Behind the empty bleachers he parks his green pickup truck and cuts the engine, spits Copenhagen into an empty plastic water bottle. He opens the door and stretches his legs. He pulls down the hatch on the bed of the truck and sits there for a minute, exhaling into the cold. He's leaving home in two days, leaving Versailles, Ky., driving 1,200 miles to start over again. He is moving to Laramie and walking on to the Wyoming football team, to try and kick field goals. It's been six years since he came home from the war, since he reintegrated into civilian life. He unties his tennis shoes, replaces them with a pair of black cleats, rolls his athletic socks up to just below his knees. In the pictures back in his house, on the walls of his neatly kept bedroom, he is a tall man in a Kevlar vest with SAPI plates, and grenades strapped to his chest, an M-16 cradled in his hands. In the desert. On the other side of the world.
The snow has melted from the Field Turf and from the roof of the press box at Toyota Stadium, home of NAIA Georgetown (Ky.) College, from the metal walkways and from the plastic seats on the home side of the stands, but still a few spots of white cover the hill beyond the end zone. He walks to a row of doors beneath the bleachers, and the key jiggles in the lock as he twists it back and forth. He was Sgt. Nathan Noble, in charge of a squad of 12 infantry marines in Haditha, Iraq. Now, he flips on the lights in the locker room. He's looking for a kicking tee.
"I don't want to kick too much," he says. "I'm gettin' old."
He has been kicking field goals for only three months. That is, he has only been practicing, twice a week at Georgetown, where he's been an assistant soccer coach working with goalkeepers for the past three years. He was a goalkeeper himself at Woodford County High, all-region, with a big right leg that could punt a soccer ball 80 yards, for a team that fell just short of a state championship. Noble is 29 now, and his brown hair is cut short in the style of a Marine.
January 21, 2013
He rummages through a laundry hamper, pushing aside old shoulder pads and half-deflated footballs, and finds a tee. It's red with a long neck and two prongs. He puts it in a camouflage bag and heads out under the bleachers and onto the middle of the field.
Two nights earlier in Lexington, Noble walked into a chain steak house called Malone's, hung his coat on a hook in the booth and told the waiter, "Thank you, sir," for handing him a menu. He ordered a 12-ounce prime rib, medium rare. He ordered a Bud Light. When his plate arrived, he sprinkled a lot of salt over the food, over the asparagus spears and the meat he had cut into strips, and neglected the beer until the head had dissolved and the glass was sweating onto the coaster. He was not as fit as he used to be, but he was still trim. His voice was deep, and he wore a Polo sweater and a white T-shirt underneath, exposed at the neckline.
At dinner he talked about a trip he had made to Wyoming this past summer, to visit a friend. He'd stayed on a farm, in that pale countryside, and thought, Wyoming would be a good place to live. And that was enough to compel him to leave Kentucky for the second time since he had been out of the Marines. He had one year to go at the University of Kentucky, which he'd been attending on the GI Bill. He was the president of the school's Veteran's Organization, where he'd been active in helping see to things like waiving the $50 application fee for retired servicemen. Kentucky was where so many people knew him; where his family had always been, where there were plenty of comforts and his soccer job and other jobs if he wanted to make a phone call; where he was a hero, but one living with the muted ache a man feels when he's far too familiar with a place. He decided he would move west in January and spend his senior year at Wyoming.
Football had no part in the choice. He had not played since Pop Warner. When he was growing up, he would try to kick footballs over the roof of his parents' house, to see how strong his leg was, and would mostly end up denting the gutters. One day in October he and another Georgetown soccer assistant, Josh Johnson, were at Toyota Stadium after a practice. There was a laundry hamper full of footballs on the field. "Can you still kick?" asked Johnson, who had also been a soccer player for Woodford County High. He was sort of joking and sort of serious. The Georgetown football coach was watching them set up and laughing. Some football players watched them too. Johnson was the holder.
"We get on the 35-yard line, right in the center," Noble says. "Three back, two over ... I pushed it straight through, into the wind, with plenty of room to spare." Yes, he could still do it. One of the players muttered, "Holy s---." Noble moved back to the 45, swiveled his neck to get loose, felt a surge go through him, as if he could kick it as far as anyone ever had. He swung through the ball as hard as he could, and it duck-hooked about 35 yards to the left.
