It's on the cusp of spring but below zero in wind-whipped Buffalo, where the Tonawanda Creek rowing lanes are still ice-locked and the old metal boathouse at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, is shrouded in snow. Still, a little cold doesn’t stop Justine Bottorff and her Buffalo teammates from another grueling indoor rowing practice as they prepare for a challenging season. “We raced in a blizzard once,” Bottorff says with a laugh.
Relentlessly rowing on the sliding erg machine, sweat-sheened Bottorff stares at the performance monitor that’s demanding yet another ounce of effort and accomplishment, pulling together with her teammates in a long, mirrored workout room, pulling, pulling, in quest of perfectly synced power. “Hang, Justine,” the coach calls to correct a stroke. “Hang your body weight – that’s it!”
But no matter how hard the workout, it’s nothing compared with Bottorff’s last practice, as an 82nd Airborne Division medic in war-ravaged Iraq, where she spent her days on harrowing missions with vulnerable convoys and in frontline emergency rooms treating gunshot wounds and victims of improvised explosive devices, who were, in her words, “burned and mangled beyond repair – missing all limbs.” She adds, ruefully, “If you have a choice, always get shot. Don’t get blown up.”
A former high school athlete from Herkimer, New York, Bottorff served 14 months in the cauldron of the Iraqi insurgency. “There’s no way you can go over there for a year and not be different,” she says. “You get so used to everything being life and death. I felt so old.”
So Bottorff did feel old when, as a 23-year-old freshman, she arrived at Buffalo in 2011 after her service ended. Determined to build on her medical experience, she majored in biomedical science, in hope of being a doctor. It was a rough re-entry. Like many post-deployment vets, Bottorff struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. She had trouble coping with academic education after the military’s hands-on training. Being part of the 1 percent of Americans in military service, Bottorff had little in common with younger and less worldly civilian students. And after enduring the pain and dysfunction of war, she just didn’t trust anyone.
Then, she got an email inviting her to a rowing team tryout.
As the U.S. military slims down after the long, post-9/11 wars, increasing numbers of former soldiers will be using the GI Bill to attend college, and some are choosing to use athletics’ structure and teamwork to replace military discipline and camaraderie. It’s a trend that offers extraordinary opportunities to veterans and universities, as well as unique challenges. While military vets playing college sports are a small subset of the nation’s 460,000-plus NCAA student-athletes, Bottorff and other vets who became college athletes provide a lens for examining these complicated transitions.
Since its inception in 2009, more than 700,000 veterans and family members have returned to college using the post-9/11 GI Bill, which provides opportunities for both the soldiers and the institutions they attend. Colleges are eager to have vets on their campuses and athletics teams, in part to offset demographic declines in the numbers of traditional college-aged students.
R. Britton Katz, dean of students at Millsaps and a member of the Division III Management Council, notes that veterans and campuses both have something to offer each other. “It’s an exquisite marketing opportunity,” he said. “We anticipate vigorous recruitment as vets return to Mississippi and the Deep South.” Beyond the vets’ capacity to bring “maturity and worldliness to campus,” Katz sees them as “amongst the fittest adults in American society, ready for NCAA athletic competition.”
With such a symbiotic relationship, it makes sense for the two organizations to cooperate. Representatives from the military and Division II schools met in December at Georgia Regents Augusta for a Military Summit, with the goal of building connections, particularly between college athletics departments and the military. The community-engagement pilot program will be between Georgia Regents Augusta and nearby Fort Gordon.
“We want to have a meaningful relationship,” Georgia Regents Augusta Director of Athletics Clint Bryant said. “We’re researching such things as facilities, having games on bases and military teams playing on campus, the culture of the military,” he said.
He envisions the day when colleges are actively recruiting vets as student-athletes, including wounded soldiers with special needs. “The possibilities are endless.”
Col. Sam Anderson, the Fort Gordon garrison commander, likewise sees potential synergies. “It’s a natural progression, to expand on our current partnership for our mutual benefit,” he said. “We’re going to see if this is viable, then try to see if this can be applied nationally.”
Anderson has discussed the pilot program with other commanders with bases close to Division II schools. “They’re excited by the opportunity,” he said. “It’s a way to offset fiscal restraints, but more important, the military-college link will give service members the opportunity to realize there are great opportunities outside of the military. It will take away the fear.”
