It's hard to believe that it's been more than 10 years since the tragedy of 9/11. For many, those who lost loved ones when the towers fell or had loved ones serve in the resulting war against terror, the sights and sounds of that day still seem all too real. They may still seem all too real for many others, too.
The feeling that something unalterable happened still feels so recent than any other events a decade or more removed.
But for many current Longhorn football players, their recollections aren't as bright as those of us who were in middle school, high school, or beyond on that day. Most of the players who make up the Texas team were 10 or 11 at most, while the true freshman were only around seven or eight years of age when those planes hit the twin towers.
For example, junior defensive back Adrian Phillips doesn't have any particularly strong recollections of the event:
I was young back then. I really didn't have insight on what really was going on. I just knew back then that somebody had crashed a plane into our towers.
The coaching staff, however, is a different story. For head coach, the memories have been stronger, as well as lasting:
I think the biggest thing is it's an imprint that will be in my mind that morning for the rest of my life, like it will [be for] most Americans. We were sitting in a staff meeting, and as I walked in somebody said some plane hit the trade center. I thought, "Oh, that's awful. I hope it's a single plane accident or something." And then when the other one came and we all saw it, they ran down to get us. Our first concern was obviously that [former] President [George] Bush's daughter was in school here, so we didn't know what that would mean for Austin.
That last realization was perhaps the most scary for every citizen in any major city around the United States, as no one really knew the scale of the attacks. I recall that even during a normal game of frisbee with my brother that evening while trying to make sense of what happened, my eyes would sometimes scan the eyes, even though an attack on Lafeyette, Indiana would be somewhere quite down the list of targets for terrorists. Such was the uncertainty on that day.
As the leader of the football program, Brown immediately had some issues to which he needed to attend:
[Former Longhorn QB] Chris Simms was from New York, and we had some players that had parents working in New York. So we tried to find each of the players immediately on our team, and make sure that they were safe. And make sure that at the same time we could find that they have found their families. We tried to get all the players back to our building. We cancelled practice that afternoon. All of us were worried about President Bush. We didn't know where he was, or what he was doing. Then there was that time lapse of what's happening to our country because then it grew as we all know for the day.
The players currently on the Texas team were almost assuredly all too young to remember the chaos and uncertainty that felt in those moments after the towers fell.
They do, however, have a connection to the attacks and the resulting aftermath -- deep snapper Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret who enlisted to serve his country after 9-11, eventually spending nine years on active duty in locations around the world, including two tours of duty in Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star.
As does Brown, Boyer has vivid, life-altering recollections of the attacks and the hours that followed:
But some of my memories about it are the night after, I was living in California at the time, and I was in Southern California in Los Angeles, and a lot of times you don't necessarily think that of as a patriotic place. But I remember hordes of people marching down the streets wearing red, white and blue, and everybody coming together. That was just a real special thing to see and experience. Now it's 11 years later, and it still seems like it was three years later to me. But that day changed my life as it did so many other people. I definitely wouldn't be where I am right now if it had never happened.
That day started a long and strange journey for Boyer that has now brought him to Texas. The 31-year-old redshirt sophomore earned a scholarship this fall and has worked his way into the starting deep snapper job on field goal attempts.
It started with the decision to enlist, which had been percolating in his mind for some time:
When I was in high school, I wanted to join the military and it was something that I looked at. I ended up not doing it at the time. Then after 9/11 it definitely ignited that spark again. I didn't go in right away. I waited and did some other things. I actually went over and did some relief work in Africa, in the Darfur region for a while, and it was kind of after coming back from that that I just realized that I wanted to keep doing those things.
While so many things fundamentally changed on 9/11 -- New York's skyline, the sense of security that existed previously that was forever ripped from the American psyche, the intrusive changes in airline security, Boyer's travels around the world, and especially his experience in Iraq, shaped his understanding and appreciation for everything that America still has when asked to compare it to his experiences in the Middle East:
I mean, no picnic. I'll say that. It's not America. We're so fortunate here. It's unbelievable how lucky we are. Whenever you hear people complaining about stuff like petty stuff - I do it, too. Everybody's guilty of it. You've just got to stop and think. For me it's easy to just put things in perspective. Because over there those people have nothing. So many of them are happy with the nothing that they have, happier than we are. So that's inspiring.
