Pro football scouts have descended on Charleston, South Carolina, in advance of Saturday's Medal of Honor Bowl, evaluating more than 100 college seniors during workouts in a process that could lead to the realization of dozens of NFL dreams.
Nate Boyer turns 34 the day before kickoff. His profile will not be posted atop any NFL team's wish list, but given the name of the game, he's far from out of place.
Boyer has multiple war-zone deployments to his credit, including to Afghanistan the last two summers while a member of the Texas Army National Guard. The Special Forces staff sergeant made it back in time both years for the fall semester at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a bachelor's in kinesiology and is pursuing an advanced degree in advertising.
While academics may have factored into his post-active duty school selection, there was a bit more to it: Boyer had decided that, despite zero experience, he wanted to leave the full-time Army for big-time college football. Although his work ethic and Special Forces fitness levels dropped jaws at a walk-on workout and earned him a jersey, they didn't guarantee playing time.
"I walked on as a safety, but at a place like Texas, I quickly realized I wasn't going to get on the field anytime soon," Boyer said after arriving in Charleston for the bowl game. "My freshman year, both the starting and the backup long snappers were seniors, and I saw an opening there."
He watched YouTube videos to learn about technique. The muscle-memory requirements of firing a football mirrored those of firing a pistol, as did the concept of "aim small, miss small." He would end up snapping for the Longhorns for three years, even though his off-season training regimen likely was a first for the position.
"I'd won the starting job, I was put on scholarship, and I had to go into Coach [Mack] Brown's office and tell him I was going to be deploying in late April and I wouldn't be back until August," Boyer recalled. "Camp starts in early August. But he fully supported it. ... He was just like, 'Do what you've got to do, we appreciate your service ... I know you're going to stay in shape over there, just be sure you bring a football.'"
Already an undersized 5-foot-10, 200-pounder on college football's front line, Boyer dropped up to 20 pounds while deployed, finding it tough to pack on calories during missions spanning multiple days. He spent his free time firing the football through his legs at a piece of plywood or into a net, if he could find one.
("I remember, I got a box full of what had to be the leftovers of the food drive that the homeless didn't want," Boyer said of his own care-package experience. "Thank you, but they just didn't quite relate. We put in things like beef jerky, DVDs, sunscreen, shaving cream, a lot of comfort-type items.")
Boyer wrapped up his Texas football career Dec. 29 in the Longhorns' 31-7 loss to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. That might've been the end of Boyer's time in pads if not for a conversation between two long-serving members of the college coaching fraternity.
'You need a long snapper?'
Former Virginia Military Institute football head coach Cal McCombs took over player personnel duties for the Medal of Honor Bowl this year, albeit a bit reluctantly.
The Medal of Honor Bowl will be played Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern and air live on the NBC Sports network.
Photo Credit: Medal of Honor Bowl
"I knew it was going to be a lot of work, because I had to recruit 105 players in six months" said McCombs, who served in the Army as a lieutenant in the 1960s after starring at defensive back for the Citadel, which will host Saturday's game. "When I coached college football, we used to recruit 20 a year."
McCombs wanted military representation for the game that will benefit the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation and other military charities. His first call was a "no-brainer," he said: He was well aware of Daniel Rodriguez's career at Clemson, and his actions in combat in Afghanistan that earned him a Bronze Star Medal with valor device. The senior wideout accepted an early invitation.
"Boyer, to be honest with you, I called out to Texas and I talked with an old coach who is a good friend of mine, Kenny Rucker. And Kenny said, 'You need a long snapper?' And I said, 'Yeah, I need a long snapper.' And Kenny said, 'I got the perfect guy for you.'"
McCombs wasn't done, lining up representatives from each of the service academies: Navy outside linebacker Paul Quessenberry, Army defensive end Joe Drummond and Air Force kicker Will Conant will suit up alongside Boyer and Rodriguez on the National squad for Saturday's game, which airs at 2:30 p.m. on the NBC Sports network. (Local troops who would rather watch in person can score free tickets.)
While the trio of future officers looks toward graduation, Rodriguez and Boyer are heading to Hollywood: The former to assist with the movie version of his autobiography, and the latter as an intern with the production company helmed by Peter Berg, the director of "Lone Survivor," "Friday Night Lights" and "Battleship."
Of course, Boyer would be willing to take a detour from his filmmaking aspirations.
"If it includes a stop in the NFL, why not?" he said, joking about the flurry of NFL scouting activity surrounding him in Charleston. "Most of [the scouts] aren't too interested. ... We did height and weight this morning. A couple of them looked at me, you could see this look on their face, like, 'Wait, long snapper?'"
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.