Friday June 26th, 2015

There is playing to the echo of the whistle. There is playing to the faintest trace of the echo of the whistle. And then there was the late hit laid on the Winona State quarterback last November by Concordia-St. Paul defensive end Hank Goff, a personal foul sufficiently flagrant to earn him an ejection and stern rebukes from at least two Winona State moms in the parking lot after the game. Had I been there, I would have pointed out, after apologizing to those aggrieved women, that Hank’s brief lapse in judgment was outlying behavior, reminding us of the knucklehead we knew in his pre-jarhead life.

Hank, my nephew, is a former Marine machine-gunner who after five years out of football enrolled at Concordia-St. Paul in the fall of 2013. As a five-technique end in a 3-4 defense getting double-teamed on most snaps, he isn't racking up fat stats—which is not to say he isn't playing his butt off. (There’s his name, in fact, on a list of Division II preseason All-Americas. Second team, but still.) But I do believe Hank leads D-II, if not all of college football, in appreciation—in gratitude to be back on the gridiron. He sees every meeting, every drill, every early-morning, puke-inducing, plyometrics-intensive conditioning session as a gift. “I love all of it,” he says. After four years in the service, he thinks differently about what constitutes hardship. “No matter what they throw at us in practice,” he says, “I can push through it.”

The warrior who once aspired to the Big Ten, to play in Camp Randall and the Big House, now plies his craft before far smaller crowds in Mankato, Bemidji and Duluth. It may be the best thing that ever happened to him. When Hank was slipping into darkness, football gave him joy. It provided structure and purpose and a refuge, a place to go and not think about what he saw in the war.

He saw some bad things. Hank’s regiment, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., deployed to the Helmand province of Afghanistan in April 2008. Over the next eight months, the “War Dogs” were hit harder than any American unit in that conflict. Of the battalion’s one thousand Marines, 20 were killed and 160 wounded, with 30 of those amputees. The story gets sadder. In the six years since the end of that tour, the number of 2/7 Marines to commit suicide has now exceeded by one the number killed in Afghanistan. Among those who took their own lives was Ufrano Rios-Jimenez, the guy Hank carried to the helicopter, who emerged from his morphine-induced stupor long enough to snap, “Goddammit, Hank—hurry up!”

Rios-Jimenez survived his injuries but lost his battle “to invisible wounds,” as one fellow Marine put it. He killed himself two years ago.

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Like Rios-Jimenez, Marine Cpl. Clay Hunt was a member of the 2/7 who deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. Like Rios-Jimenez, he immersed himself in veterans advocacy programs upon his return to the States. And, like Rios-Jimenez and too many of their Marine brothers, he eventually lost the battle to his internal demons, taking his life in ’11.

In a Senate hearing last November, Hunt’s mother testified that her son’s story “details the urgency needed in addressing this issue. Despite his proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs.”

The senators agreed with her. On Feb. 3, that fractious body passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act by a vote of 99-0. That bill took numerous meaningful steps toward increasing veterans’ access to mental health care. Nowhere does it encourage vets to go back to college after years away, like Will Ferrell in Old School, and join the football team. That path just happened to be the one that worked for Hank.

I’m not saying football saved him. That’s too pat, too cliché. Between his extended family—his mother, Lorin, is one of my seven siblings—his girlfriend of five years, Jessica Bendjebar, who has a master's in applied psychology, and the network of Marines with whom he remains close, he was always going to make it. I think. But still, for a year or so after his enlistment ended, he was slipping. The drumbeat of bad news “was tearing him apart,” says his sister Sara, a former captain of the swim team at Wisconsin. Upon learning of the latest suicide, he'd blunt the pain with whisky. Taking solace in a bottle isn’t exactly a novel response to unwelcome tidings in this clan, but he was hitting it hard even by Murphy standards.

“For a while, it was scary,” Sara says. “Hank was kind of lost. If he didn’t get back into school, if he didn’t have football, I don’t know where he’d be.”