The lessons learned over in Iraq, about perspective, about perseverance in the face of adversity and hardship, and a pride in place where all ones that Boyer carries with him to this day:
Contrary to popular belief, they don't all hate us. I don't know. I learned a lot from those people, too. They inspire you in a different way because it's a totally different culture, and they live a different way and a lot of them are very proud of where they come from and what they're all about. Like I said earlier, to be so content without stuff is something that a lot of us in America don't really understand.
Madonna clearly didn't. And it is still hard for most of the rest of us.
More than just protecting his country and his beliefs, Boyer learned some valuable lessons about people:
Being part of the special forces, it's not just learn how to shoot and be a warrior, necessarily. You're over there and you're working with indigenous forces and you're training them up and fighting with those guys. So you're fully immersed in the culture and all that stuff. So that was something that interested me.
Becoming a Green Beret is privilege hard earned, but Boyer benefited from the need for soldiers that existed with conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time, they opened up a contract where you could come in off the street and if you scored high enough on tests - and I think you had to be 21 at the time - you got a shot to potentially go to selection after basic training and airborne school. A lot of guys signed up for that, and not that many of us made it through. But I was fortunate enough to be one of those people, so I got to be with the greatest unit in the Army.
Like a lot of soldiers, Boyer doesn't care to talk too much about some of the things that happened while in Iraq and other places around the world. As much as he learned, it was difficult as well, obviously:
I mean, I'm not going to get into specifics about some of the stuff that went on overseas. But there is a lot. Everybody that goes over there has a story. There is a lot of tragedy. Just really hard stuff to take in and deal with. But like I said earlier, there is a lot of positive stuff and a lot of inspiring stuff. You learn more about yourself on the battlefield than you will anywhere.
Boyer took some time to speak about the camaraderie of war, as well as the mental processes that take place in the heat of battle:
The mindset we have when we go over there is you're fighting for the guy next to you. That's it. That's all that matters. So I don't know. When you get into a tough situation like that and bad, scary stuff is going on all around you, if you're focused on that stuff, you don't even really like I don't know. All your fears kind of go away and you just focus in and keep moving forward.
The fact that Boyer served so long in the military isn't the only fascinating aspect of his story as it relates to him working his own onto the Texas football team and then earning a starting role.
His lack of experience with the game is just as remarkable:
He wanted to help our country. But at the same time, here's a guy that decides that never playing high school football, he's going to go to Texas, get in school, which is so difficult to do especially out-of-state. He's going to make our football team, and none of that could possibly happen. It's like a movie now. [Nate’s] got a bronze star. He still protects our country. He's still in the military reserves.
Where Boyer had to balance being a warrior and being a humanitarian who needed to identify with and establish relationships in a warzone, he now has to balance the demands of still serving in the National Guard with his schoolwork and practice time.
And since Boyer is the snapper for field goals, it's a significant responsibility, according to Brown:
At the same time, he's a 31-year-old sophomore that snapped the other night. He was a little low with his first snap. He was a little nervous. And I said, "Don't go there. With what you've been through, you don't need to be nervous on the football field in front of 101,000 [fans]." It's a wonderful story. A great student, and he's brought a lot of maturity and leadership to our team.
When Boyer decided to try out for the Texas team, he didn't necessarily know that he was going to end up at a need position. He did see an opportunity and worked to make the most of it:
Last year both the long snappers were seniors. So I knew they were going to be graduating, and I knew we had other people coming in to compete for the position, too. But coaches always say they're looking for depth at every position, so it's just I thought it was the best way that I thought I could be a part of the team and really help out on the field, not just with my leadership. That's obviously important with all the work I did on scout teams the last couple years, too.
The same drive that helped keep Boyer alive in combat situations served him well in picking up a new task:
But I just thought that it was the best way I could help the team. So, yeah, I just watched the other deep snappers, picked up a ball and tried to copy them, and just figured it out. It's just one of those things. You've got to just do a lot of reps, and it's like shooting a free throw. Once you get the hang of it and you know what it feels like when you get a good one off, you just go from there.
