From the Marines to Bloomington, Indiana's James Halford is the team's oldest, wisest member
When he reluctantly sat down at a table in Memorial Stadium's North Endzone in the Henke Hall of Champions, James Halford seemed uneasy.
A walk-on redshirt junior, Halford initially didn't want to tell his story before a crowd of at least 10 media members last week. The 26-year-old Marine veteran didn't serve his country to get a spotlight shined on him, after all.
"It's a chance to honor everyone who's served, but I get a little uncomfortable with it," he said. "What I did was nothing to brag about, and plenty of guys did more than me, like my grandpa who served in World War II."
A native of Mundelein, Illinois, Halford was at Camp Pendleton and served four years of active duty with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The MEU aided in relief efforts on Japan's mainland in March 2011 after it was hit by a tsunami and 9.0 Tohoku earthquake, delivering more than 164,000 pounds of relief materials to the land by helicopter, according to the unit's website.
When not assisting with relief efforts, Halford participated in weight-lifting competitions within his unit. He published a video of his measurables to YouTube, which he sent to some schools around the Big Ten in hopes of fulfilling his dream to play college football.
Indiana was one of those schools at the recommendation of his sister, Hilary, who had been to Bloomington while competing with the University of St. Francis as an All-American runner. So Halford sent his information to and maintained communication Indiana assistant athletic director Mark Deal, with whom he'd stayed in contact for about two years, and earned a spot in the four-day walk-on tryout two weeks after completing his service with the Marines Aug. 1.
Throughout his tryout, Halford was inspired by his mother, Lisa, who had developed a rare spine disease when he was first deployed. Despite the disease nearly having Lisa on her death bed, she was able to make a miraculously recovery, according to Halford, and got healthy enough to run again and watch his games remotely.
Halford impressed the coaching staff enough to earn a spot on the Hoosiers' scout team, where he's been used as both a linebacker and fullback this season.
"It's quite a learning curve, it's definitely been a shocker for sure," Halford said. "These guys can hit pretty hard. I learned that the first day with (linebacker) Clyde Newton. The first play, he loosened my chin strap and I was like, 'ok, this is going to be interesting,'."
Halford admits he's still a little raw. Newton's tackle gave him a jarring welcome back to a sport he hadn't played organized since his freshman year at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein.
However, he said he's grateful for the opportunity to play on the scout team. He also has the opportunity to pursue and earn a degree in secondary education. Halford said he wants to be a teacher and a coach someday.
The culture of the team has allowed him to fit right in with the rest of the Hoosiers despite the age difference. Last Saturday, he was named an honorary captain as part of the program's Salute to Service, something Wilson was happy to do.
"If we are going to represent our military and our vets, we've got a guy that's a four-year serviceman on our team," Wilson said. "Like to throw him out and just be respectful of what he sacrificed and has given to us and to our country."
Still, Halford would rather be known as a regular football player than get any extra attention for serving in the Marines.
"I feel like I'm just one of the boys," Halford said. "This says a lot about the program. They have a guy who played one year of high school ball a tryout. It allowed me to fulfill a dream."
Stuart Jackson is SI's campus correspondent for Indiana University. Follow him on Twitter.