Still, Johnson was impressed. "[The soccer team] was having a fitness test, and most of the team was doing terrible," says Johnson, "and Nathan started yelling at them, 'You think this is hard? When I was your age, I was carrying my buddy who got shot over a mountain.' He always has a story. They're always unbelievable. After that day on the field he said to me, 'I think I'm going to try and kick,' and I said, 'You're the only person I know who can do this kind of stuff.' He's one of those guys that you would trust with your life."
Only a few weeks after he kicked that very first field goal, a three-minute story called Gridiron Soldier aired on local TV news, and it showed Noble smashing a 55-yarder straight through the uprights. The reporter noted that Nathan could consistently hit from beyond 50. Off camera, friends and workout partners say Noble hits regularly from beyond 60 and has made a 68-yarder. The video found its way to YouTube, and before long Nathan had been contacted by Michigan, LSU, USC and Oregon.
Versailles is pronounced Ver-sails, and six years ago and after three tours of duty (two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan) Noble returned there, a decorated Marine. His parents, David and Beth, threw a party at their house with paper plates and a cake. More than 40 people showed up to see him and thank him for his service. He was 22, and he thought he had earned the right to be a civilian, to make a life for himself somewhere. He had come home, in part, because his mother was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And because he had put in his years, had been in dozens of firefights and was tired. The Citizens Commerce Bank put his name on the marquee that stood out front for the cars passing by to see, and so did Woodford County High. He stood by that sign and took a picture with his father.
Noble took a job for his uncle's hay-brokerage company, throwing bales from trucks into the barn lofts of thoroughbred horse farms, sometimes 720 of them a day. He told the stories of walking dusty streets and climbing mountains in Afghanistan, of recognizing Coke bottles full of sand with wires sticking out as IEDs. Stories of the other men of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, of air strikes and snipers, being on a squad searching for a month for a high-target member of al-Qaeda. Stories of friends getting wounded, and killed. He went to the bowling alley with his old buddies, and patrons stopped to talk to him, and he was feted with free meals and drinks, and when he went to a high school football game, he would be announced, then stand on the bleachers and turn around and wave and feel the applause turn to him instead of the field. The first few months were as though he were home on leave, as though he were still a hero, and then the novelty of his presence wore off, and everything went back to the way it had been before he left.
He got bored, and he got angry. It felt as if there was nothing for him, as if he were still in high school, hanging out with his old friends, who hadn't changed, and who, as time passed, treated him as though he hadn't either. He went to bars and listened to arguments and complaints about problems that were petty compared with what he had seen. He did not want to be home anymore. "I'm not the type of guy who goes out to look at the stars and wonder about things," he says, but one night a few months after he came home, he did just that.
His parents had spent four years wondering about his safety, at various points not even knowing what country he was in, his father waiting by the computer in the hopes of getting an e-mail or a phone call. Once he surprised them for Christmas. He flew in from Hawaii, had a friend pick him up at the airport and drive him to the house, and walked downstairs into the basement wearing his uniform to shrieks and claps.
"It was very interesting to me," says Beth. "The stereotypical things—you wonder, Is he going to have nightmares? Is he going to remember the horrors of war? No, the problem is, and this was true for Nathan, he had been responsible for the lives of 12 men in his unit twice a day when he went out on patrol. That was over. He was no longer in that intense situation or getting a high level of satisfaction that we can't even imagine, to have made it through another patrol and no one has gotten hurt or killed. You go from that intense leadership, and suddenly you're back home in a small town and everyone remembers you from when you were 17."
He thought about going back into the service, but a friend offered him a job as a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. He lived there for 1½ years and then moved to Knoxville for a few months before moving back to Kentucky. He sold playground equipment and made pieces of furniture in the basement shop of the house he was staying in while spitting Copenhagen into a trash can full of wood shavings. Then he got a job coaching soccer. "I've been on the move, always," he said. "I don't ever spend a lot of time in one place. I guess I just ... can't do well if I stay in one place."
He was not exactly sure what to do. It felt strange, and great, to be wanted by the best football schools in the country. Most of his friends were in awe and told him he should just, you know, pick one, and go walk on. But he had already planned on finishing his last year of school at Wyoming. He hadn't talked to the coaches, but he knew the school had a team. He reached out to Devin Barclay, a friend who had retired from Major League Soccer at 22 and walked on at Ohio State, where he won the placekicking job in 2009.
"I told him, at these bigger programs, like LSU or Michigan, it's really hard to go out and do that as a walk-on, with one year left," Barclay says. "They have their scholarship guys, and those are the guys they're going to push. They want those guys to be the guys. You have an uphill battle at one of those bigger schools. But at Wyoming it's probably a perfect fit; he could really have a chance to make an impact."
