The NFL needs this 34-year-old long snapper.
By Peter King on The Monday Morning Quarterback with Peter King on April 6, 2015
The phone rang in Nate Boyer’s shoebox of a studio apartment in L.A. on Sept. 11, 2001, waking up the 20-year-old man without a life compass. Boyer looked at his clock … 6 a.m.
“Nate,” his mother said, “turn on the TV.”
“What channel?” Boyer said.
“Doesn’t matter,” his mother said.
Boyer had a 19-inch TV with a rabbit-ears antenna, and he turned it on. The World Trade Center was on fire. In an hour, one of the twin towers collapsed; a half-hour after that, the second one fell.
This is the day Boyer’s life changed—as so many lives did in so many different ways. It’s crazy to say that it’s the seminal event in a life that led Boyer to a refugee camp in Darfur three years later, then to enlist in the Army, then to multiple tours of duty as a Green Beret, then to enroll as a 29-year-old freshman at the University of Texas, then to a walk-on tryout for the Longhorns football team, then—on his last tour in Afghanistan, after his sophomore year—having a bullet miss his face by three inches in a firefight, then to playing in 38 straight games as the Texas long-snapper, then to have the wild idea that he’d like to play in the National Football League, and then to train with NFL players Kyle Long, Lane Johnson, Odell Beckham Jr., Dashon Goldson, Calais Campbell and others in a gym in Los Angeles, on the odd chance that some team might invite him to training camp.
As a 34-year-old long-snapper.
That isn’t even the craziest thing about the Nate Boyer story. This is: When he walked on at Texas, he had never played a snap of football in the first 29 years of his life. Mack Brown, the coach at the time, didn’t know until the end of Boyer’s second year at Texas that he’d never played football. Boyer’s story was so good—from Army special forces to number 37 for the Longhorns, sprinting onto the field before every home game carrying the American flag—that Brown and Texas found a spot for him. And when the two incumbent long-snappers left after that second year, Boyer figured, I’m going to learn to snap. And this job will be mine.
Boyer made it happen. The man who never played the game mostly taught himself how to long-snap on his final special-forces tour, coming back to fall practice at Texas determined to win the job. He practiced and drilled himself into playing 38 Big 12 Conference games, which is why there’s a glimmer of hope that this incredible football life has a chance to continue this summer at an NFL training camp near you.
“I need teams to look past the fact I’m 34 years old, obviously,” Boyer said from Los Angeles on Friday. “I’m not your average 34-year-old.”
This is what Boyer is up against, as he attempts to become one of 1,696 active players in the most popular sports league in America:
• There’s not much turnover. Of the 32 long-snappers in the NFL in 2014, five were in their first year with their teams. (A sixth, Baltimore’s, turned over because of injury during the season.) Once a team finds a reliable snapper—they’re not highly paid—the guy can stay for a decade or longer.
• His age. Ever hear of a 34-year-old NFL rookie? NFL teams frown on 25-year-old rookies. Add nine years, and most are going to say, “Incredible story. Good luck, Nate.”
• His size. Boyer is 5-11 and 220 pounds. The average size of the current 32 long-snappers: 6-2 ½, 246. One snapper is shorter than 6-0 (Houston’s Jonathan Weeks, at 5-10). Two snappers are lighter than 230 (Falcon Josh Harris, at 224; Denver’s Aaron Brewer, at 225).
This is what Boyer has going for him:
• Accuracy. Of more than 500 long-snaps at Texas, he had zero inaccurate ones.
• Speed. NFL punt snaps are supposed to take from .7 to .75 seconds to get from the snapper to the punter. PAT or field-goal snaps should take approximately three-tenths of a second. Boyer’s been timed in range on both.