*****

Justin Oakman Photography

So pumped is Hank to be back on the field that his passion becomes, once in a great while, ungovernable—such as the afternoon he was tossed from the Winona State game. In Hank’s defense, he insists that he led with his forearm, that the zebras were mistaken when they accused him of hitting the quarterback with the crown of his helmet.

After spending several minutes on the turf, that quarterback, a resilient freshman named Jack Nelson, returned to the game, rallying the Warriors for a touchdown that narrowed Concordia’s lead to 31-28 with 10 seconds still on the clock. But the Golden Bears recovered the ensuing onside kick, preserving victory and inducing a nuclear sigh of relief from Hank, who is, as perhaps you’ve deduced, a flawed hero, but one whose story is worth telling.

That late hit was old Hank, immature Hank, pre-Marines Hank. In 2004 he was a 6’4”, 245-pound defensive end on a Minnetonka High team that went 13-1 and won the Minnesota Class 5A state championship. He was also, he now acknowledges, “a punk-ass kid.”

A punk with game. Hank spent that championship tilt in a 60-minute stalemate with Wayzata High linebacker James Laurinaitis. They had locked horns before and become friendly. In subsequent years, covering college football and then the NFL for SI, I’d see Laurinaitis—he starred at Ohio State, and now starts for the St. Louis Rams. He’d ask about Hank. The news wasn’t always good.

Declining Minnesota’s invitation to join its program as a “recruited walk-on,” Hank accepted a full ride to South Dakota State University in—any guesses?—Brookings, S.D. After three days on the scout team, he was bumped up to the varsity. He started eight games, had five sacks and led the Jackrabbits in tackles for loss with seven. It was a terrific, promising start—followed by a sad, abrupt conclusion—to his college career. So it seemed for five years.

I would describe South Dakota Hank as an indifferent student, but that would be an insult and disservice to indifferent students. Hank was an atrocious student, a real-life Kent Dorfman, whose “zero-point-two”—as enunciated with memorable disgust by Dean Wormer—was a full .13 higher than the 0.07 that Hank pulled in his freshman fall.

“I went to one class,” he once confessed to me.

“Well, at least you liked one of your professors,” I replied, scavenging for a silver lining.

“No, I mean I went to one class. The whole semester.”

Hank fell into further disfavor with the administration when it came to light that he and a few of his goombahs had expelled a sofa from a third-story dormitory window. Nor were school officials amused when Hank unfurled a roll of discarded industrial wrap, transforming his dormitory hallway into a 100-foot-long Slip 'N Slide, a diversion intended to “relieve the tension” of finals week, as he lamely explained to his mother shortly after his expulsion.

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His coaches and teammates were sad to see him go. The university administration, not so much.

Later that winter, with his parents out of town, he threw a massive, Superbad-caliber party and was busted. Of course. “Instead of sitting around waiting to get yelled at,” Hank later told me, he took the rather dramatic preemptive step of … joining the Marines.

“I tell people I joined to grow up, to become a man,” Hanks says. “Really I did it to avoid the wrath of Lori.”

He’s joking, mostly, though both of us know what a bad idea it is to provoke this woman, who once got a bunch of us thrown out of a New Haven, Conn., nightclub called Toad’s Place. It was a Friday night in the mid-1980s. Some college boy grabbed Lor’s butt, and she floored him with a straight right hand to the face. A general scrum ensued. We were all asked to leave.

After first walking into the U.S. Army recruiting office in West Bloomington, Minn., her eldest son had misgivings. “I knew if I joined the Army,” Hank recalls, “Rex would disown me.”

Rex Murphy is his grandfather, my father, who had enlisted in the Marines one August afternoon in 1951. Strolling through downtown Indianapolis, bored by his job hawking trusses and jockstraps, among other items, for a company named Bauer & Black, Rex spied a poster challenging: You’re Not GOOD Enough To Be a U.S. Marine! Like hell I’m not, thought Rex, who promptly enlisted. Has the Corps ever reeled in an easier mark? Less than a year later, he was a second lieutenant on a troopship to Korea, awakened every morning by a voice over the intercom: “For those of you in the Navy and Marines, the time is oh-six-hundred. For those of you in the Army, the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the six.”

