Jenna Evans tears through the many layers of Nate Boyer. An inspiring story about how this man went from being a Green Beret to a college football pro to the NFL and now dedicating his life to helping American Veterans.
No. Hardly an inspiring word to most of us, no often carries a negative connotation paired with disappointment, a shrug of the shoulders, or a redirection of plans. ‘No’ has been the fuel that burns and sustains Nate Boyer’s torch, which he carries to light his path as he pushes from one challenge to the next; head down, toes dug in, determination coursing through his veins.
Growing up in Northern California, Nate always had determination, but lacked focus. He had dreams of being a professional athlete; football specifically, but never seemed to get around to playing. Between baseball, basketball, and soccer, football always seemed to get pushed out of the schedule. By the time high school came around, Nate felt like it was too late to start, and that he was “too old” to catch up with his peers. See, this is ironic, because Nate later goes on to become a 29-year-old walk on safety for the University of Texas Longhorns; ancient to his 18-23-year-old teammates; but I digress. After high school, a young and naïve, but motivated Nate Boyer moved to San Diego and landed a job on a sport fishing boat in Point Loma, with zero experience.
“I didn’t really have a clue, I just kind of went out there and bull-shitted my way in. I told them I had worked [in the Bay Area] for a bit on a couple of boats. I got a couple of no’s, but one of the boats let me work for one day, for free. I actually got sea sick and threw up on the way back in, and that’s how they knew I was full of shit.”
Luckily, the Captain saw in Nate a hard worker and extended a job offer despite the fib, and the vomit. And so, Nate Boyer’s‘fake it until you make it’, and don’t take no for an answer methods joined up and set a spring winding, building energy to catapult Nate towards an incredible story of achievement and selfless acts of service.
Nate was 20-years-old when 9/11 shook our country. At the time he was happily living in the SoCal bubble, bouncing from fishing to firefighting to film school, and working as a mentor for children diagnosed with Autism. The months and years immediately following September 11, 2001, saw many young men from Nate’s generation joining the armed forces. A new and overwhelming sense of service, patriotism and anger toward the enemy fueled the recruits. Nate, however, didn’t necessarily feel that way. He describes that time as being eye opening:
“I started traveling. I would go backpack for a few months through Europe or Central America or where ever, then come back and work and do it again. I was trying to figure something out, looking for something but I didn’t really know what. I was just trying to figure out what was going on in the world.”
In 2004, a friend of Nate’s showed him a Time Magazine photo journalism article about the Darfur conflict, called “Tragedy in Sudan” and the images penetrated his core; triggering the aforementioned spring that had been storing energy in its coils, waiting for this moment to shift from potential to kinetic, to burst into motion. Nate felt overwhelmingly compelled to help in any way he could, so he began by calling every non-government organization with a presence in the country, offering to pay his own way if they will give him a task to help when he gets there. The response? No. A resounding no. Of course, this is not where this story ends. Nate went to AAA in Burbank, and bought a ticket to N'Djamena, Chad. He secured a travel visa from the consulate for 60 days and hopped on a flight to a city that no one at the travel company had ever heard of, let alone booked tickets to. For those of us who are not intimately familiar with the geography of Africa, N'Djamena is much closer to The Sudan than Southern California, but the refugee camp was still clear across the country; roughly 1,000 miles east of the tarmac Nate had just landed on. The only way to get to the refugee camps was to gain passage on a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees flight, the next of which was to be leaving shortly. Nate found a local man that had the manifest, fabricated an organization he worked with and expressed urgently that he was supposed to be at the refugee camps, asking for any available seat on the flight. Remember that whole ‘bending the truth’ and ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ thing? Well, this is how it works. There were hordes of journalists trying to get into the refugee camps for stories and photographs, and among them all was Nate; his documentation having been “stolen in Paris”, nothing to show as evidence for his story, just his backpack containing malaria pills, a change of boxers and a few pairs of socks. There was one empty seat on that plane and Nate got it. He spent two months helping in any way he could: playing with children, taking every job offered to him, working to make a difference in the life of each person he encountered and help those who were unable to help themselves. To liberate the oppressed, one could say.
De oppresso liber, or ‘to liberate the oppressed’ is the motto of the US Special Forces; the elite group that Nate went on to join after his time in Darfur. A quick bit of context for any reader that may not be read into the different Special Operations groups; Green Berets, unlike the equally well known Army Rangers or Navy SEALs, are a bit subtler in their means. They train specifically in linguistic and cultural customs to be able to assimilate and infiltrate the countries in which they are working. Green Berets are often sent on “peace keeping” missions; winning hearts and minds and training foreign troops to help themselves in areas such as hostage rescue and counter terrorism. This appealed to Nate’s sense of service; he could not only serve his own country, but others that needed America’s help as well through Foreign Internal Defense. Fortuitously, the 18X-Ray program had again opened up, providing an expedited pipeline to joining the Green Berets. Normally, a soldier must be an E4 or above to apply for Special Forces, but 18X-Ray guarantees recruits an opportunity to “try-out” for Special Forces after passing all the initial mental and physical tests, including a basic training and pre-selection. Even during down-time in training, Nate would head to the track or the gym and do “ridiculous workouts, like one mile lunges in body armor,” ensuring that he had absolutely no excuse to not make it through the program. Only death or devastating injury would keep him from becoming a Green Beret. “There was no way I was not going to be a Green Beret, there would be no regrets of not trying hard enough. It was that or nothing.”