Karen Stromme, senior woman administrator at Minnesota Duluth, notes that a high percentage of Division II campuses are in proximity to military bases, a fact buttressed by an NCAA spreadsheet that lists myriad Division II schools near military bases. “Our core values align,” Stromme said. “We relate very well together.”
Returning military veterans playing college sports are nothing new. After World War II, a massive wave of 7.8 million GI Bill soldiers engulfed America’s colleges and universities. In search of competition and shared goals, many joined college teams, like the vets Ohio State football coach Carroll Widdoes incorporated into the 1945 Buckeyes team that went 7-2.
Another group of five World War II vets joined together to upend a traditional athletic hierarchy, and in the process wrestled themselves into NCAA sports history. In 1947, the vet-heavy wrestling team of Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, defeated all of the day’s major wrestling powers on the way to winning both the NCAA and AAU national championships. Called “The Dream Team of 1947,” the Cornell College squad was the first team inducted into the Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame of Iowa.
While the five vets were hardly unique at Cornell College, they were particularly valued as athletes. “Half the class were returning vets,” said former Cornell College wrestler Richard Small, though not a veteran himself. “But with those vets having the GI Bill, the school didn’t have to give them wrestling scholarships.”
One of the wrestling vets was Al Partin, a garrulous Navy gunner who had survived numerous passages on the perilous Arctic supply route to the Russian port of Murmansk. Partin had been an Illinois state wrestling champ before joining the Navy. After the war, he was working out in a New York City YMCA when Cornell College coach Paul Scott recruited him.
Partin was a 24-year-old heavyweight freshman wrestler on a Cornell College team composed of five older vets and three talented wrestlers just out of high school. “The mixture, age, it didn’t seem to matter,” Partin said. “After World War II, there were lots of vets playing college sports.”
The Cornell College team made history, first defeating the perennially powerful teams from Oklahoma and Iowa to win the NCAA championship at the University of Illinois, Champaign, then traveling to San Francisco to win the AAU championships against strong competition. After the judges reversed their decision to give a close match to his opponent, AAU officials awarded Partin an outstanding sportsmanship award because, Partin said, he didn’t complain about losing.
“The war and the GI Bill changed my life, and my whole family’s life,” said Partin, now a vibrant 90-year-old professor emeritus from Knox College, where he coached football for decades. “If the war hadn’t come, I’d probably have worked in the railroad yard,” he said. “But college changed me a lot, being around my peers, geniuses really. I thought, this is the kind of world I want to be in.”
After the World War II years, vets continued to rejoin civilian life as collegiate athletes. During his 1980s Navy service, Willis Bevelle III’s obsession with playing Alabama football powered him through four years of workouts and studies. “I slept in Alabama pajamas, carried a football,” he laughed. “They thought I was weird.”
In the spring of 1988, Bevelle walked on as a 22-year-old freshman. “I had a shaved head; very focused. I went from being a freshman to ‘Grandpa’ overnight.”
One of Bevelle’s Alabama teammates was Dabo Swinney, now Clemson’s football coach. “We called him ‘Pops,’ ‘Old Man,’” Swinney said. “It was neat to watch Willis maximize himself.”Bevelle went on to win a full scholarship and numerous awards as part of Alabama’s SEC and national championship teams. “Pray hard, work hard. Be of service,” Bevelle said. “The military drilled it into me.”
The 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed inspired a whole generation of military volunteers. Marine Brian Stokes was among them. After serving two deployments in Iraq, where he survived more than 200 combat missions, including one that earned him a Purple Heart, Stokes joined the Appalachian State football team as a 26-year-old freshman in 2005. Both he and fellow Marine Wayne Norman were part of Appalachian State’s second-straight national title team.
Appalachian State continued its military tradition in 2010, when Chris Aiken joined the team after two tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq. “I never thought I’d meet men that I’d bond with like I did with my brothers in war,” Aiken said. “But going on the field with the team on Saturdays was like going to war.” Inspired by Aiken, the Appalachian State conference championship rings were inscribed with “Brothers in Arms.”
During the wild days when Fallujah and Ramadi were aflame with the Iraqi insurgency, Sgt. Josh Butts was serving in the 503rd Air Assault Infantry Regiment as a chaplain assistant. “The chaplain’s mission is to nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead,” Butts said, remembering helping with mass casualties after IEDs and firefights; ministering at memorial services; and serving as a critical stress counselor after battles. “I was a combat multiplier, needing to be sure no one committed suicide – we needed them for the fight.” He broke off a moment, then added, “This is a little hard to talk about.”
