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Second chance at football made ex-Marine Hank Goff whole

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Hank Goff was drunk, again.

It was his first summer after serving four years in the Marine Corps, and Goff was living it up. He figured he deserved it. After all, he'd served his country. He had deployed to Afghanistan for nine months, and it wasn't just any deployment. Goff's Marine Corps battalion -- 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines -- had been in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, Helmand Province. A town Goff frequently found himself in, Sangin, was an opium capital, a Taliban stronghold, and was described by The Guardian as "the deadliest area in Afghanistan."

All that dangerous stuff had been fine with Goff. In fact, he welcomed it. After he had flunked out of South Dakota State, where he started as a freshman defensive end following being named MVP for a high school team that had won the Minnesota state title, Goff joined the Marines. He had wanted to be a Marine when he was a kid. His grandfather -- his idol, the guy everyone told him he looked just like, a former college football star who had an NFL tryout back in the 1950s -- had fought as a Marine in Korea, even though he never really talked about it. And anyway, the Marines were, in Goff's words, "badass. You go fight a war. And if you're going to join the Marines, why wouldn't you join the infantry?"

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He spent those nine months as a turret gunner in convoys, going on patrols, providing security when improvised explosive devices were found, bringing back battlefield casualties on medivac helicopters. And there were a lot of casualties: 20 of the battalion's thousand Marines had been killed in action, another 30 had limbs amputated. Scores more were wounded. It was one of the hardest-hit units in the Afghan war.

But as he sat in the living room of his grandfather's beach house in Rhode Island that summer night back in 2011, it wasn't the killed-in-actions that made him toss back one glass of white wine after another. It was the killed-after-actions. The first suicide happened in a Marine Corps dorm not long after they got back to the States. Then the suicides kept coming. In one month alone, Goff learned that four of his fellow Marines had killed themselves. Soon, the number of suicides surpassed the number who'd died in war. Goff could understand a buddy dying in war; that's what happens in war. He couldn't understand what had happened after the war.

Goff was hammered. His grandfather, Austin "Rex" Murphy, knew that look on his grandson's face. Grandpa Rex remembered the times when he was freshly back from Korea. Didn't want to drive a car. Didn't want to go to cocktail parties. Didn't like loud noises. Didn't want to be in crowds.

Just wanted to be by himself. And watch football.

A lot like Hank half a century later.

Hank's memory of that night might be hazy from all the wine, but the memory is still there, of what his grandpa said that night. Because what his grandpa told him ended up being the kick in the ass that got Goff out of whatever you want to call that post-war funk so many American war veterans have experienced: PTSD, or Shell Shock, or War Hangover, or what his grandpa's generation called The Vapors.

"The war didn't kill you," Grandpa Rex told his grandson. "Don't let it kill you now."

******

An impossibly steamy August afternoon in the Midwest. Football season just around the corner. Players for Division II Concordia University in St. Paul suck on water tanks that line the field. The men's and women's track teams are jogging the stands but keeping an eye on the football team. Coaches yell out play calls, and, with just a few days before the first game of their season, players fine-tune their fade routes and blocking schemes and their punt coverage.

On this day, Hank Goff -- 28 years old, 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, tattoos lining both arms -- is once again in rough shape.

He has a headache. He woke up at 5 a.m. throwing up. Now he has the chills. It's not alcohol this time.

"Maybe I have a concussion," he said through his facemask. Then he laughed: "Nope, I passed that test."

Instead, Goff has the flu. He's happy he has the flu now, though, and not three days from now, when he'll begin his final college football season a full decade after his first. But that's not all. He has torn ligaments in his foot, suffered in a game last year; Goff could've had surgery in the offseason but decided to tough it out. The foot hurts. Actually, it's excruciating. He's missed a few practices in August because of the foot, but then he made up his mind: Get a new pair of cleats and ignore the pain -- "nut up," as he calls it. Because he won't have this chance ever again.

Hell, after he screwed up his chance the first time around, Goff stopped watching college football for years. The game he loved became the game he could no longer watch. Because he never thought he'd be able to make it here.

Now, Goff thinks it's funny that he's here, on a college football field with 18-year-old freshmen after he's already celebrated his 10-year high school reunion. Goff is the type of person who finds humor in most things, from partying with Rob Gronkowski after one of his teammates got drafted by the New England Patriots to the times bullets whizzed by him in Afghanistan to the time he went mano a mano with an enemy chicken in the middle of battle.

