By now, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Nate Boyer.
The former Texas long-snapper has been called the “NFL’s Most Improbable Prospect” by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel, and his story of a Green Beret turned college football player continues to circulate through social media and the Internet.
For those who aren’t familiar with his story, a basic run down: Boyer is a 34-year old Bronze Star recipient who spent time in both Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the United States Special Forces. At 29, Boyer enrolled at the University of Texas and walked on to the football team…even though he had never before played a single down of football.
After two seasons with the team and an opening at the long-snapper position, Boyer seized the opportunity and became the starter for the Horns, playing in 38 consecutive games. Now, he’s training for a shot at the NFL, an unlikely prospect who is continuing to chase down yet another dream.
As I continued to read these features, I came away more and more intrigued - and awed - by Boyer’s story. After all, it’s not every day that you see a 34-year old man putting up 18 reps on the bench press at Pro Day, exceeding many of his teammates who are over a decade younger. How does an American hero quickly assimilate to campus life and turn off what he’s seen in a war zone?
Boyer’s story has the making of legend and I wanted to meet the protagonist in this modern day saga.
When I first reached out to Boyer, I was immediately taken by his willingness to share his story, especially since he’s high on the media contact list. He is friendly, open, and unapologetically honest about his experiences and the impact they have had on his life. He’s generous with his time, and gladly answered all of my questions (and there were many) about his improbable tale.
Boyer was raised in Northern California, the son of a racehorse veterinarian and an environmental engineer. While academics were preached to him, it was hard for Boyer to reconcile his parents’ achievements in the classroom with his own.
“When I was a kid, I just wanted to be an explorer. I didn’t have passion to sell insurance, or do whatever it is that you’re supposed to do out of high school.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do. That’s why I didn’t want to go to college; I had no idea and really no ambition to study anything. I didn’t really like class. I always tested really well, but I just didn’t try. I didn’t care,” he said.
After a futile tour of California colleges with his mother, Boyer packed up and moved to San Diego where he tried his hand at firefighter school while also working on a fishing boat.
This whimsical nature has been a part of Boyer since he was a child, unable to decide upon a singular path and instead chasing adventure. It was that spark that led him to Los Angeles in hopes of attending film school, but where he instead starting working with children with autism. He stayed put for a few years, but his course was altered forever on September 11, 2001.
“I was in Los Angeles in my apartment; I remember I had this tiny little apartment with a murphy bed and I was laying on it. It was really early, like 6:00 am. My phone rang, and it was my mom and she said ‘wake up and turn on the television.’ One of the towers had already been hit, and then the other one got hit, and just watching them fall…it was crazy. It was unreal. It opened my eyes to realizing that something was not right with the world. I had never thought about it before because it never really affected me. It wasn’t my problem until then,” he said.
Boyer’s desire to serve and “get out of his bubble” led him to Darfur, where he served as a volunteer with the Catholic Relief Services. While he expected to find death and suffering, he was overwhelmed by the sense of welcome he received from the Sudanese and was inspired daily by the people and children he met.
“Those people are able to persevere and keep relatively positive attitudes about things. These kids are running around having fun, and some of them are missing limbs, all their fathers have been murdered or are off fighting, their mothers have been raped in front of them, just crazy stuff. But they are just pushing on with life,” he said.
His time in Africa changed Boyer, and in some ways, redefined his definition of an American.
“The biggest eye-opener for me was how well received I was as an American; they thought it was so amazing that an American would come help out. But I felt guilty. I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t do anything to have the life of an American. I was just born here.
“That’s what led me to join the Army; I wanted to feel like I earned it, somehow,” he said.
The next chapter of Boyer’s life began soon after he returned to the United States, and some research led to a try out for Special Forces. Now passionate about working alongside those less fortunate, Special Forces was the perfect fit for Boyer.
“Our motto is De oppresso liber, which means to free the oppressed. For me, it was about giving other people a chance, especially those who can’t fight for themselves,” he said.
Boyer speaks proudly of his time spent in the Special Forces and remains genuinely touched by the those he protected. It’s evident that along the way, the Green Beret and Bronze Star recipient found his passion in helping others.
“Special Forces works with indigenous people; we train them, fight for them, live with them. Most of the people I met were really kind and appreciate what we are doing over there, trying to help them out,” he said.
While his daily routine kept him worlds apart from those back home, Boyer and his team did have one constant tie back to the United States: football.
“When you’re in Iraq during football season, you watch the games in the middle of the night. It would be three in the morning and if we didn’t have a mission that night or we got back early, we could watch football. It was a relief, something that brings you back to the States and helps time pass,” he said.
While Boyer grew up playing many sports, football was not one of them. Now 29, he saw the window to play the sport closing, and he made his decision.
“As a kid, football was something I always really wanted to play and thought it was really cool, but I played too many other sports. It was something I never did, and it was a regret that I had. At that time, Iraq was starting to wind down and if I was going to go to school, it was now or never. They had the GI Bill, so I would basically be getting my school paid for. I was actually interested in learning at that point; the world had changed me,” he said.