Before he joined the Army in 2003, Butts was an outstanding high school distance runner in western New York. “I had to put my running career on hold,” he said. Though not on a college team, Butts was still fleet enough to run with the Jenks America Track Club and the All-Army Cross Country Team while stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
But on a bermed-up Ramadi firebase, Butts’ running really got serious. “We were shelled every hour on the hour,” he said. “When you’re fighting, you really can’t go for a 10-mile run.” So he figured out another training plan: “If I hugged the berm at the base perimeter, I could get in some training runs. I had this commitment to running.”
One day Butts was assigned to a vehicle control point. “We were under a mortar attack, when one mortar landed about 10 feet from where I was sitting and, miraculously, did not detonate.” But the rock and debris kicked up by the near-miss still caught his foot, causing severe bruising and a large calcium deposit. Compared with the horrific wounds suffered by his comrades in arms, Butts considers his a minor injury, dismissing it as “a boo-boo.” But when he returned to his 100-mile-a-week training regime after mustering out, the chronic pain was a reminder of a close call in Iraq.
Like many vets returning from the post-9/11 wars, Butts found re-entry to civilian life was difficult. But as he grappled with survivor’s guilt and PTSD, his running again helped him out: “The University of Tulsa honored my scholarship offer,” Butts said. “It was humbling to me.”
By 2006, he was running on the school’s cross country and record-breaking distance relay teams, eventually dropping from his “Army Strong” combat weight of 162 pounds to a whippet-like 134 pounds. “It gave me something to focus on while I was making a rough transition,” he said. “Without that, I could have just gone away. It saved my life.”
Butts gave back to Tulsa, inspiring his teammates with his service-burnished tenacity, determination and teamwork. “He got our program going,” coach Steve Gulley said, “because he brought a lot of maturity. He brought an attitude to the practices. We’d have a 10-mile run, and he’d say, ‘Hey, I’m going.’” And Butts also brought a hard-won equanimity to the team: “The young guys, they can get tense before races. It affects their performance. I put it into perspective – I told them, ‘This isn’t a battle. So enjoy it.’”
Butts graduated from Tulsa in 2008. Married with two small children, he’s still getting in 30 miles of running “in a good week.” After his run of luck in Iraq, Butts now owns a successful graphic design company. “It’s a lot different from hosing out a Humvee after a battle,” he said, “if you know what I mean.”
Bottorff was struggling her first year at Buffalo. The large college classes were daunting to her. Barely scraping along, she lost her academic scholarship because of low grades. PTSD, brain trauma, the abrupt transition from her adrenaline-soaked war life were wreaking havoc. “I knew I was different,” she said. “I didn’t know the army had messed up my mind.”
Loud noises scared her; she got mad a lot. She was bottled up, keeping her military life hidden from her civilian classmates. “It’s hard for people in the military to trust anyone who’s not in the military,” she said.
Therapy for her war-related injuries and new learning tools began to make a difference in the classroom. Her grades began to climb. Rowing brought the opportunities to stay fit, get a scholarship and begin building relationships. “It was good for me to be connected to other people,” she said. “I got to do something that is so team-oriented, and it was good for me to be around students.”
Tall and muscular, Bottorff was experienced in a way that only a war vet knows. Buffalo rowing coach Sandy Calfo was looking for strong, fit, confident women. “If you see Justine,” Calfo says, “she’s all of that. Here’s someone who’s open-minded, ready to learn, with a little bit of maturity.”
But she was still an outsider. One day during her freshman year, the rowing team was in a van on its way to a race. Older, still-uncommunicative Bottorff was in the front seat with the coach, who was driving.
One of Bottorff’s teammates finally got the nerve to ask why she was a 23-year-old freshman. “I’m huge from lifting weights,” Bottorff thought to herself. But then she turned to her teammates and said: “I’ve been in jail.”
“Justine,” the coach sputtered, “you can’t tell them that.”
Casey Carroll’s book-ended sports career provides him a unique perspective. He first played on a storied Division I team, then served with distinction as an Army Ranger, then returned to college athletics after his military career ended.
Carroll first joined the Duke lacrosse team in 2004. In his senior year in 2007, he was a first-team All-America lacrosse player, and the team was the NCAA championship runner-up. Carroll had been a Long Island high school junior when the 9/11 attacks happened. “My dad is a New York City fireman. I always knew I wanted to serve,” he said.