He's funny, a guy whose mere presence brightens the mood at a forward-operating base in remote parts of Afghanistan or at a football practice in Minnesota. But he's no longer here to goof off. Not anymore. Getting a second chance at football after screwing up the first time around -- hell, getting a second chance at life after he saw so many fellow Marines die in the war, or after the war -- he knows that's something special.

"It just makes me appreciate life," Goff says after practice, his pads and helmet next to him. "Not taking stuff for granted. I appreciate football more now than I ever have. I get to play again. No one really gets a second chance. Most dudes, they're done."

Goff gets in the three-point stance and bangs against the defensive line. Again. And again. He's hurting, but he doesn't care. Every few plays, he takes aside a younger player, gives a few tips on footwork or on how to swim past a blocker.

And they listen. Because this isn't just any second-team preseason All-American defensive end who is giving them advice, although he is in fact that. This is also Hank Goff, Marine.

"What he does for our football team in terms of leadership, that mindset that there's nothing you can't overcome -- it's irreplaceable," his head coach, Ryan Williams, says. "He's not a rah-rah guy, just speaks when he needs to speak. He's going to line up and go to work. He'll never let anything deter him being a college football player again."

Goff hangs with his defensive line unit in an end zone between drills. An injured player jogs around the track. "Getting ready for the season, Suzie?" The player flips Goff the bird.

It's fun, this 28-year-old man who has seen the best and the worst of humanity, now getting a second shot at his college days. Concordia coaches say no player gets more joy out of football than Goff.

But at the same time -- when he's in class, when he's on the football field, when he's with his girlfriend -- Afghanistan is never far from his mind. He thinks about it every day. The 20 Marines who never made it back. The Marines who came back from the war damaged. They were all damaged, really. But Goff can't get out of his mind those two dozen Marines who made it home but couldn't deal with being home.

"We were all kind of the same," Goff says "I just found something to get out of it."

He looks at the 50-yard line and smiles. "I had this. Football. I had a goal."

******

Football was always the goal. Hank dreamed of the Marines as a kid. He knew Grandpa Rex had served in Korea, and he knew Grandpa Rex never talked about it. Still, he wanted to be like Grandpa Rex. But mostly the goal was to play in the NFL. He loved the controlled violence of football. It played to his wild side, and he has always been wild -- the wildest of Rex's 26 grandchildren. After football, there really wasn't a backup plan.

After being named MVP for the Minnesota high school champs, Goff flirted with Big Ten schools. But they only talked of him walking on. He didn't want that. Goff wanted a scholarship, and he wanted to start as a freshman, so he went to South Dakota State, and there he got both opportunities. Thirty-three South Dakota State football players had moved on to the NFL. His dream was alive.

Until his freshman year was consumed with a few things: football and drinking and girls and playing "Mortal Kombat" in the dorm. However, not class. He simply didn't go to class, and by the end of his freshman year he'd flunked out and headed back to his parents' house. He got a job folding laundry at a dry cleaner. He gave up on football. For months, he partied and thought about how he'd wasted his immense talent.

"I was just like, 'I'm kind of a loser,' " Goff recalled. "So I joined the Marines. I only wanted to be in the infantry because I knew it would be the hardest. I wanted to see who I am."

He went to the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot in San Diego for boot camp, then to Twentynine Palms, Calif., where he found out his unit was heading to Afghanistan.

Jimmy Grimes was Goff's roommate in the Marines. Grimes immediately saw the young man's natural magnetism. He could tell right away Goff would be a morale boost when the unit got deployed.

"Hank makes it his point to make sure everyone is having a good time because if everyone's not having a good time then he won't have a good time," Grimes said. "It's contagious."

The 2/7 Marines landed in Afghanistan, the first Marine unit in that country since 2001. Everything was new. They were the ones building the tents, setting up the security for the whole province, basically writing the Marine Corps' book on Afghan operations. Their superiors told them they were the "tip of the spear," but Goff says they were more like guinea pigs. Their mission was to loosen the grip the Taliban had on the region as well as provide security for a major supply route.

Goff and Grimes had two of the most dangerous jobs out there: In long and exposed convoys of 30-plus vehicles, Goff manned the turret on the front vehicle with a Mark 19 grenade launcher; Grimes manned the turret on the rear vehicle with a 50-caliber M2 machine gun. They were the biggest targets.

Two weeks in, a bomb mounted on a bike went off when Goff was on a patrol. It struck a Marine doctor. He was injured.