In Texas, football is king. Towns shut down on Friday night, stadiums fill up with thousands and thousands of fans. For Boyer, everything he knew about Texas football, he learned from the movies.
“I didn’t have any idea (how big football was in Texas) until I was older and the Varsity Blues movie came out, and Friday Night Lights. I realized how big of a culture thing it was, how it’s obsessive,” he said.
Perhaps it was that slight naivety that worked to Boyer’s benefit when he came to the conclusion that he wanted to play for the Texas Longhorns. With no sense of regard for his age, Boyer enrolled at the university and tried out for the team.
“I thought about the competition, but it didn’t deter me. I went into the military with no experience. I didn’t grow up shooting guns. I was able to succeed at the highest level, so I figured if I could do that, it shouldn’t be too hard. I was in pretty good shape and a decent athlete, so I thought I’d have a good opportunity,” he said.
At approximately 160-pounds, Boyer said that playing long-snapper never crossed his mind.
“I definitely figured I’d be a defensive back or a wide receiver, just because of my size,” he said.
His athleticism helped him pass the conditioning test, and Boyer was soon issued his new uniform, this time in burnt orange and white.
“I didn’t tell them that I had never played before or how old I was or anything like that. I took the conditioning test and did really well on it. I didn’t even meet Coach Mack Brown until the second game of the season. When he found out I was in the Army, he had me run out holding the flag, but there was never a sit down meeting with the coaches or anything like that,” he said.
After the joining the team, Boyer remained in the National Guard so he would be able to continue his mission to serve. He spent time in both Bulgaria and Greece, but in 2012, it was a meeting with Admiral William McRaven that led him back into a war zone.
“He was the head of SOCOM (Special Operations Command) at the time, which is above the SEALs, the Special Forces, the Rangers, everyone in special operations amongst all the branches. He went to Texas, so he would come back to our games once in a while.
“After we won our game versus Baylor, I spoke with him in the locker room and he was asking me what I wanted to do in the summer. I told him I wanted to go to Afghanistan. He made it happen and made sure I got back in time for fall camp,” he said.
It was these summers away that mesmerized me most about Boyer. How does a man in his early thirties seamlessly flip the switch from a hot battleground in Afghanistan to a crowded stadium on Saturday night in Austin?
“I don’t know,” said Boyer when I asked him that very question. “For some reason, change and transition have never been hard for me. I guess I’m just lucky that way. I don’t think about stuff too much. I think sometimes people make things up in their heads about why something is hard or challenging.
“I don’t have PTSD and I know that’s lucky. I’ve seen and experienced quite a bit, and it’s not that it doesn’t phase me, but I guess I’m able to compartmentalize my life. It doesn’t feel like a transition; it just feels like a different existence for a while, a different way of living.
“The biggest struggle for me is the time change. I know it sounds crazy to a lot of people, but it’s what I like to do. It wasn’t that I tried to find the most random or difficult things, but I do like challenges. It’s just all stuff that I was passionate about. Why would you not do what you’re passionate about, ever?”
It’s with that same attitude that Boyer approaches the NFL. As a young kid, he hoped to be a professional athlete, and that opportunity could very well happen in a few short weeks. Boyer is very aware of the checklist of things against him, age and size headlining the page. However, Boyer epitomizes the very definition of the “intangibles” that NFL scouts search for in the months leading to the draft.
“I’m aspiring towards it, working my ass off for it. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen; I can’t force anybody to give me a chance. I understand that I am 34 years old and undersized for the position. I only have three years of experience. I understand the trepidation and the worry that teams may have.
“But I know I can do it. I already did it at an elite collegiate level and I’m even better than that now. I’m not the typical guy, but if I can do the job, it shouldn’t matter,” he said.
Boyer says that many scouts are unaware of his background, but he is eager for a chance to prove that he has what it takes to play football at the professional level.
“Just talk to my teammates and my coaches. I’m not a super vocal type who is trying to pump everybody up. I work hard and have a good attitude towards things. I have a lot of confidence in myself and in my teammates and I know what we are capable of doing. I speak up when it’s time to speak up,” he said.
As for age, Boyer believes it’s just a number.
“I’m close with a lot of my former teammates, even though they were younger than me. They were just like my brothers. It’s like the military; age and background don’t really matter,” he said.
His life has taken plenty of turns, but there’s still a part of his younger self who has stuck around over the past few decades.
“That dreamer aspect, definitely. I was a huge daydreamer about everything. I’d dream of random stuff, and I definitely still do that. That part of me is never going to change,” he said.
Boyer awaits the NFL Draft in Los Angeles, training at Jay Glazer’s Unbreakable gym, where he has been working on hand striking and other combative drills, as well as snapping. He’s also interning for Friday Night Light’s director Peter Berg, and remains passionate about helping others who have served, especially in regard to helping lower the veteran suicide rate.
Only time will tell what’s next for Boyer on his journey of life. But regardless of where his path leads him next, it’s safe to assume he’ll continue to make an impact.
“I just want to keep changing the world. That’s why I went to Texas,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the motto: what starts here changes the world.”