On most football teams, the long-snapper is the least interesting person on the team. His sole responsibility is tossing the ball to the punter or placekick holder, and maybe blocking for three seconds.
However, a recent profile on Grantland.com proves that there’s at least one truly outstanding long-snapper, and he plays here in Texas:
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.”
Boyer’s childhood was fairly normal. Raised in an affluent suburb of San Francisco, he believed he hadn’t earned his privileged upbringing. After high school, he briefly attended a community college firefighting program before dropping out and moving to Los Angeles to make it as an actor.
While this sounds like the setup for any number of indie movies, Boyer’s LA experience is unique. While other struggling actors wait tables, he earned a living babysitting five different autistic children, teaching them social skills so they could make friends.
However, the babysitting gig wasn’t too lucrative. Boyer lived out of his ’93 Honda Civic while in California. He needed a change. In 2004, he read an issue of Time magazine featuring a story about the genocide in Darfur. He decided to leave the United States and volunteer for a NGO in Sudan. No NGO would take him, so he decided to fly out on his own:
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.
Boyer found his way to a refugee camp by pretending to work with Doctors Without Borders. The Christian Children’s Fund gave him work, and he spent time handing out food, playing with kids, and running errands for the organization.
After his one-month volunteer stint ended, Boyer was driving back to N’Djamena to fly back to the States, when men with AK-47s held him up at a local checkpoint.
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.
One of Boyer’s fellow passengers came into the basement and convinced the gunmen to let him go. He flew back to the United States, and almost immediately enlisted in the U.S Army at the height of the Iraq War. Not only did he join the military, he applied for the Green Berets. He immediately proved his worth:
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 [fellow Green Beret Adam] Clark. “People looked and him and said, ‘I really want to hate you, but for some reason, I just can’t. I really like you.’”
Only 11 of the 150 soldiers who entered the Green Beret training program finished, Boyer being one of them. In December 2006, he went to Iraq. In his first week, something horrible happened:
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.”
Boyer doesn’t delve too deeply into his other combat experiences in the profile, although he does discuss his daily routine. He decided he would play college football after he left the military, even though he had no experience in the sport. He watched football drills on YouTube while in Iraq, and went out onto the base’s yard and re-created what he saw in the desert heat.
After watching the Longhorns lose to Alabama in the 2010 BCS title game, he decided he would play for Texas. He entered walk-on tryouts and outran all the prospective players in drills, including former high school athletes who had rejected scholarships from other programs in order to try out for Texas. He made the team, but his lack of experience showed. He couldn’t tackle, which is generally a problem when you’re a defensive back. He barely played his first year.
After his freshman season, the top two long-snappers on the Longhorns’ depth chart graduated. Seeing an opportunity to play, Boyer worked hard on his snapping abilities:
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. [Strength coach Bennie] Wylie remembers sitting in his office, just off the weight room, hearing persistent thump! thump! thump! of snapped footballs smacking their target.
Since week 2 of the 2012 season, Boyer has been the Longhorns starting long-snapper, and he carries the American flag every week when the team takes the field:
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 his 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.
Check out the full profile over at Grantland for Boyer’s whole story. Or you could always wait a few years when Hollywood inevitably makes a movie based on his life.
(Image from Tom Pennington/Getty Images)