Rex returned home 14 months later with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for valor and some undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder of his own. My dad is 85 now and saw some things in Korea he prefers not to talk about to this day.

With Rex in mind, Hank exited the Army recruiting station, crossed France Avenue and signed up for the Marines instead. When I saw him eight months later, he was marching on the parade deck at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, having graduated from boot camp. That three-month crucible had cooked accountability into him—and carved 40 pounds off his frame. And he wasn’t fat to begin with.

Now he had a narrow waist, a half-miler’s jawline and a discipline and sense of accountability that had not been there before. He’d grown up, put away childish things. As he wrote to his mother in his first letter from boot camp, “I’m sorry I was ever 18.”

*****

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Courtesy of Hank Goff

Hank thought he was going to Iraq—that’s what the Marines of the 2/7 had been told. But NATO forces in southern Afghanistan were struggling to hold off the resurgent Taliban. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called an audible, sending the battalion to Helmand instead.

“It was April of 2008,” Hank says. “I remember we were all yelling, ‘Spring Break—Afghan!'” He started out attached to a group of Marines specializing in Explosive Ordnance Disposal—like the soldiers in The Hurt Locker. “I wasn’t on a scheduled rotation,” he says, “but was pretty much out there every day. ‘Movement to contact’ was a big thing we would do.”

What’s that? “We’d push into an enemy-occupied territory, just to see where they were at. And then they’d start shooting at us, and we’d … suppress that.”

The Marines were not trained to withdraw when fired upon. Rather, they would engage, determine the enemy’s position, then “maneuver on them,” as Hank put it. Once Taliban forces caught on to those tactics, they increased their use of Improvised Explosive Devices.

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Later in his deployment, Hank’s squad was attached to a Quick Response Force. Often, they were responding to troops injured by IEDs. “We would pick them up and rush them back, set up the evacuation,” says Hank, who stretchered out wounded British and Afghani soldiers and some civilians as well. The IEDs didn’t discriminate.

“It was hands down the worst time of my life,” he says now. “At the same time, it was best time of my life. It made me what I am today. I lived with 40 other Marines for nine months. The friends I have from those days are the best friends I’ll ever have.”

One day he and a buddy named Curtis Standing Cloud were prone in the dirt, pinned down by machine-gun fire. “Here I am, this big white dude, trying to hide behind a tree about six inches wide,” he remembers. “We’ve got rounds skipping all around us.”

One bullet kicked up a clod of mud that hit Standing Cloud in the face. Those two looked at each other and burst out laughing. “It was all we could do,” Hanks says.

A moment later, Hank blurted, more to himself than the guy next to him, “Man, f--- this—I’m gonna play football again!”

*****

Justin Oakman Photography

Hank made it home, made it to the memorial for his 20 fallen brothers in Twentynine Palms. He made it through a second, less eventful deployment, this one to Okinawa, where he slept in a bunk on an aircraft carrier. “My feet touched the bottom of the bed, my head touched the top. We were stacked four high.

“I saw some really cool things, but I was ready to get on to the next part of my life.”

I’m gonna play football again!

Was that even possible? The NCAA’s five-year rule stipulates that student-athletes have five years to complete their four years of eligibility. Recognizing the sacrifices soldiers make, however, the governing body created exceptions. Hank’s eligibility clock had stopped during his four-year enlistment. Props to the NCAA, which I’ve long criticized for being a sclerotic, small-minded cartel: You got this one right!

Hank went to community college to earn the credits he’d failed to pick up at South Dakota University. A flirtation with Minnesota State-Mankato came to naught, but Hank also found himself being courted by Bob Nielson, the head coach at Minnesota-Duluth. But Nielson left for another job, and the interest fizzled.

It was a sharp disappointment because Hank got along so well with Duluth’s defensive coordinator at the time, a great guy named Todd Strop. When Nielson left Duluth, Strop landed at Concordia-St. Paul.