Nate transformed his body and his life in that time, devoting himself to both his mind and physical stamina, pushing himself to be better, healthier and stronger. By the time Nate left basic training, he had tripled his pushup and sit-up count and decreased his two-mile run time by nearly five minutes. During his 5 years as an active duty Green Beret, Nate started thinking towards his next steps; he was in the best physical shape of his life, so why not play football? He had always regretted not playing in his youth, so Nate set is eyes towards a lofty goal; college football. And not just any college would do; the University of Texas had just been to the National Championship twice in a 4-year span, taking home the title in 2005, and that is where Nate Boyer wanted to be. After all, where better to play football for the first time in your life than one of the best athletic schools in the country? And so, Nate started training during his last deployment to Iraq in 2009.
“I never even considered trying for a smaller school. So many people overseas, they wear that longhorn symbol, you see it everywhere; on flags, in barracks. In American Sniper, Chris Kyle has a longhorn hat! That wasn’t an accident. People wear that all over the place over there, you see it everywhere.”
As a born and raised Texan myself, I feel a little emotional hearing Nate describe this; there is something spectacularly universal about Texas and its symbols. There are more military recruits out of Texas than any other state and the reception of those who serve our country is warm, grateful and immensely proud, making it a perfect destination for any veteran; Mack Brown and UT welcomed Nate for a try-out.
Now, when he got to UT, Nate didn’t tell anyone that he had never played football. Do you see a theme here? “I didn’t tell them. I just said ‘hey, I’m 29, I don’t have any game film, I went to high school in the 90’s…’” He showed up and smoked everyone in conditioning. “I was never a great athlete, I was a good athlete that worked hard.” And just like that, Nate was a Texas Longhorn without ever having (or even knowing how) to put pads on.
From 2010 to 2014, Nate alternated between seasons of Big 12 College Football and deployments to Bulgaria, Greece, and Afghanistan, as a Reservist. He was able to continue playing football in tandem with deployments, largely thanks to Admiral Bill McRaven, the Commander of SOCOM at the time, who helped to ensure that Nate was flown back to the states commercially the day before training camp would begin. When asked if that transition from deployment to football practice with entitled college students was ever difficult, Nate’s response is surprising, “you know, no, not really. Everything is a choice, your initial reaction isn’t always your choice but when you sit back and look at it, you can decide what to do after that.” There wasn’t enough energy to waste on being aggravated with people for their experiences, or lack thereof, so Nate directed his energy into improving his skills and did his best to encourage his teammates to enjoy the game, and be grateful to be there playing the game in a great country. “When it’s hard for everyone else, it’s easier for me because I know everyone is thinking about it sucking, and I’m like, eh, whatever, I have been here before. The sun is going to come up tomorrow.”
As he comes off his time as a Green Beret and Texas Longhorn, Nate continues to physically challenge himself and push his body to accomplish more, using fitness as his drug to open his mind and let his brain function on a higher level, uncluttered by technology and people. “In the gym is where I have my best ideas, the best thoughts and goals,” and it’s not just simply working out, “I really have to push myself. It’s those times when I am really challenging myself that I have the most clarity and, you know, great thoughts.” In 2015, after going undrafted for the NFL, Nate got a call from the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, inviting him to sign as a free agent on May 2, 2015. Unfortunately, the Seahawks released him later in the year to make room for a Quarterback. Although, Nate does not see this as a failure, “I was never supposed to be here. I was never supposed to play college football, or be in the NFL, so how could it be a failure if I wasn’t supposed to be here in the first place?” Nate continues to train with NFL players, going that one step further in every workout to make himself better and strives to tie his physical goals to acts of service. Earlier this year, Nate and a Marine combat veteran and left leg amputee, hiked Mount Kilimanjaro to bring awareness to an organization called Waterboys, that helps bring clean water access to suffering communities in East Africa. Nate took the six-day route, and crushed it in two days. “I just said, fuck this mountain, I’m going to do this,” and he let himself slip back into his military mindset, let training take over and put his head down and kept moving. Quitting was never an option. “I want to do the Non-Profit stuff, helping people- it’s who I want to be, and be driven by my physical objectives.” Nate’s strives to raise one million dollars for Waterboys and inspire as many veterans as possible to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. “I think veteran’s problems often stem from not having a platform from which to serve anymore. There is always a way to serve, and I want people to know that. There is always a way to help people and call upon skills learned in the military.”
Virago is thrilled to have Nate as a Brand Ambassador. He embodies what Virago stands for: strength and courage in the face of adversity. “I have to pump myself up every morning. It has to matter to me to get in there and attack my workout. I am 35 but I am still getting better, I’m not that gifted but I work hard. ‘No’ is music to my ears. Tell me no or tell me I can’t do something. That is my favorite thing. I am going to keep going until I don’t get a phone call anymore.”
- Jenna Evans
Photography by Rebecca Vlastridis