Military veterans find a home in college football

Military veterans participate in the Camp Pendleton Athletes of Valor camp. Acts of Valor

FORT HOOD, Texas -- With drizzling, sideways rain dropping from overcast skies and a healthy wind blowing through, Rashaud Freeman settles into his stance to run a 40-yard dash.

It's a Saturday morning in August. Hundreds of college football teams across the country are in fall camp, practicing, preparing for their upcoming seasons. Freeman is on a military base in Central Texas, enduring less-than-ideal weather, running drills, clinging to the hope that at this time next year, he'll be in one of those training camps.

At 25, Freeman has been a multi-channel transmission systems operator-maintainer -- "I bring signals so the soldiers can communicate," Freeman explains -- but is now getting a better-late-than-never start on his dream. His first try chasing college football followed a solid high school career in Florida and a year at prep school in New Mexico, but it was put on pause following a family member's death. Afterward, the Army became his next destination, taking him to Georgia, Oklahoma, South Korea and now Fort Hood. But he never stopped thinking of playing. So here he stands, at Prichard Stadium, running combine drills with a few dozen fellow soldiers with the same hopes.

"If I get the opportunity to go out there and step on the field and do what I know I can do, my life is going to change," Freeman said.

Alex Stone had his own visions of being a college athlete when he was a high school football and hockey player in Swampscott, Massachusetts, but wasn't interested in college academics, so he joined the Marines.

When his time in the Marines came to an end, he struggled finding a fit in the job market. He went back to school, to North Shore Community College and later found a spot at Under Armour, where he eventually rose to a product line manager for team sports licensed equipment.

The apparel company's stake in high school athletics -- between high school all-star games and camps and combines for football recruits -- got Stone to thinking: What if they held a combine on a military base?

"All these guys are older, more mature, have all their eligibility, why wouldn't coaches want to recruit these guys?" Stone thought.

With that idea, Stone launched Athletes of Valor with a mission to connect veterans with college athletics opportunities. Football is the main focus now, but eventually, Stone wants the company to expand into other sports as well and it welcomes all athletes.

To Stone, it makes perfect sense. Servicemen and women are physically fit. The GI Bill helps cover college educational expenses, meaning a walk-on athlete can afford to go to school. Coaches who are looking for mature, disciplined athletes who can lead can find them on military bases and studies show that regular collegiate student-athletes graduate a higher rate than the typical veteran.

"All these schools are trying to figure out how to support veterans," Stone said. "You really don't have to do anything, just make sure they're on a team."

When Stone and his staff hosted their combine in Fort Hood, it was the third such event since the company launched last summer. The fourth came last month at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base just north of Oceanside, California.

Stone said he hopes that over the next two-plus years, Athletes of Valor can run 10-20 such events across multiple sports at military installations throughout the country.

Like Freeman, Khalief Gamble also hails from Florida and found himself at Fort Hood. Gamble, too, spent time deployed in South Korea.

A 22-year-old 19D Cavalry scout, Gamble was once a free safety and receiver at Gainesville High. He enlisted after graduating in 2014, was assigned to Fort Hood for a year then to Camp Stanley, just east of Uijeongbu, South Korea, and just south of the North Korean border.

"It was a culture shock really," Gamble said. "I had never been out of the United States."

Freeman was in the food court at Camp Stanley in 2012 when all the televisions, which were often tuned to sports, suddenly switched to a news network, covering the story of a North Korean missile launch.

"I'm not going to lie, that was the only time while I was in Korea that my heart dropped was like, 'S***, this is real,'" Freeman said. "But instead of being afraid, everybody was like, 'OK, this is what we signed up for. Let's get it.'"

Gamble's time there came with having North Korean propaganda shouted across the border and a rush of adrenaline when even the possibility of battle existed.

But upon returning to Fort Hood a year ago, Gamble found himself with lots of free time.

Early this summer Gamble, who's separation date is in March, came across a flyer advertising Athletes of Valor's upcoming combine. When he first enlisted in the Army in 2014, he figured his dream of playing college football was gone, but he never fully let it go. When he heard about the combine, he thought, "Hey, you're 22 years old. You can do whatever you want. You're still young, you still have that athletic ability."

After the combine, at Stone's instruction, Freeman and Gamble started emailing coaches, introducing themselves and hoping to get a chance to play. The efforts paid off for both of them. Gamble, who wants to play safety or receiver, will enroll at Becker College, a Division III program in Worcester, Massachusetts, in January. Freeman will return to Florida and Webber International University, an NAIA school in Babson Park. Freeman will play "whatever position makes me marketable," though his 5-foot-11, 225-pound frame suggests linebacker or running back could be a good fit (he played defensive end at Andrew Jackson High in Jacksonville, Florida).