A week later came Goff's first firefight. It was 3 a.m. The convoy was driving down a road that bisected the desert. Suddenly, the gunshots came from out of nowhere, and Goff unloaded his weapon in that direction. He wasn't scared. It was a rush. But for nine months straight, all these Marines remained on edge. Goff took it as his mission to defuse that tension.

"We'd be in life-or-death situations, and he'd bring you to the point you have to just laugh," Grimes said.

Like when a couple of Marine platoons were on foot in an operation to push out more Taliban from an agricultural area. A team of four British soldiers were on one side of a river, pinned down by enemy fire. Grimes needed to cross the mud-and-stone bridge to get to the Brits. Goff was on a hillside more than half a football field away, providing cover fire.

One by one, the Marines sprinted across the bridge to reach the Brits. Small-arms fire rained over them. Every four or five seconds, Goff pumped off a burst from his machine gun to suppress the enemy fire.

It was Grimes' turn. He had a backpack full of ammunition on his back and a machine gun in his arms. He was a giant moving target.

As he sprinted across the bridge, he heard Goff's voice ring out: "Run, fat boy, run!"

And then there was another firefight Goff was involved in. They were facing off with Taliban fighters near some farmland. Goff was firing his machine gun toward the enemy when a Marine next to him pointed out a flock of chickens. In the middle of the firefight, he aimed at a chicken and blew it away.

A superior later questioned Goff about his action.

"The chicken was Taliban, sir," Goff said.

******

A bullet flew past him. Snap! Then another. Snap! When you hear that sound, the rounds are close. Close enough to make the shock waves in the air around you compress, like a sonic boom. This time it felt like a few inches between Goff and the bullet.

His platoon was in Sangin, Helmand Province, trying to flush out Taliban fighters.

Goff had been laying down suppressive fire for other Marines "when all the sudden hell erupts over us," Goff said.

This was life in Afghanistan: Complete boredom for a week, to the point that Marines would take to getting in rock fights with one another, followed by moments of complete chaos, adrenaline and, let's be honest, terror. Those nine months were a time that Goff would later call the best of his life -- and the worst, too.

Hank Goff and another Marine, a guy named Curtis Standing Cloud, were pinned down behind a tree. They could see where Taliban bullets hit the ground. They could feel the bullets whizzing past. They were wearing hundreds of pounds of gear, hiding behind a tree that was no more than 6 inches wide

A few feet in front of them, one round hit a patch of mud. The mud burst up and smacked Goff's friend in his face.

They looked at each other and cracked up. And moments before the two mad a made dash across a field, dodging enemy fire, Goff made his friend a promise:

"F--- this," he said. "I'm gonna play football again."

******

The drinking began as soon as the 2/7 Marines got back from Afghanistan. They were all back at Twentynine Palms, and they all let loose.

The suicides began soon after that, falling into a disturbing rhythm: For a week, you don't hear from a fellow Marine on Facebook. You worry about him. He doesn't return text messages. Then you hear he took his own life.

"The drinking was to numb the pain," said Grimes, Goff's close friend. "To numb the feeling that we're back here in America and we can't do the things we used to do. It's a way to open up and bond with one another.

"We would wake up, and we were still drunk," Grimes continued. "We'd have to go work out at 6:30 a.m. and go for a run. We're all puking and falling out, and we're trying to be examples for new guys."

That was Goff after war. When he got out of the Marines and came home to Minnesota, he drank more. That tended to be when the suicides happened: Marines finished their service and went back to regular life. Back home, they couldn't talk about Afghanistan with anybody who really understood. And nobody understood that they had changed, and how they'd changed.

You get back home and you look at people differently. You're suspicious because in Afghanistan, you never knew who was the enemy. You don't like crowds. You don't like loud noises. You don't like aggressive drivers because they remind you of vehicles in Afghanistan that were considered imminent threats. People cut you off on the road, or speed up next to you on the highway, and the anxiety creeps into your belly and your throat.

"I just didn't want to deal with it," Goff said. "What did I do? I'd just drink a bottle of Jack Daniel's. It wasn't always just me sitting in my room, by myself, drinking. If I'd go out and party, I'd feel like everything's good. But there were definitely nights when you get hammered by yourself."

"Everyone comes back different," said Delfino Martinez, one of Goff's best friends from his deployment. "Not that everyone is messed up, but everyone came back just a little different. How they react to things. Their temper. Or just their perspective on life. Everything changes."