When he graduated from Duke in 2007, he joined the Army. Inspired by Duke alumni James Regan, who died in Iraq, Carroll joined Regan’s unit, the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Charlie Company, serving in Special Operations like Regan did. After his February 2012 discharge, Carroll returned to Duke to get a Fuqua School of Business master’s degree with the assistance of the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program.
His passion for competition undiminished, Carroll re-joined the lacrosse team. “It’s a dream situation for me,” he said. Though he tore a knee ligament in early 2013 and is now a 29-year-old dad with two kids, Carroll was back playing with the team again in spring 2014. “I tell them, it’s all about teamwork, whether it’s in athletics or in the military. Teamwork, being there for your buddy, it’s universal in a team environment.”
For vets and colleges both, there are as many challenges as opportunities. Of the 2 million soldiers sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, studies indicate that 20 to 30 percent came home with debilitating PTSD – half a million soldiers suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder. With the inherent dangers of the battlefield and IEDs as the insurgents’ weapon of choice, traumatic brain injuries are rampant.
No generation of American soldiers has ever been asked to endure so many war-zone deployments, particularly multiple rotations in places where the front line is everywhere—the “360-degree War” in the strategists’ term. There’s a price for unending alertness, for months and years of over-revved adrenal glands: Counselors report many vets return with altered brain chemistry. Families say their soldiers are not the same. Many vets wholeheartedly agree.
Accustomed to the military’s rigorous, hands-on methods of training, some veterans find it difficult to adjust to more abstract university educational modes. As Bottorff said, “The Army trains you; college teaches you.”
Even styles of leadership are different. Bernard James had been a staff sergeant in Iraq leading 300 military police before he became a star basketball player at Florida State. Now with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, James was a mature, imposing 6-foot-10 former sergeant when he joined the Seminoles. He quickly realized he had to amend his command style. “I had to learn how to talk to guys,” he said. “Some guys don’t respond to in-your-face, military-style talk.”
Older, not uncommonly war-shocked vets typically distance themselves from campus life, remaining psychologically connected to their military compatriots and experience. “There’s just something about being shot at that bonds you to someone,” said Sgt. Luke Boyd, a 27-year-old safety at LSU.
The only active-duty soldier playing college sports, Boyd is the LSU team’s oldest player. A father with a 14-month-old daughter, Boyd is like many older student-athletes, juggling university commitments, work and parenthood. But college sports allowed him to also form strong ties with his teammates. “I fell back into that same camaraderie, being able to trust someone next to you.”
To assist with the transition, many colleges are expanding their veteran support programs. Some schools are already ranked as military friendly by organizations such as GI Jobs and Military Friendly Schools, which lists campuses delivering the best veteran experience. Middle Tennessee is an example. With its comprehensive veteran-dedicated infrastructure, office, support staff, recognition programs and veterans committee, the university is ranked as a top veteran-friendly school. “The university is strategically positioned to support our vets when they return from hostilities,” said Sidney McPhee, president at Middle Tennessee. “It’s the least we can do.”
Waving the American flag like he was heading into battle, the football player came charging down Clemson’s legendary Hill into Death Valley as 85,000 Memorial Stadium fans chanted “USA, USA,” and then bellowed the university’s climactic cheer: “Clemson, Clemson, Fight, Fight, Fight!” It was Clemson’s Military Appreciation Day on Oct. 20, 2012. For Daniel Rodriguez, the wide receiver entrusted with the flag, the journey down Clemson’s Hill began half a world away in another valley of death during another fight, one that profoundly changed his life.
Scarcely three years before, Rodriguez was a soldier in Bravo Troop, 3rd Battalion “Destroyers,” 61st Cavalry Regiment, assigned to small, isolated Combat Outpost Keating in remote eastern Afghanistan. Deep in a bowl surrounded by towering mountains, the base was essentially indefensible, already scheduled for closure. “We knew it was a hot spot,” Rodriguez said. “We heard rumors. We got attacked every day. It was toe-to-toe.”
On Oct. 3, 2009, about 350 Taliban fighters attacked the tiny outpost with its contingent of 53 American soldiers. “We got overrun pretty bad,” Rodriguez said. It was a vicious 18-hour battle. “I threw 50 grenades; we were killing them everywhere. It was nuts.” After air support finally turned the tide, the insurgents withdrew. It was the bloodiest battle of America’s war in Afghanistan. Eight soldiers died, including Rodriguez’s best friend, Kevin Thomson. Twenty-two soldiers were wounded, including Rodriguez, who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for valor. “That day was pretty bad,” he said. “It was a life-changing event.”
