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Green Beret, 37, hopes to kick off college career playing football

Army veteran Nick Umble, 37, wants to play football at Lindenwood-Belleville next fall.
Army veteran Nick Umble, 37, wants to play football at Lindenwood-Belleville next fall. Provided

He’s given his last 20 years for the service of the country. Now Nick Umble wants to trade in his Army Green Beret for the black and maroon of a Lindenwood-Belleville Lynx football helmet.

Umble, 37, plans to suit up as a freshman long-snapper this fall. It’s a long, long way from his experience in the Army.

Umble has put his life on the line in Afghanistan as the leader of the First Special Forces Group, an airborne unit specializing in hostage rescues and other harrowing operations.

I’ve been in 112-degree heat in Iraq in the middle of a firefight, carrying around 50 pounds of equipment and sucking wind. When it comes down to it, how bad can it really be? To me, it’s like I’m moving and starting a different job.

Nick Umble on playing football for Lindenwood-Belleville

The 14-year Green Beret has served in 30 countries, has heard the bullets whistle and has found himself surrounded by people who would prefer to see him dead.

But this fall, the First Sergeant and 20-year Army veteran will be just another one of the guys in the Lynx’s locker room.

“I’m going to be a 38-year-old man trying to play around with kids that are literally 20 years younger than I am,” a chuckling Umble said in a recent telephone interview from Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.

It sounds intimidating.

“A little bit, but how bad can it be?” Umble said. “I’ve been in 112-degree heat in Iraq in the middle of a firefight, carrying around 50 pounds of equipment and sucking wind. When it comes down to it, how bad can it really be?

“To me, it’s like I’m moving and starting a different job.”

Lindenwood-Belleville head coach Dale Carlson has never seen anything like it.

“I’ve had guys in their mid-20s, late-20s, come out of the military and play,” Carlson said. “But I’ve never had somebody in this situation.”

No gimmick

Having a 38-year-old on a college football team sounds like a publicity stunt. Carlson and Lynx special-teams coordinator Kyle Dougherty understand why people might get that idea. They sometimes even laugh at the notion themselves.

But this is real. Umble has a scholarship. Now he must come into preseason camp and be ready to compete to win the long-snapper job.

“I watched video of him long-snapping and he’s good,” said Carlson, adding that Lindenwood lost perhaps two games last season because of poor long-snapping. “When it comes down to it, Nick can long-snap. Then you add in the leadership, the life experiences, those things, and I think it could be a great situation.”

Umble understands Carlson’s thinking.

“I would be an idiot if I thought they were only bringing me in for my athletic talents. Probably 60 percent of the reason I’m coming to this school is to put leadership on the field,” said Umble, whose “final out” from the military is June 16, 3 1/2 months prior to his official retirement Oct. 1 after 20 years and 20 days of service.

When it comes down to it, Nick can long-snap. Then you add in the leadership, the life experiences, those things, and I think it could be a great situation.

Lindenwood-Belleville football coach Dale Carlson

Dougherty, however, said the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Umble’s skills are obvious.

“You can see on video that he’s consistent,” Dougherty said. “He does the same things every time. His speed is good and he’s got good size. He can protect anywhere we need him to protect, whether it’s on punts or field goals. He fits the physical mold that we like to have in a long-snapper.

“But there’s going to be competition for the job. That’s what we do with every position. Nobody’s job is ever safe. We’re always looking to improve at every position.”

Reliving the past

Umble was raised in Newton, Iowa, and was a backup offensive and defensive lineman for the Mediapolis High football team in Mediapolis, Iowa.

“I didn’t play a lot,” Umble said. “I carried three jobs and went out and partied with my buddies. My work ethic when it came to sports ... I didn’t really care. So I got in the Army and decided that was for me.

“My high school football coach told me once, ‘Nick, I wish you would have had the work ethic in high school when you were playing ball that you have as an adult being an SF (special forces) guy. I don’t know how far you would have gone.’”

The words carried weight.

In spring 2015, Umble began to ponder his life after the Army and decided to give football another crack.

My dream position was to play tight end. For 20 years, I’ve worn body armor and jumped from airplanes and done all that. I figured I could probably play a second- or third-string tight end. But trying to catch passes over the middle, I would get crushed.

Lindenwood-Belleville football recruit Nick Umble

“My dream position was to play tight end,” Umble said. “For 20 years, I’ve worn body armor and jumped from airplanes and done all that. I figured I could probably play a second- or third-string tight end. But trying to catch passes over the middle, I would get crushed. The question then would be, ‘How long can I sustain being healthy?’”

Umble began to consider long-snapping.

“It really was a whim,” he said. “But at the long-snapper position, I could play football. I could contribute to a team in numerous ways and not take the beating.”

‘I don’t know if we’re getting out of this one’

During his years serving overseas, Umble would sometimes wonder: “Will we escape this mess today?”

“I’ve lost a lot of friends,” Umble said. “I’ve never lost a teammate, though, which is remarkable considering it was 14 years in September that I’ve been an actual Green Beret in a group. A lot of guys can’t say that.

“But there have been two or three times I’ve looked over at the guy that I’m with and said, ‘Dude, I don’t know if we’re getting out of this one.’”

Umble has made a habit of extricating himself and his team from danger and completing missions. He has three Bronze Stars, a Valor Award and other decorations.

He would do it all over again.

“I hope to God that 95 percent of the population never has to see or do that stuff,” Umble said. “In the same aspect, I enjoyed every minute of doing everything that I had to do. Good or bad, the experiences that I had shaped who I am. I’m blessed with those experiences.

“You hear a lot of really bad stuff about being in the military. You hear a lot of people that have gotten in and weren’t happy with it. But I can’t replace the experiences.”

Seeking help

Long-snapping requires bending over, putting a football between your legs and sending an accurate spiral backward to a punter or a placekicker. From the long-snapper’s perspective, that punter or kicker appears to be standing on his head.

A long-snapper must then be ready to block other big bodies coming his way, players whose jobs are to get to the punter or placekicker.

Umble had to be taught the skill. He contacted Lewiston, Idaho-based Rubio Long Snapping, whose president and founder, Chris Rubio, arranged for Umble to be coached.

“They are not necessarily cheap,” Umble said of the coaching sessions.

Umble worked in the Seattle area with Matt Wigley, taking his first swing at long-snapping in March 2015. Wigley soon moved to California, so Rubio assigned Brendan Lopez, a former long-snapper at the University of Washington, to take over.

When he first came to me, he was just so raw. He was this big, muscular, beefy guy who didn’t know what he was doing.

Long-snapping coach Chris Rubio on Nick Umble

Umble made steady progress under Lopez. Rubio, meanwhile, would occasionally meet with Umble in Lewiston to provide further instruction and smooth out the rough edges.

“When he first came to me, he was just so raw. He was this big, muscular, beefy guy who didn’t know what he was doing,” said Rubio, adding that Umble had “probably a one-in-a-million shot” of improving enough to play in college.

“I called him a caveman,” Rubio said. “He was just throwing the ball back there.”

That caveman has been transformed, thanks to Lopez and Rubio.

“Being a long-snapper is like being a professional free-throw shooter,” Rubio said. “We have one little thing we have to do, but we have to do it perfectly well. When you snap a football, you have to use your entire body and not just your hands and arms. That’s the biggest thing we teach – how to get the proper form.”

Spreading the word

So how did Umble end up at Lindenwood?

After becoming proficient at long-snapping, Umble began writing emails to colleges big and small, including one to his favorite team, the Oregon Ducks. He waited for replies from coaches in need of a long-snapper. There were no takers.

“It was disgusting,” Umble said. “They don’t email you back. I’m a grown-up. Just send me an email, ‘Hey, we’re not interested,’ and I would be fine with that.”

Finally, Carlson and Dougherty watched Umble’s video and liked what they saw.

“I got the text from Coach Dougherty and I kind of looked over at my wife, Jen, and said, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime,’” Umble said. “She was like, ‘Yeah, take it.’”

Umble and Jen will travel to Belleville in mid-July to find a place to live. Umble then will assume his new career as a football player and student who after four years will complete his master’s in business administration.

Work remains

Umble wants to shed 20 pounds before practice begins, settling at about 270. Being lighter and quicker on his feet, he reasons, will help him be a more effective blocker.

“The blocking is going to be the hardest part just because I’m not used to it,” Umble said. “The last time I endured something like that was probably 20 years ago.”

Fear of failure helps Umble maintain his edge. He is counting the days until Lindenwood’s first game Sept. 3 at Siena Heights in Michigan.

Until then, doubts will exist.

“I’m still going to have nerves about it,” Umble said. “What worries me the most is, when I get there, I don’t want to be the old guy that sucks.”

If Umble struggles, Rubio said it won’t be because of a poor work ethic or attitude.

“You tell him to do something, he’s going to do it,” Rubio said. “One of the biggest issues I had with him was not overworking. He was so adamant about, ‘I’m going to make it happen. I’m going to make it happen.’ Instead of him snapping 20 footballs a day, he wanted to snap 200.”

Umble wants to earn everything he gets, just as he did in the Army.

“I want every one of the guys on the (Lindenwood) team to be like, ‘He’s not just here because he used to be in the Army and he got some cool awards. The dude can compete,’” Umble said. “I want to compete and I want to earn that job because I’ve earned it, not because of who I am.

“I did everything I could in the military. I was the best leader I could be. Now it’s time to move on to the next chapter. I have the opportunity in front of me of a lifetime.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

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