Driving to his office on Feb. 6, 2013—National Signing Day—Strop thought of the tall, grinning, slightly goofy Marine he’d met in Duluth.

“Completely out of the blue, I thought, ‘I wonder what Hank Goff is doing?’”

He was struggling. During one two-month period, four 2/7 Marines had committed suicide. Meanwhile, Hank had plunked down the $100 to take the exam to become a St. Paul firefighter. Then Strop called.

“He saved me,” Hank says. They talked for 10 minutes. A week after Strop called him, Hank was in the C-SP offices, shaking hands. A month later, he was a spectator at the Golden Bears’ spring game. Firefighting could wait.

Hank had long preferred to think of himself as a rush end, slicing off the edge, amassing sacks. But Concordia-St. Paul already had one of those. Following the 2013 season, Zach Moore was drafted in the sixth round by the New England Patriots. Hank was invited to move inside.

“We were soft at nose guard,” says Strop, who left C-SP after last season. From what they’d seen in practice, he recalls, “we knew Hank was tough as heck, that he was going to fight his butt off, and that’s what we needed in there.”

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Strop put it differently to Hank: “We need a [jerk] in the middle.”

He was underweight at 270 pounds and out of position, never having played the nose. But he learned the techniques. He ate blocks and took on double-teams. He started every game and was deliriously happy. Last season he dropped 10 pounds and moved to end, where he had, if possible, more fun.

He put up respectable numbers, if not J.J. Watt-level statistics, in 2014: 5 ½ tackles for loss, 1 ½ sacks, four passes defended and one pick. That said, he played extremely well and won the Big Bear Award given to the team’s outstanding lineman. As Strop says, “We had offensive line coaches come up to us all year saying what a great player No. 7 is, and how they can’t wait till he’s gone.”

“Let’s not forget,” says Hank, who will play his final college season in 2015 at the age of 28, “that I am a grown man beating up on 19-year-olds.”

True, there is bad blood between the Golden Bears and Winona State. But Hank’s interactions with other opponents have been very, well … collegial. After Concordia’s loss to Mankato in October, the entire Mavs offensive line approached him on the field. They told him how much they enjoyed playing against him and thanked him for his service.

Hank had high praise for them, in turn: “They were really good but not d---s, you know? They were fun to play against.

“It’s kind of the Minnesota Nice conference. There’s a few bad guys, but mostly they’re on my defense.”

While it’s difficult for some of his relatives to conceive of Hank as a wise elder, that’s apparently what he has become in the locker room. “It’s like I have 50 little brothers,” says Hank, who uses himself as a cautionary example when a teammate is slacking off in school.

“I just tell ’em, ‘Dude, don’t be like me. You’ve gotta take care of your business. Not everyone gets a second chance at this.’”

There are valleys. He keeps losing friends. Last May, it was Elias Reyes Jr., whose suicide made news when it came to light that, 22 days after his death, Reyes’s family received a letter from the VA, requesting that they return his final disability check.

On Oct. 8, Hank posted on his Facebook wall: “Lost another brother to suicide. This one hurts, RIP Tyler [Wilkerson]. Your battle is over.” Then, on June 2, another body blow: “Lost another brother. RIP Eduardo Bojorquez.”

How does he deal with these deaths? The good news is he has figured out in the last couple years that binge drinking isn’t the answer. Less encouraging: he won’t seek professional counseling from the VA, which he described to me as “garbage.”

While he doesn’t consult a shrink, Hank does spend hours on the phone each week with his 2/7 brothers. Which makes sense, Jessica says. “The only people who really understand what he’s been through are the guys who went through it with him.”

“Football is my therapy, pretty much,” Hank told me. As a longtime sportswriter coming off an NFL season made memorable for many of the wrong reasons, I tend to roll my eyes in response to platitudes about the way football builds character and prepares young men for the challenges awaiting them later in life. But watching Hank heal, I’ve never been so grateful for the game.

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