Rodriguez came home with traumatic brain injury, PTSD and survivor’s guilt. He had night terrors and flashbacks, started drinking and smoking. “I was on the verge of suicide, really,” he said. “Had a gun, was trying to figure out, do it in the mouth or the temple?” But then he remembered the grass needed cutting, and that started him on his road to the Hill. “I knew I needed to change drastically. I quit drinking, found a therapist, and decided to get in shape and play football.”
Before joining the military, Rodriguez had been a talented high school player, though only 5 feet, 8 inches. While in Afghanistan, he had pledged to Thomson that he would play college football. With a newfound resolve to honor his battlefield promise, Rodriguez embarked on an arduous training program. He spent six hours a day in the gym, honing his body into a remarkable instrument. He said, “I was an athlete my whole life. I knew I was good enough to play; I knew I had the motivation; I knew I was going to play.”
With $1,500 he’d saved doing odd jobs, Rodriguez commissioned a promotional YouTube video, which commingled his high school highlights and military experience with scenes of his remarkable workouts. His voiceover was a moving testimony to his desire play football. Tens of thousands viewed the video. “The damned thing went viral,” he said. The link eventually found its way to the desk of Clemson football coach Swinney, who said, “I was just blown away by his commitment to go to school, to play ball, by his work ethic.” Swinney remembers, “I thought he might be a good little scout-team guy, a special-teams guy, a leader.”
So Rodriguez was a walk-on to the Clemson football team, an undersized player with a big heart and a tough story. Some wondered about Swinney’s decision, including wide receivers coach Jeff Scott, who worried Rodriguez might be a distraction to his players. Scott said, “My initial expectation was he really would not be much of a factor on the football side – maybe he was just a guy looking for attention.”
But within a short time, Scott realized Rodriguez was going to be a hard worker. “I just busted my ass every day,” Rodriguez remembered. “I wanted to prove to them I was a contender, not just a feel-good story.”
And he has. With his determination and focus, Rodriguez has become an integral part of the championship Clemson team. A stalwart on special teams, he scored his first touchdown against The Citadel on Military Appreciation Day in 2013. The Memorial Stadium crowd went wild.
He has excelled not only athletically, but as a leader. “Daniel’s set a great example,” coach Swinney said. Joey Batson, Clemson director of strength and conditioning, said, “Daniel likes it hard, fast and tough.” Calling him “an encourager,” Scott said, “He’s been one of the best leaders from the start. Daniel’s enthusiasm for practice became contagious.”
The university delivered on its part of the bargain. “I definitely think Clemson has been part of Daniel’s therapy,” Swinney said. With world-class coaching and facilities, Rodriguez is certainly quicker and stronger than when his workout tools were dirt-filled ammo boxes in Afghanistan. He also has seized the opportunity to excel at one of America’s top academic institutions.
“Effort is my equalizer,” said “D Rod,” as he’s affectionately known. With his 3.7 GPA, Rodriguez made it to the all-ACC academic football team. He gives back to veterans organizations. A book about his life comes out next October; a movie is in the works. “My military career was my past life, another chapter of my life,” he said. “I’m a student-athlete now.”
At Buffalo, Bottorff’s life continues to improve. She changed her major from pre-med to nursing. Her semester GPA now averages around 3.6. “I’m doing so much better than before,” Bottorff said. She’s planning to use the GI Bill to attend graduate school. “I am a very driven person,” she said. “There are things I want to do with my life.”
She’s a valued leader on her rowing team. “We respect her and look up to her. Justine brings another kind of leadership to the team,” teammate Kate Koscielniak said about Bottorff’s exemplary work ethic – and her whimsical nature. “She knows how to have fun.” Koscielniak said, remembering Bottorff leading “the wave” during a strenuous abs session. But above all, there’s teamwork. Rower Meghan O’Brien quickly affirms, “You don’t want to disappoint Justine.”
And Bottorff now has a good support system: her teammates. When she had boyfriend troubles this year, the younger rowers stepped up to help. “They were trying really hard to help me. It surprised me.” One after the other, her teammates invited her to crash at their places a week at a time. “I didn’t expect it from 19- to 21-year-olds,” she said. “It was almost, like, comforting.”
Formerly wary, formerly untrusting, formerly traumatized soldier Bottorff now said about her teammates, “They always come through for me.”