Ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer commanded Seahawks’ attention without a workout
By Dan Wetzel on May 4, 2015
Late Saturday afternoon, just minutes after the 2015 NFL draft concluded, Nate Boyer’s cell phone lit up with a number that made no sense … except it fit perfectly into the story of the NFL’s most improbable rookie prospect.
Boyer, a former Green Beret who less than a year ago was involved in combat in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was part of his summer job, if you will, in the Army Reserves. The rest of the year he was the starting long snapper for the University of Texas.
He is also 34 years old – self described as “too old and too slow.” And oh, he never played high school football. He walked on at UT only five years ago on sort of a lark after he was enrolled following repeated frontline tours in the Iraq War.
So after Texas’ 2014 season ended, he decided to try out for the NFL, no matter how unlikely it seemed.
Boyer knew, at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, he’d never be drafted. The end of that event Saturday, however, meant teams could start signing free agents for camp spots. This was going to be the moment. He just wanted some kind of a chance, even just an invite to an organized team activity. Thirty-four-year-old rookies can’t be choosy.
And now the phone was buzzing with a strange number.
Seattle. The Seattle Seahawks. How many workouts or conversations had Nate Boyer had with them?
“None,” he said before laughing.
Of course not. It didn’t matter. General manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll were on the line. They were offering a contract and thus that chance to get to training camp. They were offering a path to the league.
“They just said they were excited to see me compete,” Boyer told Yahoo Sports on Sunday. “I had spoken to a few other teams, but [not them]. I didn’t know that I was on their list.
“It was the best kind of shock.”
Boyer, whose military service ended in February, is but one player on a 90-man roster trying to find a way to survive until it’s pared down to 53 on the eve of the season. There is no celebration here of making it because clearly nothing is guaranteed or even probable at this point. The odds remain long.
Clint Gresham has held the Seahawks’ long snapping job since 2010 and was re-signed to a three-year deal in March. (Gresham graciously welcomed Boyer to the team on Twitter over the weekend.)
That’s fine for Boyer though, it wasn’t like anyone was just going to hand him a job in the NFL. He’s a guy with an intense belief in himself and the courage to chase audacious dreams.
“So pumped,” he said.
The whole idea of playing in the NFL was hatched only fairly recently, one more in a lifetime of “why nots” for the Bay Area native.
Back in 2004, as a 23-year-old trying to find his way in the world, he saw a Time magazine story about the genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan. He flew to Africa, talked his way onto a United Nations’ flight and eventually showed up, unannounced, in the Tulum refugee camp where Catholic Relief Services put him to work.
There he decided he’d be of most use helping the refugees win the war. So he joined the Army Special Forces, which specializes in working with foreign freedom fighters.
“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,” he said back in January. “That was more appealing to me than just joining the Army … I wanted to be really hands-on. I wanted to be with those people and understand what was going on.”
After surviving brutally intense Special Forces training, he eventually wound up in Iraq, training and fighting alongside the fledgling Iraqi Army. He was repeatedly decorated for his services, including being awarded a Bronze Star. In 2008, as both his initial time in the Army and the Iraq War was winding down, he decided to go to college, but figured he should play football as well even though he was 27 and had never played before.
Rather than go to a Division II or III school, or even a lesser successful Division I team, he decided he’d just enroll at Texas and try to walk on. Why? They were ranked No. 1 at the time.
“I wanted it to be a challenge,” he said.
Texas loved him. He never stopped grinding. At maybe 185 pounds at the time though, he was never going to be a player. He carried a flag out on the field and took part in some special teams. That was it. For most, it would’ve been more than enough.
Then the program’s starting long snapper graduated and Boyer boldly announced to then coach Mack Brown he would train all summer and take the job because it was the best way he could help the team.
“Have you ever long snapped before?” Brown said he asked him.
“No,” Boyer said.
That wasn’t the half of it. Boyer wouldn’t be training in Austin. He was enlisting in a National Guard division of the Special Forces, which meant he’d spend his summer on active duty and then only return to campus for the start of camp. He was going back to combat, and just taking a football with him and snapping it during down times. (This routine eventually found him alone in dirt fields in Afghanistan hiking balls to no one as curious villagers looked on at this peculiar athletic act.)
As usual, it worked. He became UT’s starting long snapper and over three seasons never had an errant play.
He even worked a connection with military leadership to actually ask to be sent each summer not to a safer locale, but the most dangerous ones in Afghanistan, where daily firefights and sniper attacks were a way of life.
“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.”
He does nothing the easy way. It’s everything or nothing.
That includes the NFL. His entire life has been about conjuring up impossible dreams, not listening to those who say it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or maybe most often that he should ditch these long-shot, often dangerous, scenarios and get on with settling into life.
Boyer saw it differently, going to all-star games and free-agent camps and trying to spread word through football connections and the media. Anything to make some team notice him.
“You fall in love, through the process, with guys,” Schneider told reporters this weekend. “Through a good friend of mine I’ve become very aware of who this guy is at his core, and everything that he represents. … He’s just a phenomenal person, and he’s a competitor, and he’s tough and he represents a lot of really, really cool things that quite frankly I think would be really good for a lot of us to be around.”
Added Carroll, “We cherish competitors, we cherish tough guys, we cherish guys that can overcome odds, and he’s done all of that.”
It’s not just all inspiration and back story though, the Seahawks say. They are spending a spot on him because of football.
“He runs down and covers kicks,” Schneider said. “And he’s really made himself into a legitimate snapper.”
“Gresh better get ready,” Carroll noted.
For Boyer, this is all he wanted. He enters with no expectations except they’ll have to drag him off that roster. He has beaten long odds before, had his twisting life lead to destinations more unlikely than the last.
So why not the NFL? Of course this is crazy. But so is just showing up in Darfur, or walking onto UT or asking to go to the hottest spots in Afghanistan while being a college football player.
“The goal now is to outwork everyone and ultimately win a job,” Boyer said Sunday.
He is beyond focused.
“I’m not stopping here. I’m not going to quit.
“And I’m never going to stop.”
He reports to Seattle on Thursday.