• An endorsement. Indianapolis long-snapper Matt Overton, impressed by Boyer’s story, reached out to him last fall, offered to help in any way he could, and Boyer took him up on the offer. Overton found a training facility for him—FOX Sports analyst Jay Glazer’s Unbreakable Performance Center in Los Angeles, where many NFL players and MMA fighters go to train—and last week joined him for some concentrated long-snapping coaching. “His velocity is definitely there, and his accuracy is definitely there,” Overton said over the weekend. “This was my chance to see if this was just a good story or if he has a legitimate shot to make it. And there is no question in my mind he can do it. None. He can legit long-snap at the NFL level.”
Boyer only needs one team to say yes. No team will use a pick on the now draft-eligible Boyer, but NFL teams will bring 90 players to camp in late July. Every team signs 20 to 25 undrafted college free agents for training camp. Theoretically, then, Boyer is competing to be one of 650 or so undrafted players invited to one of the 32 NFL camps.
Based on where he’s been in the past 14 years, and what he’s done, I wouldn’t count him out. In fact, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t get a chance. Signing as a free agent with an NFL team is an uphill task, but Boyer’s had a few of those.
“You may not look at me and think, ‘This guy is capable of anything,’ but nothing is going to stop me,” Boyer said. “I might die trying, but I will work till the last beat of my heart to accomplish the mission—and to keep the guy next to me alive and fighting. Coaches understand the parallels. The way you prepare, the mindset that you have, football and the military have so much in common. The stakes are not the same, of course. But you have to have the mindset that you will not be broken. No one will take the will away from you. That is the way I live.”
Start on that day in 2001, when Boyer, struggling to find some purpose in life, saw the towers fall. “I didn’t grow up a huge patriotic person,” he said. He graduated from high school in Dublin, Calif., in 1999, with no plan. “Things were always so easy for me. I didn’t have adversity as a child. But that happened, and I started reading the news, following the world. A couple years later, I saw a Time magazine article and photos by James Nachtwey. The images blew me away. I couldn’t believe what was happening in that part of the world. I was drawn to it. I had to go. That really was sort of my first Special Forces mission.”
Boyer had no college degree, no discernible skill, and so no relief or medical agency would retain him to work in the relief camps for Darfur refugees. So he flew to Chad. When he landed, he lied about being an American doctor and about being robbed in Paris on his way to the refugee camp, and he talked himself onto a United Nations plane heading to Abéché, home to the largest refugee camp. When he got there, a Doctors Without Borders officials raged at him for the lie, thinking he was a spy or a journalist. Boyer showed him his worldly possessions—a change of underwear, a toothbrush, malaria pills. “I just want to be helpful,” he said. For two months he volunteered, doing anything in the camp that needed to be done. “That,” Boyer said, “is where I gained my patriotism. All these people from our country, there just to help. I gained so much pride for my country. Despite mistakes we’ve made as a country, we stand for equality and the opposite of oppression. We are trying to fix things. And the people there loved what we stand for.”
When he came back from Chad (his 60-day visa could not be extended), he decided to try to earn a spot in the U.S. Army Special Forces. At Fort Benning, Ga., 145 candidates started Special Forces training. Eleven, including Boyer, made it through. “I was all in,” he said. “In my free time, I did a mile of lunges without stopping.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s how I was. I would train till I was peeing blood. At my best, I could run two miles in less than 11 minutes. I could do 145 pushups in two minutes.”
In the Special Forces, Boyer was dispatched all over the world on missions he can talk very little about—to Okinawa, Korea, Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, Germany, Spain and others. Dispatched to Iraq in 2008, he helped train Iraqi SWAT and Special Forces troops. Stationed in the Iraqi city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, the U.S. and Iraqi Special Forces were given a list of high-level enemy leaders to capture, and they captured the second and third targets in the first week. In Iraq, he also saw many friends and acquaintances wounded or killed. On a mission one day, the Humvee in front of Boyer’s struck an IED, and three of the men inside the vehicle were badly burned, one to death. “The smell was like you’re at a barbeque, but I realized, ‘Wow, that’s the burning torso of the guy in the Humvee.’ ”
Twice in Afghanistan, Boyer felt he came close to death—including just before he returned from his last deployment in 2014. Understand that this final tour was the Special Forces’ version of a summer job. Before his last season at Texas, he deployed to Tajab, near the Afghan-Pakistan border, searching for Taliban. One day, in a firefight with some Taliban forces, the captain of the Afghan forces, fighting next to Boyer, was shot in the throat and died. That battle is when the bullet came three inches from Boyer’s face. He actually had the presence of mind to tell me it was better him in such danger than a peer with a family. “I’m not married, and I don’t have any children,” he said. “Better to have me there.”