Sounds easy. But then, maybe things just come easily for a guy like Boyer. If they don't, he'll make it happen through hard work, at least.
Despite his age, perspective, and maturity, Boyer sounds like a kid when discussing receiving his scholarship several weeks ago:
When I got offered the scholarship it was pretty amazing. I still don't know. I definitely don't think I deserve it anymore the other walk-ons. But I'm not going to turn it down. I also know a lot of the reasons I was given the scholarship. It's not necessarily for the work I've done on the field, but it's a lot of the work that, the work ethic and the leadership. It feels like I'm a walk-on, because, I mean, I am a walk-on.
Just not a normal walk-on. Well, probably not so much.
He does understand the leap of faith that the coaches have taken with him:
I mean, I kind of step out of my shoes sometimes and put myself in theirs. One day when you're not getting the shot you think you deserve, you're always wondering why, but you've got to put yourself on their side and say, look, I'm 31. I just started snapping last year. I've never played football before. If I was a coach, I don't know if I'd put that guy in either. But they're obviously taking a chance with me, just like I've taken a lot of chances in my life. I know I've got a good work ethic, and they know that I've done what I can over the last year to learn that position and getting better at it every day.
Some of the other coaches and players also provided their perspectives on Boyer.
The sports-as-war metaphors often get overplayed, at least according to defensive coordinator Manny Diaz:
Nate's a guy that everyone on this football team respects. Everyone in this football program respects Nate Boyer. People commonly try to make similarities between this game that we are associated with combat. Obviously, it's almost an insult to do that to real life combat. But Nate is a guy that's been in both arenas. Still understands it's hard work going through two-a-days. It's hard work going through the offseason program. Understands the ups and downs that our players go through. Then can balance it with this other part of his life where he understands that the stakes are real when you say things like team work and camaraderie and accountability and dependability. Those are just things that you put on the wall. Those are things that cause life and death to occur.
Rather than relaxing and taking the mindset that football is only football, an enterprise that pales in significance compared to the stakes of war, Boyer has instead translated the same intensity of focus and will that served him so well as a soldier to his work with the Longhorns. He's provided an example to his young teammates.
Now in his third year on campus, Boyer has earned the respect of those teammates, all of whom are 10 years younger, including junior offensive guard Mason Walters:
Just getting to work with him day-in and day-out is such a pleasure. He's a great guy, very humble, and has a lot that you can learn from.
For junior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, the age difference hasn't resulted in a corresponding communication gap:
A lot of us have thanked him. He's such a great dude. He really fits in with us. Being an older guy you would think that he would feel we're all immature to him, but he really fits in. He's like a big brother to us, and we're just lucky to have him.
It's great. It's a testament to you practice how you play, because he busts his tail every day in practice. He does a great job. He knows his assignments, and he makes sure he's at full speed. As you see in the game, he's producing, so great job to him.
Diaz had a few more thoughts to share about Boyer:
When he speaks, everyone on the football team listens. He's been through the best training program there is. He's been coached by the best there is because our military forces have got the playbook on how to create the ultimate fighting force in this world. They can't go 111. They have to go 120 every year, and Nate's read through that playbook. He's been in that game plan. When he comes to us and he speaks, everybody in this program from top to bottom listens.
With all the life experience that Boyer has, he has been a valuable resource for the other Longhorns:
The leader is a guy that can influence other guys around him and he does that. Whether he plays, how many plays, it really doesn't matter. Guys can look to him for advice. Guys can look to him for maybe how to handle some adversity because there's a guy that's been able to handle some situations that are pretty adverse. So that's what he provides. He's very mature. He's good with the players. So that's what I've always respected about him. When he talks, I shut up and listen and really take in what he has to say, because I really appreciate what he has to say.
Again, the current Longhorns may not have much perspective regarding 9/11, but deep snapper Nate Boyer does, and his presence will help provide that today. Tomorrow, his leadership and maturity will continue to provide an example for the younger players.
Fozzy Whittaker may have been Captain America, but Nate Boyer is America. Thank you for your service, sir