Goff and his Marine buddies scared even themselves with their drinking. The suicides gave them an even deeper fear. They vowed to keep in touch. They phoned one another when they heard of a new suicide: You doing OK? They started mass text messages that continue to this day: Giving each other crap, trash-talking each other's NFL teams, mostly dumb stuff but stuff that just lets them know they're there.

"You don't want to be the weird one," Martinez said. "You don't want to be the guy who comes home and your family looks at you weird. You gotta internalize a lot of it. You only confide things in people who know what it was like."

All the 2/7 Marines speak of something else, too: When you get home, you need an anchor. An anchor keeps you sane. It doesn't matter how big or small that anchor is. A television show you like. A new hobby. Anything that can become your next mission and that keeps you from the question Goff and other Marines asked themselves: "Now what the hell do I do?"

When Grandpa Rex read his grandson's letters from Afghanistan, he saw a shift. At first, Goff was just telling stories about the war, asking his grandpa about how Afghanistan compared to Korea. Then the tone shifted. Not so much war talk.

Instead, football talk. Talk of the future. A goal.

After Goff got home, Grandpa Rex called his grandson almost daily.

"When he came home he was about as goofed off as any of those kids are -- he didn't know which end was up," Grandpa Rex said. "Hank was going through same things as me. When I came home from Korea, I sat in the house for about a month and didn't leave."

A funny thing happened after Goff returned from war. As long as he could remember, Goff had always been fascinated by his grandpa's time in Korea. He looked through his grandpa's photo album from Korea. He read about his grandpa's unit: 1st Marines, 7th regiment, 3rd battalion. He researched that war.

But Grandpa Rex never talked about it.

At least, he never talked about it until Goff came home from Afghanistan and Grandpa Rex saw his grandson was struggling.

"He could talk to me, and I could talk to him," Grandpa Rex said. "I never brought up stuff. But I'd ask him. I didn't want him to tell me how much blood and guts he saw. But I wanted to know the difference in tactics."

"We had some private conversations," Grandpa Rex continued. "I didn't want to see him going off the deep end. I could see what was going on with that PTSD. I could see that, although it wasn't to any alarming degree. But I could see it was there."

Grandpa Rex paused. He feels the same about Korea as his grandson feels about Afghanistan: You love it and hate it at the same time.

"I didn't want him to fall prey to the evils of that goddamn thing," Grandpa Rex said, speaking of PTSD and post-war struggles. "It's murder when kids get hooked on it."

It was as if these two had lived parallel lives: Both football players who didn't make it as far as they'd wanted. Both Marines who saw the horrors of war and the struggles of returning home. Both stoic men who wanted desperately to talk about war -- but only with other Marines.

"The memory of it is not pleasant," Grandpa Rex said. "When somebody says he never talks about his experiences in Korea, it's for a good, simple reason: There are a helluva lot more things I would rather talk about. I had a lotta guys killed in front of me, in back of me, beside me."

"Hank, he wanted to talk," Grandpa Rex continued. "He'd usually tell a story intended to have humor attached to it. Like the one about shooting the chickens. But then we started talking an awful lot about his return to football. He started coaching as an assistant coach. And when I saw that, I thought, 'He's got his hooks in there. He still loves the game.' "

******

Hank Goff sits beside the football field at Concordia University St. Paul as the August sun dips in the sky. His undershirt stinks. Practice is over. The women's soccer team has taken over the field.

He talks about the most recent suicide among his Marines. It happened just a week ago. Goff shrugged.

"We're all pretty jaded, all of us," he says. "You see so much bad s---, you're numb to it. After the 20th person kills himself, it's like, 'Well. Imagine that.' "

Goff never considered that path. To him, suicide was quitting. It was giving up on yourself and on your family. But he also knows he's one of the fortunate ones. When he got back to regular life, he had anchors. There was his tight group of Marines he calls his closest friends on earth. There was his grandpa. And there was football.

In a few days, his final season of football would begin. In his first game back, Goff, the preseason All-American, would have to sit out the first half as punishment for a late hit the final game of last season. In the second half, he wouldn't record any sacks. His team would lose. And it wouldn't matter all that much. Because he was back on the football field, playing the game that he believes saved his life.

Next month, Grandpa Rex will make the trip from Rhode Island to Minnesota. He plans to stay a while, maybe even the whole month. And Grandpa Rex, the man who was the recipient of the Bronze Star from his time in Korea, will sit in the stands and cheer, soaking as much as he can of the final football season for his grandson, the man who made it through Afghanistan and got a second chance to chase his dream.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.