- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is not a story about war; it's a story about football.
This is not a story about Jake Sheffield, former corporal in the United States Marine Corps. It's a story about Jake Sheffield, defensive tackle for Arizona State University.
This is not a story about the friends Sheffield lost during two hellish tours in Fallujah, Iraq; but a story about the friends he's met through football and the two years of eligibility he has remaining at ASU.
But to understand the story of Jake Sheffield the football player, it's important to understand the story of Jake Sheffield the Marine.
Like many young boys Sheffield was inspired by the story of Arizona State great Pat Tillman -- whose tale of sacrifice should need no rehashing. It's one of the reasons Sheffield joined the service and a significant reason why the 25-year-old opted to resume his football career at ASU.
At the age of 18, Sheffield was assigned to Golf Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines. For four years and two tours in Iraq, his mission was threefold. First, since he's a big fella, his job was to carry and load the 120-pound, 155-millimeter rounds for the artillery cannons. His unit would also provide convoy cover for Iraqi soldiers just out of boot camp. But the most daunting and dangerous assignment was to provide protection for the ordnance disposal unit. Those are the guys who go out looking for bombs. Sheffield's job was to have their back. He was, essentially, the tip of the sword.
"I think what scared me most was the roadside bombs," Sheffield said. "They disguise them pretty well. There is anxiety all the time. But you do what you have to do to survive. You never know when you're going to get attacked. [Improvised explosive devices] were their primary weapon so when they saw us taking out their weapons, they got pretty upset about that."
Most of his teammates have heard some stories. Like the time an IED shredded through the engine block of Sheffield's Humvee, and how the impact was unlike anything he had experienced as an all-state football player in Aurora, Colo.
"It all happened so fast," Sheffield said. "One second you're driving, the next second everything is in havoc. When you come to and realize [what happened], you are disoriented for a minute. You don't really know what happened. Then you come to and start worrying about your friends and there is that panic. Then you take it in and get your head on straight. You're shaken up for a while."
It's stories like that the young guys want to hear -- the freshmen, the 18-year-olds who have experienced war through Xbox, but that's about it. Older players like offensive lineman Andrew Sampson, a fifth-year senior who has become fast friends with Sheffield, help keep the younger, more inquisitive players in check when they start asking questions beyond Sheffield's comfort level.
"Sometimes he'll talk about stuff if he wants to, but we'll usually stop him," Sampson said. "Whenever he wants to talk, we'll let him. But we try to steer it toward the fun stories. We like to hear what they did when they were all just hanging out."
And when Golf Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines was hanging out, there was usually a football involved. Even in the desert, Sheffield was tossing the ball, tackling his buddies and remembering the sport he loved so much. He promised himself that when -- if -- he returned, he'd pursue it again.
"The biggest thing I took from it is to be thankful for everything you have," Sheffield said. "When you are overseas, you have time to think about all of the things you took advantage of. When I got back to the states, I made it a priority to be thankful for my family. They were very supportive. I wanted to show them I was thankful for having them in my life. Then I started school. I had decent grades in high school, but I don't feel like I pushed myself as hard as I could.
"Now I push myself in school. And especially in football. When I was out of the game, I really missed it. There was a hole inside of me. I always had a passion for playing football. I'm really just trying to soak in the whole experience and be thankful for everything I do have."
New Arizona State coach Todd Graham should be thankful as well, because Sheffield is exactly the kind of man he needs around as he tries to overhaul ASU on and off the field. Graham has been pushing culture change -- a real yes sir, no sir type of attitude. He's not going to find a better poster boy than a former Marine. (Who, by the way, still answers every question with a yes sir, no sir.)
"He's tailor-made for us," Graham said. "When you walk in the meeting room, he stands out because he sits up straight. He exemplifies what we're all about. "
Sheffield isn't the first soldier to return from war and go on to participate in college athletics. And he won't be the last. But each story is unique. And each soldier brings his scars, experience and perspective to his new team.
"You can look into his eyes and know what he's been through," Graham said. "You can tell he's seen a lot. I think the thing that really sticks out to me is the heart he has. He's a great reminder every day of the price we pay to play this game and the freedom that we have."
As with a lot of troops returning from war, Sheffield wasn't really sure what to do when he got home. He returned to Denver and spent time with his family. That was priority No. 1. Then he opted to play for two years at College of the Desert in Southern California, where he earned scholarship offers from Iowa, Indiana and Arizona State.
Since he returned three years ago, football has been Sheffield's coping mechanism.
"It's helped him tremendously," said his mother, Lori Funk. "It keeps him focused on football and not the other things that he's seen and what's happened. I'm sure he was traumatized in a lot of different ways that he's not ready to talk about fully yet. This keeps him focused on school and his education and football has always been his passion in life."
Sheffield, who stands 6-foot-4 and has his weight up to about 280 pounds, is listed second on the depth chart behind NFL prospect Will Sutton. But Graham said he'll see his share of field time.
"He's going to be a player," Graham said. "He's a dominating 3-technique. Very explosive. He'll be able to handle the pass rush. He'll be a guy that's in our starting rotation."
Connecting with his younger teammates hasn't always been easy for Sheffield. Living what he's lived and seeing what he's seen have created more than just a seven-year void. But there is something they all can relate to.
"I think we've all just connected through a love of football," he said. "I've had more life experience than these guys, but when you get right down to it, we all love the sport. We connect on that level. I'm sure they respect me for what I've done, but I just see myself as a regular guy on the team. I've just had different opportunities than they have."
Football has always borrowed clichés from war: teams going into battle, live bullets flying, etc. Sheffield has a new perspective on such rhetoric.
"With any situations there are always going to be ups and downs," Sheffield said. "I'm proud of what I accomplished over there. I'm proud of the guys I served with and now I'm proud to be a football player for Arizona State."
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