Green Berets thrive on anonymity, on secrecy.
This weekend is absolutely not that.
Nate Boyer, 34-year-old veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, walked up to the podium just beyond the Seattle Seahawks’ lush practice field. He squinted into the sun, into the cameras trained on him, into the reporters five rows deep wanting to talk to him.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” he said on his first day in the NFL as a Seahawk.
The former Staff Sgt. Boyer was standing beside one of the NFL’s most modern and opulent team headquarters, on the shores of Lake Washington. It was a perfect Northwest spring day.
It was also a world — another lifetime, really — away from deserts and tanks and patrols, former workplaces such as Najaf, Iraq, and the Kapisa Province of Afghanistan.
“It’s an amazing place. I had no idea!” the most unlikely undrafted free agent long snapper in NFL history gushed during this Seahawks’ rookie minicamp that runs through Sunday. “It’s unbelievable.
“To be able to say I am officially an NFL player — for as long as it lasts — is amazing. It is hard to describe.”
He’s a hardened war veteran among relative kids 20, 21 and 22 years old. The smallest NFL details likely lost on the top draft picks, who have been stars since high school, are the biggest thrills for Boyer.
That’s the result of hunting and being shot at with guns and mortars for years as part of the 10th Special Forces Group and 3rd SFG, and of establishing refugee camps in Sudan.
On Friday, he was in the locker room of the two-time defending NFC champions and saw his blue Seahawks practice jersey number 48 with “BOYER” stitched in white on the back.
“It was incredible,” he said. “It is something you know is coming, but you don’t know how it is going to hit you. It is an amazing feeling. Seeing it hang there with my name on it was awesome.”
Boyer was 20 once — on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists flew commercial jets they had hijacked into the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C.
Three years later, compelled to selfless service, Boyer was in Darfur in western Sudan aiding refugees fleeing war there. A week after getting back from that, Boyer enlisted in the Army. He was so driven, so proficient and so mentally tough, he made it through the absurdly challenging training to become a member of the elite Special Forces.
One hundred fifty entered Boyer’s training to be a Green Beret. Eleven made it all the way through to aSpecial Forces unit.
That led to three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that stemmed from those Sept. 11 attacks Boyer had seen unfold on his television in Los Angeles years earlier.
While at war, Boyer learned of college football coach Mack Brown, representing the University of Texas. He had heard how great Brown was to soldiers while on USO tours.
Plus, Boyer said, “I saw that Longhorn logo more than any other symbol in Afghanistan. Granted, I was around a lot of American troops, but it seemed like it made the most sense for a soldier to go there.”
So that’s where he went. The son of a veterinarian father and a mother with a doctorate degree in environmental engineering who grew up in the Bay Area went to Austin, Texas — and tried out for Brown’s football team as a freshman in 2008. As a 29-year-old, 5-foot-10, 200-pound former high school basketball player who had never played a down of competitive football. And into a powerhouse program that had won the 2005 national title and played for another in ’09.
“I walked on as safety and did scout team at safety,” Boyer said of his initial UT season.
But he wasn’t satisfied with the scout team.
“I wanted to be a starter. I wanted to play,” Boyer said. “So I had to find a niche.”
The Longhorns were losing their snapper for punts and kicks, and the backup was graduating, too. So Boyer learned long snapping — by himself, while on summer National Guard duty training in Greece with the Greek Navy Seals.
“I picked up a ball and started figuring it out,” he said, “and the rest was history.”
Brown called Boyer, who was also an A student at Texas, “the most unique story in my 42 years of coaching.”
“Guys would be complaining during two-a-days and I’d stop practice and say, ‘Nate, why don’t you come up here and tell us about Iraq?’ ” Brown told Yahoo! Sports in January. “That’d be the end of that.”
Boyer got so good at long snapping he remains renowned for never sending back a bad one, in games or in practice. Brown gave him a scholarship for his new skill.
That streak of tens of thousands of great snaps continued Friday in his first day as a Seahawk.
“It’s hard to grasp for us to understand what he’s gone through and what he’s endured and the mentality it’s taken to accomplish the things he’s accomplished,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s an amazing man. We’re thrilled to have him.
“He snaps the ball pretty sweet, too.”
Get this: Even after Boyer came home to walk on at Texas, he kept going back to war — as a summer enlistee in the National Guard. Last July, days before he senior season began for the Longhorns, he was in a firefight amid a convoy near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border while among 12 Americans escorting 100 Afghan soldiers he had helped train.
Think those experiences and the character traits of discipline and toughness — mental even more than physical — might be assets for this Seahawks preseason? Especially for a team whose last game was the excruciating loss in the final seconds at the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl three months ago?
Yes, the Seahawks recently re-signed veteran long snapper Clint Gresham. But Boyer could be worth a preseason roster spot for locker room intangibles alone — say, through the entire preseason, when he could also get snaps on exhibition game film for other teams to see for a potential NFL Plan B.
“Well, he’s very accurate snapping the football; he’s got good skill there. I don’t know where he got it,” Carroll said. “We need to see if he can hold up blocking-wise. He’s not a big man.
“We know that he’s going to give you everything he’s got, which is all we’ve ever asked of our guys. Now we’ve got to see how that translates. He’s going to be in a big competition with ‘Gresh.’ We’ll see how that goes.”
Carroll hinted Boyer might be addressing the entire team soon.
“I like to think that anybody’s background might be a benefit to us in some ways,” Carroll said. “When the timing is right and we’re able to mix it in with our regular routines, I’m going to try to call on it.”
That’s a grand idea. After all, Boyer has more than the average undrafted rookie free agent to share.
“Football is not like war in any way at all, but it does have similarities to the military,” Boyer said. “Those brotherhoods you build in the locker room or on the battlefield are the same type of things. The concept I love about football is that you’re fighting for the man on your left and right, and that is exactly what it’s all about in combat.
“When you get in a firefight, you’re no longer worried about yourself, but you’re taking care of your brother. And a successful football team has the same mindset: You don’t want to let the team down. You’re selfless and you’re playing for each other, not for yourselves.”
As for his chances of making it in the NFL? Something says it’d be foolish to count him out.
“I am a huge daydreamer,” he said, “but I believe I can do it.
“When you get to a level like this, it’s not failing. It may not work out the way you hope. But it’s not failing.”