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Why college football can be a game-changer for veterans

Alex Findura cuts an imposing figure. He has the stature of a man who uses his body for work. His 250-some pounds are suspended from his 6-foot-5 frame in the type of inverted triangle that makes strangers wonder exactly what it is he does for a living.

He used to love that question.

Findura spent a little more than a year playing on the defensive line under Bill Curry at Georgia State before enlisting in the Marines in 2012. During boot camp, he was selected to be a part of the Body Bearers -- an elite unit responsible for carrying caskets to graves in Arlington National Cemetery.

For the last four years his days had started at 4 a.m. on the bottom floor of a parking garage at the corner of Eighth and I streets in Washington D.C. That's where he and a dozen other bulked-up Marines trained to carry coffins that typically weighed between 700 and 1,500 pounds. The branch's tradition is to carry the fallen at shoulder height, above the heart, as a sign of respect. The men selected for this honor are screened for upper body strength and a stoic temperament.

Findura estimates he put more than 200 active-duty Marines in the ground over the course of four years in the service, almost one a week. He buried a four-star general, a Medal of Honor recipient, bronze star recipients and the young daughter of his sergeant major. Had a U.S. president died during Findura's time in the Marines, his hand would have been on the casket.

Leaving was not easy. In August, Findura walked the halls of his Marine barracks not entirely certain where he would go from here. He had decided not to renew his contract and was in the midst of a three-day course provided by the Marines to help prepare their departing members for a transition back to civilian life.

He bumped into his old platoon commander who asked if Findura had considered returning to school to play football again. He shook his head. That didn't go so well the last time. When he joined the Marines to extricate himself from the usual demons of a young athlete set loose on his own for the first time -- poor grades, parties, chasing girls -- he made peace with the idea that he was closing that chapter of his life for good.

"Well," the commander said. "If you change your mind, I know some guys in Boston who might be able to help."

Alex Stone knows that uncertainty well. He set adrift from the Marines amid a recession in 2008, and the first job he could find was hawking wheelchairs and walkers for a hospital supply company. He spent long hours crisscrossing New England in a Nissan Pathfinder and wondering what had happened to the high school hockey star who left for boot camp the week after graduation, just the way he had always planned.

"The solitude was eating me alive," Stone says. "That's when it really hit home. Man, this is everything I didn't want to be. It was only six months to a year after separating, but I lost that feeling. I used to be proud to tell people what I did."

Many of the approximately quarter of a million men and women who separate from the U.S. military each year have felt that rough patch. The Department of Veterans Affairs says 60 percent of them will try to go back to school via the GI Bill, but only half of those who enroll will finish their degree. The highest concentration of that group is between the ages of 25 and 30, and many of them will have to battle to figure out what's next.

Findura was looking into careers in law enforcement. His wife was on him to get a degree, and he thought maybe he would try a night class or two while he worked. He took a temporary job as a security guard for large events at D.C.'s Verizon Center. It was fine, he convinced himself -- decent money, a free pass to a fancy gym and the occasional opportunity to brush shoulders with NBA players or famous musicians.

A week later Findura and his wife went to dinner with a couple of her friends. The man across the table asked him what he was doing for work. The response to that question used to come so easily: I'm a Marine. That night he stared down at the beer in his glass for a moment before explaining his new security gig.

"The look he gave me," Findura says before trailing off. "'So, you're like a mall cop?' That's what people are thinking. It's ... it's kind of heartbreaking."

Stone, and his new Boston-based company Athletes of Valor, think they have a plan to help men and women like Findura. And it starts with college sports.

'It's the perfect way to transition out of the military'

Nate Boyer sees the heartbroken every week. The former Green Beret who famously walked on to the Texas football team and earned a job as a long snapper is living in Los Angeles now. Most Thursday afternoons he hosts a workout session at Jay Glazer's gym for a couple dozen veterans who have struggled since leaving the military. All of them spent time in combat and all of them have been or are currently homeless.

They rip through a workout together then pick a spot in the gym to sit and talk. The discussions, Boyer says, are about regaining a sense of service, a purpose -- "that thing" you lose when you turn in your uniform. The workouts are about filling the void.

Boyer saw the void coming before he finished his time overseas. He spent his last year in the service taking online courses to get himself eligible for a school like Texas. He knew he needed a challenge waiting for him when get got home, and he figured walking on to a Longhorns team that had played for a national championship the previous January was a good place to start.

"It's the perfect way to transition out of the military," Boyer says. "Guys miss that camaraderie. You definitely feel a lot older than some of the other students on campus. I remember walking around and thinking about how small and young everybody looks, but in the locker room I felt more at home."

A college campus can be a foreign and daunting place for new veterans, according to Auburn professor David DiRamio, a former member of the Navy who has spent much of the last decade studying the issues military members face when they return to school. He has found that one of the biggest factors that determines which veterans finish their degree and which ones don't is whether or not they get involved in extracurricular activities on campus.

Those who don't get involved feel out of place and have an easier time quitting, DiRamio says. They lose their sense of mission, and that can lead to the problems that plague the nation's veteran population like substance abuse and depression.

Then-Texas head coach Mack Brown was skeptical when he first met Boyer. But it didn't take Brown very long to see the first layer of his value. On the 100-degree days of an August training camp, players have a tendency to complain. Brown remembers stopping practices several times and gathering his team to have Boyer tell them a story. Tell us about boot camp, Nate, he would say. Or, Nate, tell us what it feels like when explosions shake the ground while you're lying in the Iraqi desert on a day that makes Austin summers feel breezy.

