete. You look at him and know that when it’s the whole team out there, he’s going to be setting the pace on every drill. You see that, you don’t care if he’s never played. You just think, Yeah, we want him on our team.”

Boyer watched each day as coaches pulled potential walk-ons aside during drills. Inevitably, those players would leave and not come back. Yet Boyer’s name never got called, so he returned to the facility day after day until finally, an equipment manager took him into a closet and told him to pick out a jersey and cleats. I guess that’s it, Boyer remembers thinking. I guess this means I’m on the team.

He was.

Yes, he was on the roster, but it was still a stretch to call him a football player. He didn’t even know which position he should play. On the first day of spring practice, he took no. 88, still thinking of himself as a wide receiver. “No,” then-teammate Blake Gideon told him. “You’re not a receiver. You’re a safety.” Gideon offered no further explanation, but for Boyer, that was enough. The next day he lined up with the defensive backs. He grabbed no. 37. He has worn it ever since.

“He was extremely raw,” says Longhorns defensive backs coach Duane Akina. He says this as if he were talking about an athletic but unpolished recruit, presumably because there is no accurate verbiage in the football lexicon for “Nate Boyer had no idea how to play football.” Because that, really, was the situation. Boyer was a defensive back for one of the top programs in the country, a school that claims the title of “DB U,” yet he didn’t know how to play that — or any other — position. He couldn’t tackle. He tripped when he backpedaled. If he matched up with a receiver in space, he crouched low, lunged hard, and watched from behind as the future pro jogged past him to the end zone.

But the coaches didn’t care. “He was full speed ahead on every drill,” says Akina. And he wasn’t some Rudy figure, with effort that far surpassed his ability. “This guy’s an athlete,” says Madden. “In the Army, he’s the elite of the elite, so even if he’s not quite as quick or strong as some guys on the team, he put plenty of other guys to shame.”

Yet one thing was understood: Boyer would rarely, if ever, see the field. He was there to motivate, to encourage others to match his pace in drills, to help scholarship DBs by running routes against them in practice. There was no place for him in a Big 12 football game. Once, against Texas Tech, he entered as a member of the kickoff team, late in a blowout. He sprinted as the ball was kicked, running faster than anyone else on the team, until he collided with a wedge double team. He threw one of his blockers to the ground but looked up to see the tackle being made, over on some other corner of the field, far from where he now stood. He jogged back to the sideline. This, it seemed, was the closest to any real action he would ever get.

Boyer, however, wanted to play. And as tough and fast and hardworking as he was, he realized he would barely ever see the field as a safety. So he studied the team’s depth chart and found an opening. The starting long-snapper, Alex Zumberge, was a senior. So was Trey Wier, his backup. Someone had to snap. Why shouldn’t it be him?

Well, for one, he wasn’t very good at it. “His first snap was tragic,” says strength coach Bennie Wylie. “No spiral, no speed, no accuracy. Terrible. I thought to myself, It’s going to take a miracle for him to figure this out.”

Boyer had set up on the track in the back of the Longhorns’ weight room, ready to give snapping a try. “It looks easy,” Boyer says. “Believe me, it’s not easy.” Like kickers and punters, most college long-snappers have spent years working to perfect a singular, critical skill. Many of the nation’s snappers are friends, having spent their high school summers working out together at the same camps. (Yes, that’s right, there are longsnapper camps.) Snapping is a “closed skill,” shut off from external factors, built around perfecting a motion and then committing it to muscle memory.

When Boyer started, he realized how much he had to learn. Still, he told Texas head coach Mack Brown about his plans. “I just remember saying, ‘OK, Nate,'” says Brown. “‘You give it a try, good for you,’ never actually thinking he might be able to do it.”

Boyer spent a few sessions learning from Zumberge that winter, listening to him break down his own technique. Once he started improving, he sought the advice of Cullen Loeffler, a Texas alum and longtime Minnesota Vikings snapper who helped Boyer sharpen his motion. Mostly, however, he just watched YouTube videos of high school snappers who wanted to get the attention of college scouts. He studied their mechanics — the way they straightened their backs and slid their entire bodies toward the target, relying less on their arms than on their core.

He would ask around after workouts to see if anyone could catch for him. If not, then he would find a target — sometimes a punching bag, or if he was feeling ambitious, a goal post — and fire snap after snap, at least 100 a day. Wylie remembers sitting in his office, just off the weight room, hearing the persistent thump! thump! thump! of snapped footballs smacking their target. Every once in a while, he wandered outside. Boyer’s snaps no longer resembled one-winged birds.

Boyer entered the 2012 season second on the depth chart for both punts and field goals. After the starter botched a snap in Week 1, coaches opened up the competition before Week 2. That Wednesday, coaches unveiled the depth chart for the upcoming game against New Mexico. Boyer saw his name near the top of the list. He’d done it. Boyer was a starting football player at the University of Texas.

So now you can find him on Saturday afternoons in the tunnel at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium — 120 men behind him, 100,000 fans above and around him — Boyer just footsteps from the field, holding the American flag. Sometimes, in these moments just before a game of college football, one of Boyer’s teammates will declare himself a soldier, or declare their game a battle, or make some other comment that indicates a belief that football is akin to war.

Football, of course, is not war. And just as much as football players love declaring that they’re going to war, sportswriters and fans love informing them that their warrior fantasies are offensive and stupid and cliché. But as for Boyer, one of the few football players who have actually seen combat? He doesn’t really care.

“I mean, nobody actually thinks that they’re going to war,” he says. “I can’t be offended by that because of course they know that football and war are two completely different things. And once you say that and you know that you’re actually talking about a game, you can look at it and say, you know, there actually are a lot of similarities. You have guys lining up next to you. You have battle lines. Guys lining up on the other side. It’s Revolutionary War–style in a way. You have guys of different races and cultures and religions, and they come together to make it feel like a brotherhood. And football is violent. It’s really violent.”

So Boyer stands in the tunnel and he holds the flag aloft and when the time comes he runs past the cheerleaders and through the rising steam, and he crosses the field and kneels in the opposite end zone. He stays there for a moment, as the noise of the crowd begins to fade, and he thinks about fellow soldiers — men who are disabled or dead or suffering from post-traumatic stress, men who haven’t been given moments like this one. For Boyer, it’s one more privilege in a life full of them.

He has lived the life of a million macho fantasies: an idealistic Hollywood drifter, an elite soldier, a major-college football player. Yet to Boyer this is no fantastical dream. “I just kind of feel like, for the most part, being born in America, I’m so much luckier than most everyone else in the world,” he says. “I’ve had these opportunities — these opportunities that mean I can do almost anything. So why not just try to do it?”

So he steps onto the field and waits until the time comes for a field goal or a punt. Then he crouches low and snaps quick and straight and clean, always striving to be perfect. Then he engages a behemoth defender and either holds his own or gets thrown to the ground, but at some point, in a matter of seconds, he looks up to watch the kick sail through the air. “Really,” he says, “it’s a lot of fun.”

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Magazines, Star, Teams, Texas

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn