From line of fire in Iraq to defensive lineman at Nebraska
Tyrone Fahie, a two-tour Iraq veteran from Virginia Beach, is not on the campus of the University of Nebraska through a miracle, although his story does have that feel about it.
Fahie is imposing at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 255 pounds, but his voice lands softly on significant events of the past decade: his enlistment in the Navy at age 17, his rise to the rank of petty officer second class, his narrow escape from a rocket attack late one night in 2004 within Baghdad's Green Zone.
The 107 mm rocket launched across the bordering Tigris River landed 50 yards behind him and another man, but for some reason it didn't explode. Fahie (pronounced Foy) is mindful of that serendipity, pretty much every day. "It would've easily killed both of us," he says. "War became really personal to me at that point."
Gradually, Fahie's tale steers from that sober memory to the surreal. It's the part nobody really saw coming. The long-shot chapter in which a former Ocean Lakes High School drum major announces his nascent dream - to become a Division I college football player upon leaving the Navy - and then proceeds to live it.
What? How did Fahie become a backup defensive end - deep on the depth chart, but still - and a trusted voice within a traditional powerhouse that's ranked 17th nationally this week by The Associated Press?
Didn't Fahie quit football after his freshman season on the junior varsity to focus on the saxophone and the marching band? Well, that made sense to him at the time; Fahie was just 5-foot-7 then, and he loved his music, although, reflecting now, he concedes he wasn't motivated to take it very far.
So football became a casualty. Football was gone for good when Fahie gave it up.
Except, actually, it wasn't.
Music waned for Fahie, but not the lure of football. Even as he practiced his military trade in harm's way - an electronics specialist, Fahie helped SEAL team members communicate with each other - he nursed his goal, training a body that bloomed unexpectedly while he was in the Navy.
"My second tour in Iraq, my nickname was 'Nebraska,' " says Fahie, a 28-year-old graduate student due to earn his MBA in May. "I had a lot of support. Everyone just expected me to get accepted there and play football."
And so that part played out for him precisely as planned. Yet with one game - the Dec. 30 Holiday Bowl - left in his career as the Cornhuskers' oldest walk-on ever, Fahie still marvels at his journey.
"You couldn't tell someone this story," he says. "A Navy guy, 23 years old, walks onto the Nebraska football team after not playing football for 10 years? Yeah, right. That really happened."
Oh, but it did. Very much so.
In fact, the directors of an exclusive service organization and foundation in Newport Beach, Calif., known as The Pacific Club were so moved upon learning about Fahie's story that they voted him an honorary version of their annual award.
The club issues its Lott IMPACT trophy, named for former football star Ronnie Lott, to a top college defensive player judged that season's best combination of athlete, student and citizen.
Two others have received honorary awards: the late Pat Tillman, who left an NFL career and died in service as an Army Ranger, and Boston College's Mark Herzlich, who returned to the field after a battle with cancer.
"Tyrone represents the best of student-athletes in this country, and we're delighted to honor him," says Pete Donovan, a Pacific Club spokesman. "He'll get a hell of an ovation when he comes up, trust me."
That will be tonight in Newport Beach at a $20,000-per-table black-tie gala, with retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, set to introduce Fahie to the gathering of 250 people.
"I'm honored, but I'm baffled," says Fahie, an honor-roll student who also runs a nonprofit business, reselling his school's used computer equipment online as part of his graduate program. "I don't think I'm in the conversation" with Tillman and Herzlich.
There is little to discuss regarding Fahie's statistics, that's true. He has played briefly in just two games at Nebraska.
Still, his story drew attention and admiration early this season for one proud act: Fahie carried the American flag into Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, filled with its usual 81,000 fans, before a game Sept. 11.
He had asked school officials how he could help mark the day's significance to the military and others who protect Americans. They in turn asked him to lead his teammates out of their tunnel, in uniform, along with four flag-bearing police officers and firefighters.
The irony of that special walk isn't lost on Fahie: It was his longest on-field appearance as a Cornhusker. Fahie, in the language of the game, is a scout-team player. He has spent his idyllic career imitating opposing defensive ends to help prepare Nebraska's offensive starters for that week's game.