"That would shut them up pretty quickly," says Brown, who can only remember two veterans on his roster in 30 years as a head coach. They both found him. He wouldn't have known where to begin if he was trying to seek them out.

Stone, who left the wheelchair sales business and parlayed a sports apparel internship into a middle-management job at Under Armour, heard from plenty of coaches who felt the same way. He visited all-star combines and 7-on-7 tournaments and sized up the talent, thinking of men and women he served with who could compete with high school prospects. The demand was present, and so was the supply. Someone just needed to connect the two.

'We're probably a little bit different than most of the people around here'

The 166-year-old Davenport Building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is an unlikely setting for the collision of military veterans and college athletics. On a cool day in October, software engineers with ruffled hair and ruffled cargo shorts scamper past the Japanese floral-printed banners that stretch to the ceiling of the four-story lobby without bothering to look up from their laptops. MBA-types stride past exposed brick walls, thumbing through iPhones in their chino pants and quarter-zip sweatshirts.

The building's main occupant, a marketing company called HubSpot, has its own in-house barista and kegs of local IPAs in the office for its employees. Athletes of Valor found a venture capitalist firm on the third floor that was willing to give them some office space and some start-up money.

Their wing of the building consists of a long corridor lined by glass-framed offices occupied by a variety of burgeoning companies toting slogans about making the world a better place and living life to the fullest. Some will make it. Others won't.

Stone and his teams of six have their headquarters there, too, a 10-by-10 glass room with four desks wedged up against the walls. On one wall is a dry-erase board with pricing matrices, call lists and networking ideas. On the opposite is the office's only real decorative sign. It reads, in part: "Be a f---ing lion. Set goals, smash them. Take no s---. Eat people's faces off."

"We're probably a little bit different than most of the people around here," Stone says.

The investors he approached early in the process largely felt the same way. This is a nice nonprofit idea, most investors told them, just like the many other organizations that honor and help veterans through sporting events or some other vehicle. Stone vehemently disagreed.

For starters, his mind is groomed for business. He had spent the last six years parlaying an athletic apparel internship into a full-time job at Under Armour and working his way up the ladder to a promising career in charge of all of the company's baseball products. He didn't want to spend his days writing grant applications and passing the hat for charity donations.

DiRamio's research shows that newly minted veterans are fiercely reluctant to ask for help from someone outside of their immediate unit. They've been trained to "adapt and overcome." Needing outside assistance is seen as a sign of weakness, DiRamio says, to young men and women who just spent the early part of their professional lives proving their strength. Veterans don't need a coach's help. Coaches need them.

"This isn't supposed to be a feel good thing," Stone says. "We have a valuable, pinnacle demographic of athletes. We're not looking for you to pat us on the back and say here's your fee, maybe we'll recruit someone, maybe not. We're saying we can make your team better. If you don't agree, then don't pay for our service."

Stone and his team have set a goal to attract 1,000 athletes and 1,000 college coaches in 2017. They currently have 25 coaches signed up for the service as beta testers and roughly the same number of veterans filling out profiles as their first round of prospects. The start-up world can be unpredictable and harrowing, but Athletes of Valor believes it can be profitable by this time next year.

This week the company announced a partnership with Front Rush, a recruiting service used by more than 20,000 coaches at schools such as Clemson, Texas A&M, Washington, Florida State and many others to help find and track high school recruits. The deal will inform coaches about Athletes of Valor and allow them to integrate the veterans' profiles into the same interface they use to find high school athletes.

Next to the high school standouts, coaches will now be able to find players such as Chris Ahmed, a field goal kicker who has put one through the uprights from 55 yards and will be leaving the Navy next year. Austin Canfield is on the same list -- a 6-foot South Carolina native who would like to play quarterback again after he finishes his time in the Marines. Findura is on the list, too -- a 6-5, 250-pound defensive end with a year of college football experience and an interest in studying exercise science.

He added his profile to the mix in September a couple of days after a painful dinner discussion with his wife and her friends. It was the first thing he did the next time he sat down at a computer.

Findura signed up for an Arena League tryout this fall to see how rusty he was. Like a riding a bike, he thought. He let his parents know that he was thinking about giving football, and college, another shot. They were elated.

Findura's grandfather was a talented baseball player who missed his shot when he was drafted into the Navy. It stuck with him for a long time. When Findura was at Georgia State, friends in their small town south of Atlanta would ask what he was up to, and his grandfather would cut him off before he had a chance to answer. He told them how Alex was up in Atlanta playing for Coach Curry and before long he'd be off to the NFL. His dad wasn't much more subdued.

It wasn't fun for Findura to tell them he was leaving football because his grades and his priorities were headed in the wrong direction. "That was a confrontation and a half," Findura says about telling his grandfather. "He wanted me to go on. He was living what he wanted through me, and I kind of blew it for him."

Next month, when college football season draws to a close and the recruiting cycle picks up the pace, Findura gets a second chance. He'll meet Stone and a few other members of Athletes of Valor in Baltimore for a training session at the gym Under Armour uses for many of its athletes. They'll bring along a camera crew and a handful of fellow Body Bearers to help put together a tape showcasing his athleticism and strength.

The night before Findura's Arena League workout he was pacing his place in the D.C. metro area when the phone rang. For the first time in five years, it was his grandfather on the other end of the line. "Good luck," he said. "Let me know how it goes."

Findura smiled. He can't wait for the next call.