INDIANAPOLIS – Josh McNary spent years training to call the shots in artillery fields at Fort Hood.
Turns out the 25-year-old Army fire direction officer really wanted a different mission.
On Tuesday, McNary took advantage of his early release from the Army after more than two years of active-duty service and officially traded his fatigues for pads and an Indianapolis Colts helmet. He hopes to catch on as a linebacker.
"Basically, I just said, 'Hi, I'm Josh McNary' and I told them a little bit about of what I did," McNary said Wednesday morning, describing the introduction to his new band of brothers. "Coach (Chuck Pagano) pretty much hit on the few topics about the translatable qualities that the Army has that also can be applied on the football field — those character traits, the accountability of yourself and holding your brothers in arms accountable. But he kept it in perspective, he acknowledged the fact that this is a game, and that's not really a game, in the Army. It was a heck of a speech."
For McNary and his family, this is a heck of a change.
McNary's father, George, was a captain in the Marines; both of McNary's grandfathers fought in wars, and McNary's uncle is a first major in the Army. So when the high school kid enrolled at West Point, his destiny seemed clear: Army officer.
But along the way, McNary developed into a top-flight football player.
Scouts remember him as the former walk-on who left Army as the school's career leader in sacks (28.0) and tackles for loss (49.0), the kid who won the Pat Tillman Award at the 2011 East-West Shrine Game and the guy who might have been drafted later that year if he wasn't staring at 24 months — or more — away from the game. Back then, the book on McNary said he was undersized at 6-feet, 230 pounds, though he compensated with quick feet, good balance and reliable tackling.
Two years of Army work turned him into a 6-foot, 251-pound ball of muscle, whose passion for the game never changed. He spent those two years watching NFL games, wondering if he couldn't be out there playing.
Colts coaches were so impressed, they signed him as a free agent in April.
"I think over the years that he was with the military, he learned a lot of command," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "He was doing a lot of things. I think he's a good football player and we'll see what he can do when he gets out there."
What he brings is a wealth of real-world experience rarely seen on NFL rosters.
He worked as a graduate assistant at West Point following his playing career and mastered the art of building bonds with colleagues and teammates in stops at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School, the U.S. Military Academy and stints at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Fort Hood in Texas. He fits in with an unusual corps of Colts rookie linebackers that includes German-born Bjoern Werner, Indy's first-round draft pick, and Daniel Adongo, an African rugby player who has never played a down of American football. The youngsters will be mentored five-time Pro Bowler Robert Mathis.
And though his family's professional choice has usually been military service, McNary acknowledges he has plenty of support on the home front.
"They recognize this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "All through college my dad's concentration was on academics and military sort of things, and he likes the fact that I'm an officer. He encouraged me to follow that, but they support me in this."
The Army is helping, too.
As of 2008, the Defense Department allows some service members who were required to serve five years of active duty to apply for an early release after two years if they were participating in pro sports. If granted, those getting the release were required to serve in the military reserves and pay back part of their education cost. McNary said he must spend six more years in the reserves though the job will not impact what he does with the Colts — if he makes the team.
When the all-clear came finally Monday, McNary wasted no time getting back to work. He arrived Monday night, passed his physical Tuesday morning and was hitting pads and players Tuesday afternoon.
All McNary has to do now is fulfill his mission by making the team.
"It means a lot not only to me and my family but to all of those who supported me and saw NFL potential early on," McNary said before noting he hasn't had time to reflect on his path to the NFL. "There's too much going on around me. Right now I'm sucking water out of a fire hose, I'm pretty preoccupied."
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