So while visiting this past December, Noble walked into Tucker Readdy's office in Laramie and told him he wanted to play football. Readdy, a sports-psychology consultant who works with the Cowboys' kickers and punters, was struck by Noble's broad shoulders and confident air. "He walked through the door, and he gave the impression that this guy is something very special, compared to the young men I deal with on a day-to-day basis," Readdy says.
Noble sent Readdy a video a few days later, which he shared with Wyoming's coaches. They all looked on as Noble drove 50-yarders well beyond the uprights. "When you look at that, all the raw skills are absolutely there," Readdy says. But there's something more, too.
Nathan visited his parents' house in Versailles two nights before he left, for an event his family calls January Birthdays, because so many of them have one. This year it was also a gathering that would allow everyone to say goodbye and wish him luck. When he arrived, the bushes in front of the house still sparkled with Christmas lights. His cousins were there, with their kids, as were his aunt and uncle and his two sisters. The house was warm and loud, the kitchen countertop full of pots of chili and ham sandwiches and vegetables and dipping sauce and cups. Some of the men were in the living room, sitting in front of the big wooden TV stand David made, watching golf on the flat-screen. Nathan waited for everyone else to eat before he got himself a plate. He ate chili with tiny crackers on a tabletop covered by a polka-dot cloth. He stood in front of the room after everyone had eaten and listened to his sisters tell stories about him playing guitar and being a daredevil, once jumping off a roof onto a trampoline and another time leaping from a roof into a swimming pool. Nathan opened a Star Wars birthday card. His father, a sociology teacher for more than 35 years at Woodford County High, was filming the occasion with a new camera. When it was time for Nathan to go, he got his coat from the bed, made his way into the hall and stood near the door. His mother lingered next to him, then wrapped him in her arms and held him there, as though she didn't want to let him go again.
Back on the field at Georgetown the next day, for one last practice session before he drives off, he drops a few footballs at the hash marks, moves out to the 35-yard line and places a ball under the long neck of the tee. He takes three steps back and two to the left, shakes his arms out, looks down. When Noble was a coach, standing under the lights of a soccer game, he felt nostalgia and realized he was living vicariously through the Georgetown players.
He understood he wanted to be in the focal point of those lights and says that "I'm just dumb enough to go out there and think I can hit a couple of game-winning field goals and be someone everyone relies on. Just like in the Marine Corps."
He practices with a former Arena League kicker named Trey Kramer, who was an eighth-grade goalkeeper in Versailles when Noble was a senior at Woodford County and had looked up to him the way a rookie looks up to a legend. Over the last few months they've joked about who could kick the farthest or be the most successful, but weren't really being competitive. They kicked twice a week for a couple of hours, maybe 30 tries.
Noble makes three kicks in a row from the 30-yard line, with plenty of room to spare. He moves up to the 20, and his leg looks tired; the first bangs off the upright, then two more go through and a third misses wide. He repeats this, for about 15 minutes, over and over, making 25 of 30. The last kicks fly deep onto the hill, including one that smacks off the bronze head of a tiger statue well beyond the end zone.
"In the Marines, if there's another squad going out on patrol and they need eight guys, and I send one of my guys and he gets blown up by an IED ... I live with that the rest of my life," he had said beneath the table lamp at Malone's. "Or a firefight, if I don't react the right way, and as a result of my actions someone dies ... and if I miss a field goal?" He paused, shrugged his shoulders. "I'm a 29-year-old kicker. You know?"
He gathers the footballs, and before he places them back into the bag, he wipes the snow off them with the sleeve of his warmup jacket. Beneath the jacket, unseen, at the top left of his back, a tattoo angel looks down, as if in prayer, over a list of names of his friends and fellow soldiers, now dead.
Nathan Noble was recently told by someone who had no idea who he was that kicking a field goal in front of a big crowd in a college stadium is an experience of inconceivable pressure and that trying to be a kicker on a football team would be the hardest thing he could ever possibly do.
The video found its way to YouTube, and before long Noble had been contacted by Michigan, LSU, USC and Oregon.
The Wyoming coaches looked on as Noble drove 50-yarders well beyond the uprights.
To hear a podcast with writer Justin Heckert and watch the segment that helped Noble get discovered, download the SI digital edition, available free to subscribers at SI.com/activate
COUNTDOWN TO SIGNING DAY
This is the first of three features in three weeks on college football recruiting leading up to National Signing Day, on Feb. 6.