The nickname is incongruous to the Navy, but "Sarge," as Fahie is known to his teammates, has never gotten to run down the field to cover a kickoff or a punt. He's rarely traveled to road games. He has played only two snaps from scrimmage - one this year, the other two years ago - and made no tackles.
But his name on the roster - Fahie, No. 92, defensive end - and his credibility as a survivor of a cattle-call student tryout barely eight months after he left the Navy are all the validation he needs.
"It's pretty much amazing someone so young has done so many of the things he wanted to do in his life," says his mother, Dafney, who lives in Virginia Beach with her husband, Floyd. "I really think Tyrone is an awesome young man."
Dafney Fahie, who, like her husband, is a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands, knows better than anyone the making of her son's plan.
It was born in boot camp after Tyrone Fahie, whose father spent 24 years in the Navy, enlisted the summer he graduated from Ocean Lakes. Fahie befriended a fellow enlistee, a native Nebraskan who talked endlessly of Cornhusker football, and he found himself intrigued by his new friend's passion.
Later, when they were stationed in San Diego, the men traveled to Lincoln to sample the spectacle of a game day, Husker-style. The intensity blew Fahie away.
"I mean, if you say something to someone out here about the Huskers, they can list the roster in alphabetical order," Fahie says. "They know every detail about the team. I was kind of impressed by that."
So impressed that Fahie, with his parents' can-do encouragement in his ears, began to talk openly of trying football again when he left the Navy in August 2006. Sure, it was illogical. But Fahie kept asking himself and friends two questions: "Why not me?" and "Why not Nebraska?"
The school, he'd learned, had a long tradition of accepting walk-ons. And he'd already decided Nebraska was the place for him, although he knew no one at the university.
"I'd always wondered, what if I had picked football instead of band, where would I have been?" Fahie says.
His shot to find out in front of Nebraska's coaching staff came in the spring of 2007, the second semester of his freshman year.
The coaches, who Fahie says did not yet know of his military background, put 85 hopefuls through various running and jumping drills to test their athleticism.
Fahie recalls being upset with his performance, even before he lost a shoe during his 40-yard dash.
"I was like, 'Awesome. That's exactly what I needed,' " he says with a laugh. "I beat myself up that night. But the next day I got a call to come to the coach's office.
"They said, 'We'd like you to be part of our team.' "
"Team" isn't a word Fahie takes lightly. To him, it is charged with meaning from military lessons ingrained by relying on others as they relied on him.
"The consequences there obviously are a lot more dire," he says. "If I messed up and got myself killed or shot, that's fine. But I didn't want to be the guy who got someone else killed or shot."
That attitude is why, according to Nebraska teammate Joe Broekemeier, a receiver, Fahie's "respect level is crazy around here. What Sarge says has merit, and people listen to him."
Broekemeier, though, notes that Fahie rarely references his Navy days unless asked. But he did volunteer to address the Cornhuskers during a rough patch last season, when he called on his military maturity to lend perspective and guidance.
We need to know we can trust each other, he told his struggling, younger teammates. No, our lives aren't on the line here. Rockets aren't falling around us. But we need to know we're all doing our jobs for each other, every day, on the field and in class, to better this team.
"I'm very competitive. I want to win," says Fahie, who estimates he's among 15 open-tryout players on Nebraska's 156-man roster. "So if takes me just being a scout-team player for us to win, I'm completely fine with that. I'm not the best athlete. But there are things I do that still help this team."
Nothing Fahie brings to the locker room, the weight room or the practice field, says Nebraska's defensive ends coach John Papuchis, is more important than his full effort and his presence as someone who's seen a side of life most of his teammates never will.
Says Papuchis, "Tyrone's maturity and discipline have a positive effect on the rest of our defensive line and people throughout our football program."
Ah, but in the end, there is another question to ask of Fahie: Which has served the other better, the man or the team? He is confident of the answer, and here's a clue to it: Fahie, who's engaged to be married in July, says he plans to coach football - at any level, even as a volunteer - and for a long time, to repay what he says he owes to the sport, his university and his teammates.
"I needed this team more than they needed me," Fahie says. "I need that structure in my life. I don't do well without it. And for me, being accountable to other people really pushes me further than I would probably ever push myself."