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Rudy with A Bullet

Dec. 20, 2004
Dec. 20, 2004

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Dec. 20, 2004

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Rudy with A Bullet

He's just a walk-on. Number 39 in your program, zero in your heart. Means nothing to you. Just another sadly spotless jersey on the sideline.

This is an article from the Dec. 20, 2004 issue Original Layout

So how is it that Josh Amstutz is the toughest, bravest and most inspirational member of Texas A&M's football team?

Well, look at his right leg. There are two scars left by a bullet that passed through it almost two years ago, a gift from an Iraqi sniper. How he runs on it as well as he does is anybody's guess.

Look at his jaw. It was stern and square enough for the Marine honor guard that flanked President Clinton during ceremonial events at the White House and led George W. Bush down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day.

Look at his eyes. They're practically Aggie maroon-and-white. What other 23-year-old Purple Heart winner would volunteer as scout-team meat five days a week just so he can stand on the sidelines on Saturdays in the fall yelping, "Gig 'em Aggies"?

"I can't believe I'm on the team," says Amstutz, an A&M sophomore with freshman eligibility. "One practice it was pretty hot and everybody was complaining. But I thought to myself, Hey, this isn't bad. It beats being in 120 degrees in Iraq in a hazardous chemical protective suit. And at least nobody's shooting at me."

You want to bitch about the training table? There were days when all he had to eat was one dried meal. "The scary part," he says, "was we got so hungry, we started liking it." In fact, when he was recuperating in the hospital after he got shot, a doctor saw him take a cookie off his lunch tray and hide it under his pillow.

"What are you doing?" the doctor asked.

"Saving food for later, sir," Amstutz admitted.

"Son," said the doctor, "you don't have to do that anymore."

You want to rag about the road hotel? This is a guy who dug a hole for his bed every night, "as deep as you could get it before you fell asleep." And every time praying you weren't digging your own grave.

You want to whine about the pressure of big-time college football? Amstutz had to kill people. "All my teammates ask me that question, but it's not something I want to talk about," he says. But he carried a machine gun and an M-16 with a grenade launcher, and concedes that he did kill other men.

Through it all, he never gave up his football dream. Gave up? Hell, it's what kept him going.

A tight end at Jasper (Ind.) High, catching passes from eventual LSU standout Matt Mauck, he actually had two goals: become a Marine and play college football. How could he have known that one wish would nearly wipe out the other?

Amstutz reported to boot camp three days after he graduated from Jasper in 1999, and he became such a dogged Marine--he could stand for hours and hours without so much as twitching--that he was assigned to the White House eight weeks out of camp. "The only bad thing about the White House is the crazy squirrels there," he says. "They jump around in the trees, and the branches slap you in the face and you can't do a thing about it."

While in D.C., he met Fox TV intern and Texas A&M alum Jessica Fontenot and eventually married her. On a trip out West with Fontenot in November 2001, Amstutz witnessed one of the great spectacles in college football: a Texas A&M game in College Station. "I knew right then I wanted to play for the Aggies," he says.

But 9/11 made him itch to fight. Before being shipped out to the Middle East, Amstutz said goodbye to his father-in-law, who was dying of cancer. "I won't be here when you get back," Jessica's dad said. "So come home and take care of my little girl."

That suddenly looked doubtful on April 8, 2003, when Amstutz's unit was checking out a tip that there was a weapons cache in a school. "Bullets started whizzing by like in Saving Private Ryan," he remembers. One went clean through his leg, just above the knee. He dragged himself to a medic, who told him he was lucky: The bullet got only muscle.

Yet he wouldn't give up his dream of playing football. For a year he put all his Marine determination into rehabbing that leg and added 40 pounds to his post-Iraq weight of 155. Having served his four years of active duty, he enrolled in a junior college in the fall of '03, transferred to A&M this year and in August was one of about 60 students to try out for a half dozen walk-on spots. He made the team as a safety--Rudy with a bullet.

"When I first met him, he told me, 'It's an honor to be in the same locker room with you,'" says the Aggies' NFL-bound wide receiver, Terrence Murphy. "But now that I know his story, I think the same exact thing about him."

Amstutz hasn't been in a game yet, but if he could get in for just one play, "I'd want to cover a kickoff. That's my dream. I wouldn't want any big glory thing. Just one kickoff."

On New Year's Day the Aggies play Tennessee at the Cotton Bowl. Hey, coach Dennis Franchione, can't you put him in?

After all, he went in for you.

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com

What other Purple Heart winner would volunteer as scout-team meat five days a week so he can stand on the sideline?
COLOR PHOTOPETER READ MILLER