"I have options," Freeman said. "If I get out there and show myself and I prove to be a tier-one athlete, then somebody's going to see me. If I get out there and I get in the classroom and I prove to be a tier-one student, that's going to get me my degree."

Said Gamble: "This will open up other opportunities, whether it's academically or job offers or professionally [in football], which is ultimately the goal, to make it to the NFL. But if that doesn't happen, playing football and meeting people is always going to open up doors."

While most who participate have dreams of playing at a Power 5 team, this program is primarily geared at getting players to the very heart of the matter: their desire to play college football, regardless of level. The Division I prospects might be there, but there are many more whose opportunity lies in Division II, Division III or NAIA football. Stone said between 600-700 coaches across those levels -- in multiple sports -- signed up for their platform. The program currently has strong relationships with a few dozen schools, mostly at the lower levels.

Reintegrating into civilian life comes with myriad challenges for veterans. Relating to civilians who haven't seen what veterans have, reconnecting with the community, finding structure and successfully entering the work force are among those challenges, according to U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs.

One part of the military those veterans miss is the camaraderie. Accustomed to being part of a unit, a college football team can be the perfect fit for former soldiers.

"All these guys are older, more mature, have all their eligibility, why wouldn't coaches want to recruit these guys?" Athletes of Valor founder Alex Stone

"It's very valuable," said Baylor sophomore linebacker Kyle Boyd, who joined the Bears last year after a four-year stint in the Marines. "The Marine Corps is very tight-knit. Being on a team now makes me thankful that I get to do something like this again. It's a special bond you won't get anywhere else in the workforce."

Boyd signed with the Bears out of high school in 2011, but instead of pursuing his college football dream, decided to join the Marines. When his contract ended in 2016, he had the itch to play again. Athletes of Valor or a program of the like wasn't yet an option to Boyd when he separated, so, on his own, he e-mailed several coaches, including those at Baylor. Then-Baylor assistant Beau Trahan said Boyd would be welcomed back, but had to walk on. He did and played linebacker last season before moving to fullback this offseason.

Suddenly, he said, balancing the demands of college football and academics don't seem so difficult.

"Time management was big in the Marine Corps, so I didn't have trouble managing my time with school," the 24-year-old Boyd said. "Competing and working hard for a good grade and getting a good grade was pretty rewarding for me."

Being involved in an extracurricular activity is beneficial and can lead to more positive outcomes for veterans. Dr. Leif Nelson, the director of National Veterans Sports Programs & Special Events for Veteran's Affairs, said the data shows that sports helps veterans.

"What we see is carry over in every-day life from being exposed to sports, being able to find out that you can achieve something or accomplish something that you didn't think was possible," Nelson said.

Nelson also oversees the adaptive sports program at the V.A., which helps disabled veterans compete. In those programs, he has seen the positive impact it has.

"All the data that we have shows that [participation in athletics] positively impacts physical and emotional well-being, the majority of our veterans participating in our programs, they're reporting improved quality of life due to participation in adaptive sports," Nelson said. "What we've seen is sports and adaptive sports can really help integrate veterans into the communities that they're living in."

Freeman, who's separation date is in January, said having a goal to shoot for and a clear purpose ahead of him is something that is immensely helpful.

"... The things I was going through at the moment I found that Athletes of Valor flyer on Facebook, by way of a friend, it doesn't happen like that," Freeman said.

"This is a lifesaver for me right now. That's why I'm so passionate about it."

Stone, who organizes the combines -- they're free for participants -- is focused on helping more Freemans and Gambles get their chance. Four players from the Fort Hood combine have committed to colleges. He expects 15-20 players from the Camp Pendleton combine should commit in time for next football season. In the past year, he estimates 25 veterans have found spots on college rosters. Some are on rosters this season.

Jason Swepson, the former head coach at Elon and formerly an assistant at Boston College and NC State, said these veterans have what coaches are looking for. It's just a matter of connecting the two.

"You're always looking for disciplined young men who have a will to succeed," said Swepson, who coached at both the Fort Hood and Camp Pendleton combines. "That's what the military trains these guys and it's a natural transition, discipline-wise, from military to college athletics.

"Give these soldiers an opportunity to have success once they get out."