Back in the game
Tehuti Miles survived a year in Afghanistan, but now that he's on the University of Maryland football team, he's not sure he can survive the fireworks.
"You know the ones they set off after touchdowns?" asks Miles, a 22-year-old Terps freshman running back. "They scare me half to death. I keep forgetting they do that."
Miles has post-traumatic stress disorder, a souvenir from his tour of duty in Kandahar as a specialist in the U.S. Army.
The trauma came July 10, 2010, while clearing an enemy compound at night on dismounted patrol. Miles and his buddy were on one side of a wall, while a sniper sergeant was on the other. The sniper stepped on an improvised explosive device. It blew off both his legs, an arm and shredded his torso, killing him instantly. Miles had been talking to him minutes earlier. The blast blew Miles backward 10 feet.
"If it wasn't for that wall, I wouldn't be talking to you right now," he says.
In those moments afterward, he could see his platoon sergeant yelling at him, but none of the words made sense. All he could hear was the shrill in his ears. Then he saw the spine of the dead man. It changed him.
"It was weird. I didn't feel any emotion. That was the first time I've seen somebody die, but I was just numb. I'm still a little numb to certain things, but I think it's gotten a lot better. I get excited over a lot of things now."
Such as the day this September they told him he'd made the Maryland football team as a walk-on. He was in school thanks to the GI Bill.
"The guy on the phone said, 'How would you like to play for Maryland football this season?' And I went crazy. After I hung up I just went running around the house, just all over it."
He'd been given a one-day tryout, even though he hadn't played during his four years in the Army, even though he played only two years at Hammonton (N.J.) High School before that.
"I was watching him from up here [in my office]," Maryland head coach Randy Edsall said. "And he looked pretty good. I invited him up … I sat there in amazement. Here was a young man who'd risked his life every day over there, 24/7, to protect our country. He'd survived. He knew people who didn't."
At least 10 soldiers from his squadron were killed in that single year in Afghanistan -- March 2010 to March 2011.
"One day, just after he came home, he was looking at a website with all the names of his friends who'd been killed," his mother, Karen Miles, recalls. "And he just broke down. He just started crying."
Miles has frequent nightmares that he's being shot at and can't shoot back -- "I can't squeeze the trigger," he says. He has dreams of IEDs blowing up underneath him.
"Oh, my God, one night, it was SO real."
"He'd just suddenly wake up like a zombie," says Nicole Ampole, his ex-girlfriend, still close. "He'd be breathing heavy, just drenched in sweat. And he'd be like, 'I just had my arm blown off!' And I'd say, 'No, Tehuti. Feel your arm. It's still there. You're OK.'''
The ringing in his ears never stops. "It's permanent," he says. It's worse at night, when he goes to bed. He has to leave on a fan for the noise. "It takes him three and four hours to get to sleep sometimes," Nicole says.
The PTSD worries Edsall, who hopes Miles can contribute on special teams next season and possibly be worked into the running back rotation. It's part of why he's so bent on giving Miles a chance. "Football is something he treasures very, very much," Edsall says. "So to be able to give him that, maybe we can keep his mind off of all that other stuff."
But it hasn't been easy. At first, the NCAA said Miles was ineligible to play. Something about paperwork, high school credits, blah, blah, blah. Maryland couldn't have him in the program.
"To say a young man like that can't come in and participate in football, after what he's done?" Edsall asks with a shrug. "Couldn't come here on his own with no help from anybody? That was the toughest thing, telling him he couldn't play. I could see the disappointment on his face."
So Maryland set out to fix that, posthaste. They petitioned the NCAA for a waiver, flooded them with information and testimonials, and got it -- in 10 days.
"When I told him he was back on the team, his smile went from ear to ear," Edsall says.
Now Miles wears a new uniform. It's got Maryland's flag on it, instead of America's, and it doesn't come with night vision goggles or an M4 rifle, but he loves it just the same. "College football seems like the military," Miles says. "Everybody's a brother. I love it."
"I take my hat off to my son," says his mom. "He's moving on. He's making this happen on his own. He's doing what he wants with his life. He's adjusting. He's a trooper."
And even though Miles can't wear a game uniform – he's only eligible for the scout team this season -- he has high hopes. "My goal is to help this team get better. And for me to get better. And someday, to be drafted."
But as you watch him laughing with his new teammates, and you think of his 10 teammates who didn't come home, you know it's not about playing on a Saturday or making it to NFL Sundays. It's about the chance to try the everyday celebration of being joyously, happily alive.