“How many people did you kill?” I asked.
“I am not going to answer that,” Boyer said, after a pause. “I honestly don’t know. I can tell you I am no Chris Kyle. But you don’t really know because—well, you are in these battles, and you come back, and, last year, we had one firefight with 30 enemy KIA [killed in action], and you never know for sure who got who.”
Now onto the football. At the end of his Iraq deployment in 2009, at 28, Boyer thought he wanted to go to college. The GI Bill would pay for much of it. But he also thought the fact that he’d never played football was a regret too, as was not going to college. “I didn’t want to regret anything about my life,” he said. So he applied at Texas, was admitted, looked up football workouts on the internet, and started doing them before he left Iraq. He enrolled at Texas for the fall term of 2010. To try out during walk-on practice, students are supposed to have a coach referral and some tape of their play. Boyer had neither. He broke the news to strength coach Jeff Madden, running the tryout, telling him what he’d been doing. He aced the physical and running portions of the tryout, and word got to Mack Brown: We got a Green Beret trying out. Brown loved the military. He’d been on a USO trip to see the troops in the Middle East. So he took a liking to Boyer, and Boyer got a uniform and the flag to lead the team out of the tunnel.
That would have been a fine way to be on the team. But Boyer, who’d never played, actually wanted to. He had to. After his second year he told Brown he intended to come back for fall practice to compete for the long-snapping job. “Well,” said Brown, “you got this far. You can try out for it. But try to put a little weight on.” The rest is Texas history. In the second game of his redshirt sophomore season, Boyer got the job and kept it for three seasons. “Never had a bad snap,” Brown said.
After three months training with Glazer and his crew of NFL players and MMA fighters, Boyer added 25 pounds (to 220) and now can bench 225 pounds 19 times—a very good number for a snapper.
Recently, Eagles coach Chip Kelly and his sports science coordinator—former U.S. Naval Special Warfare personal coach Shaun Huls—visited Glazer’s gym. Boyer met Kelly. “How much do you weigh?” Kelly asked. That’s what every coach will want to know, at least those who are thinking of giving the longest of shots a chance.
“Two-twenty,” Boyer told him.
Will it be enough? Or will his story, and his determination, be enough to get him the one shot he’s itching to get?
“Nothing is too extreme for Nate,” said Glazer. “It doesn’t matter how exhausted he is—he will not stop. What he’s pushed himself through in the military is probably more than anyone who’s played in the NFL. You watch him and listen to him, and you realize his value is so much more than just as a long-snapper. The NFL’s a game of discipline. If you’re not disciplined, you can’t make it. And isn’t every coach in the NFL trying to produce warriors? What better way to produce warriors than to bring an actual warrior onto your team?”
Said Boyer: “Give me an opportunity. Let me show you. Don’t be afraid of me because I’m atypical. I’m going to to bring something important to the team. I’m not a typical player, and I believe that’s a good thing.”
One more thing: Boyer has another mission.
“The veteran suicide rate is 22 a day,” he said. “Twenty-two a day! Unacceptable. Totally unacceptable. People out there are trying to fix that, and I am one of those people. I want to prove to those leaving the military that if you believe in yourself and work and sacrifice, the same way you did in the military, you can achieve what you want in society. I want to make a difference for veterans, and what they can do in the world.”
That starts with a job offer in May, after the NFL draft.
“I’ve heard ‘no’ a lot in my life,” Boyer said. “So I’ll take a whole lot of no’s. All I need is one yes.”