This story appears in the Sept. 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
THE ESSENCE OF TEAM SPORTS is the cause. Believing in it, committing to it, enlisting others to join it. Whatever else sports is, the cause represents the connective tissue between the athletes and the experience. Success is determined not only by talent but by a collective belief that the cause is worthy of the sacrifice.
So imagine the scene in a defensive huddle during the final minutes of a close college football game. Let's make it a Saturday in September. It's hot. There's sweat dripping from face masks, labored breathing and the urgent sound of pleading filling the air. Imagine the next play being the most important one in the lives of the 11 players. And imagine you're one of them, your body surging with that special mixture of motivation and panic, your self-worth riding on the ability of your team to stop a drive right now. Everything is happening at once. The coaches are gesticulating on the sidelines like hopped-up mimes. The fans are standing, their voices rising along with their bodies. Those 11 players across from you are all swagger and expectation.
Then you turn back inside that sweat storm of a huddle and fix your eyes on a man who once took care of his crew after driving a 20-ton truck over an IED in Iraq, a man whose life experience makes the adrenaline rush of a big third-down play in this close game feel like an afternoon nap.
Would that make a difference? Would you have any choice but to draw strength from the fact that this man deems your cause worthy? After all, if you, like Indiana defensive end Kevin Bush, had felt the sudden jolt of a homemade bomb exploding underneath you half a world away, in the middle of a place where friend and foe are nearly impossible to separate, can a third down be considered -- even figuratively -- in life-and-death terms?
"It's hard to grasp being here without my time in the military," says Bush, who was stationed in Korea and Iraq as an infantry soldier in the Army. "The grind gets tough, and when I get frustrated or tired, I try to step back and reflect on where I came from and what I've seen."
The United States has deployed more than 2 million men and women to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11. It's inevitable that some of them, upon returning, would look to college athletics as a pursuit. This is nothing new. Men and women who turned to the military for teamwork, competition and the belief in a cause come back and turn to education and athletics for the same reasons.
Not everyone who enlists is a saint or a role model, but the act of service translates well to athletic competition. Older, disciplined, more likely to understand and appreciate the privilege attached to the opportunity -- those are characteristics war veterans bring to the campus and field of play. These vets work side by side with young men and women fresh out of high school, 18-year-olds left to their own devices for the first time. These vets imbue teams with a greater sense of commitment, and in many cases teach lessons learned by viewing life through a wider lens. They've seen something more profound than a final score.
"These young people who have gone through the military experience know how to survive and persevere and excel in tough times," says Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson. "Kevin's teammates know he's the type of man who makes a commitment and keeps his word. For an older athlete to come back and make a commitment not only to his education but to this team is a great lesson for the younger guys."
War and sports have long had an uneasy metaphorical relationship. Seasons are "campaigns"; plays are "battles." You might be persuaded to use those terms more judiciously if you looked across the huddle to see Minnesota defensive lineman Curran Delaney, who has not only looked through a face mask into the eyes of enormous offensive linemen but also at enemy combatants through the scope of a Marine-issue M40 sniper rifle.
If there is a connection between war and sports, it can be encapsulated in one sentence: The cause is bigger than the individual. Bush spent 14 months in Iraq driving a truck called a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle. After he felt the bomb explode beneath him and smelled the smoke as it rose around him, he got his crew out with just one minor injury. He takes no credit, instead citing the sturdiness of the equipment and the collective calm of his fellow soldiers.
Given that mentality, is it any surprise that overachievement is the common thread uniting these men and women? For the most part, they're walk-ons, their spots earned in the pamper-free environment of nonscholarship athletics.
"To be a walk-on, perseverance and toughness are the keys," says Wilson, who is in his first season at IU. "If you're walking on, that's the lifestyle. And who's tougher than these guys?"
BUSH WAS A WALK-ON TIGHT END at the University of Toledo before leaving after one semester to return home to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne with the hope of boosting his grades and transferring to Indiana. But his struggles continued. The remorse Bush felt for letting down those who relied on him was a major factor behind his enlistment. Committing to the cause of his country was a means of atoning for his aimlessness. Making the team and contributing at Indiana is a way of closing the circle.
He doesn't get enough snaps to be a captain, but he still received more than his fair share of votes from his fellow Hoosiers. "The leadership aspect of the military carries over -- setting an example by learning to work together for a common goal rather than working toward individual goals," Bush says. "I try to do what I can in terms of giving guys advice. At the same time, I don't want to come off as the guy who thinks he knows this or thinks he knows that. I made a lot of mistakes that led me to different places, but lessons are learned and passed on."
Delaney was a high school junior when the bombings began in Iraq, and something about the way he fixated on the television coverage convinced his father that his son would enlist.
"As far as work ethic goes, in the long term, football is a grind," says Delaney, who rose to the rank of corporal and performed tours of duty in Southeast Asia and Iraq. "But it doesn't get to me because I've done it. Waking up at 5 a.m. every day is something I'm completely used to. Other people hate it, but for me, it's what I've been doing for the past six years."
Bernard James didn't pick up a basketball until he was 13, and he didn't enjoy the sport until he put his 6'10" frame to work for the Air Force's showcase team. He became a staff sergeant and was stationed in Kuwait, Iraq and Qatar during his six years of service. After a brief stint playing at a junior college, James earned a scholarship to Florida State.
"The best thing that ever happened to me," says James about rediscovering basketball. "It's hypercompetitive, and that's what I love. I love going head-to-head and seeing who comes out the better man."
Whatever the sport, the cause is key. It doesn't matter if it's a Big Ten football championship, an NCAA Tournament spot or a Conference USA rowing title, the point is the same. It's about hope, sacrifice and a willingness to bury the personal for the collective. These kinds of intangibles are exemplified in Tulsa rower Stephanie Rogers, who as a high school senior responded to 9/11 by saying, "I have to do something about this."
For Rogers, that something sent her on two tours of duty in Iraq, where she flew air recon and patrol missions for the Navy.
"When it comes to rowing, even though it hurts and I want to stop, I'm able to keep going," she says. "I learned that quality in the Navy -- it's the discipline and commitment to never give up."
Her coach, Kevin Harris, himself a former Navy man, tells his team that the world might be a different place without people like Rogers. "They can go to school without fear of it blowing up," Harris says. "It means something to them that she has chosen to go through this with them. She gets the value of being able to come back and get her education. She values the privilege of being a part of this team every day. Every day is a great day for her."
Athletes like Rogers trade one cause for another, but the lessons carry over. Through the military, they learn patience, fortitude and forbearance. Through athletics, they pay those qualities forward. Along the way, they have some fun. It's a right they've earned.
Reporting by Anna Katherine Clemmons, a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.