The Iraq War veteran turned college football walk-on at Colorado State

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Joshua Griffin is running a few minutes behind schedule, which is unusual for him, but understandable. An early-morning weightlifting session is a must to stay in shape during the football season, as is the extra time required in an ice bath afterward. His muscles and joints just don't bounce back like they used to, so he's vigilant when it comes to staving off inflammation. Some of his Colorado State teammates have taken to calling him Bengay because he rubs the stuff all over his body.

When the junior running back does leave the football facility, he hurries across the street to an on-campus dining hall to rejoin his teammates, many of whom have already finished their breakfast. He's a little fidgety as he gives an interview, pushing around a handful of wobbly hard-boiled eggs on his plate. A reporter has joined him today, and the attention is unsettling since he's always been one to do his job and get out of harm's way.

Look around, he says, diverting attention elsewhere.

Look around and see all the other stories worth telling.

He points to another table, where Andre Neal is sitting. Like Griffin, Neal had to give up football for a few years. He didn't have the money to keep going after his freshman year at a junior college in California. So he got a job at Walmart, saved up for two years and clawed his way back. Look at him now: He landed on his feet at CSU and recorded the Rams' first interception this season against Utah State.

Griffin then turns to Logan Stewart, who grew up 15 minutes from campus and used to pass out water bottles at the football stadium as a kid. He wasn't much of a high school prospect, so he walked on to the team, too. Only at one point, he hit a wall with no money and nowhere to stay. Griffin let him crash at his place, even slipped him a few dollars. Griffin says he nearly cried when Stewart earned a scholarship and became a starter on defense.

"To me, this team is filled with stories like mine," Griffin says.

Respectfully, that's not exactly true. Nowhere in college football is there a story quite like his.

"I've never been around anything like it," says CSU coach Mike Bobo.

Griffin isn't just a walk-on who at one point had to turn away from the game he loved. He put football aside for more than a decade, trading in one uniform for another after high school when he joined the Army and fought overseas. He's still an active-duty staff sergeant today, and this season he's college football's eldest statesman at 33 years old.

"When I'm on that field, I'm having fun," he says. "I'm living."

Tom Ehlers has been in this business long enough to know that a lot of the guys who say they want to walk on to the football team don't really mean it. They just aren't prepared for all the work involved and all the hoops you have to jump through. A lot of the time they don't even bother to follow up after an initial email.

So when CSU's director of football ops got a message from Griffin out of the blue one day, he didn't think much of it. It wasn't the first time a member of the military had reached out. He replied and said that sure, he'd be happy to talk him through the process.

Then Ehlers' phone rang. It was Griffin, saying, "I'm out in the lobby."

Ehlers couldn't figure out how he got in the building -- "It's like Fort Knox" with all the security said one staffer -- but Griffin made it past the front door and found Ehlers' number on the counter. Ehlers sized him up, impressed by his firm handshake and how well built he was.

Ehlers guessed that Griffin, a 5-foot-10, 208-pound ball of muscle, was maybe 25 years old, 26 tops. Then the Houston native explained that he was in his 30s.

"Obviously he was doing something," Ehlers said. "Even for a soldier to be that fit at that old, he wasn't afraid to work."

The two talked about Griffin's workout routine, his military service and his experience playing football, which most recently featured games of two-hand touch in the Army. Playing the Rangers always went a little overboard, Griffin explained.

"It would start off as touch and then all of the sudden you'd see a bunch of guys playing tackle football on concrete," he said. "Then we'd get the call to mount up and then we're outside the wire."

For CSU's purposes, that didn't count, of course. The last time Griffin played organized football was at Ross Shaw Sterling High School in Texas, where he also ran track as a junior and senior. But because it was so long ago, they couldn't exactly pull up his Hudl highlights. "I live in a VHS world," Griffin joked.

But Ehlers thought Griffin had the right attitude. He figured they could find out if Griffin could play easily enough, and his military background could certainly be useful on a young football team in need of leadership. How could a 20-year-old look at him and say, "I'm tired," Ehlers imagined. So he passed Griffin along to David Stenklyft, the team's director of player personnel who runs the walk-on program.

"Obviously he didn't have any high school tape and he's older than I am," Stenklyft, who was 31 at the time, said. "I was here a couple of months and he shows up and I'm like, 'Oh, s---.'"

With no game film and no access to SAT or ACT scores, Stenklyft had his hands full, digging through the archives just for a simple transcript. If not for his affinity for walk-ons -- Stenklyft's brother was a 12th man at Texas A&M -- he might have thrown in the towel.

But Griffin kept showing up. An exhausted Stenklyft would call Ehlers and tell him, "Josh Griffin called me again. He just won't leave me alone."

Finally, Stenklyft told Griffin, "Why don't you come out and do the walk-on tryout and we'll go from there?"

Stenklyft laughs thinking about it now, how over-prepared Griffin was, how he showed up to the tryout in tights as if he were going to run in the NFL combine.

Ehlers chuckles, too.

"He was a determined old guy. ... When you see Josh coming, you can't help but feel like, 'Good for him.' And good for us. He's done it right."

There's a large field visible just over Griffin's left shoulder as he eats, a field located down a flight of stairs and through a set of double doors. It's sort of level and mostly meant for relaxation purposes, with students picnicking on its lush grass on sunny days.

Griffin couldn't practice on the team's football field as he awaited tryouts. So that's where he went, putting himself through drills over and over again to prepare.

He was kind of fanatical about it, if he's being honest. Every day for two weeks, he'd drive the two hours from his base in Colorado Springs to Fort Collins just to watch the team practice. He was the self-proclaimed "weird guy" standing on the steps, watching closely.

"I would study what the coaches had them doing during individuals and then after practice I would go to these fields right here and I would do exactly what they would do," he said.

He knows how crazy this all sounds. He nearly tried out for the NFL during the brief lockout in 2011, and when a new collective bargaining agreement was reached, he didn't think he'd give football another chance.

But that's the funny thing about military service. Everyone wants to know the war stories, but it's the in-between time that's the most difficult to fill. It's boring. Some people play "Call of Duty." Others call their significant others back home. Griffin was the guy who put on his full uniform, packed his parachute and ran laps with it strapped to his chest to stay in shape.

People laughed at him for that back then, and he paid them no mind. And he ignored them again when he started talking about his dream of going to college and playing football.

At some point, he just got tired of his superiors bossing him around just because they had a degree and he didn't, and he decided to do something about it. After researching different opportunities he landed on the "Green to Gold" program, the name a nod to an enlisted soldier's bare green suit and the gold bars signifying an officer's rank. After completing two years of college, he could get his degree and return to service with the bars of an officer.

The Army accepts a maximum of 200 soldiers into the program per year, and it typically doesn't come close to reaching that quota because of its rigorous standards that take into account the recommendation of superiors, school transcripts and fitness testing. A perfect fitness score is 300, and according to Maj. Jonathan Parker, "all his [Griffin's] last few years were 300s."

Upon his acceptance into the program, Griffin said, "The love of football was ignited." His initial plan was to go to one of three schools: USC, Houston or Temple. But then he missed his flight from Denver one morning, decided to check out Colorado State, and the rest is history.

He had to push hard to get his quick-twitch muscles back, working with a local trainer leading up to tryouts. He'll never forget the day of tryouts: Aug. 21.

"I was nervous, kind of like in a daze," he said.

Out of the 20 or so people to try out, only three were accepted: one wide receiver, one running back and Griffin, a defensive back at the time.

Bobo said he was impressed by Griffin's attention to detail and his effort. He thinks of him almost like an assistant coach now, the way he affects his teammates in the weight room and on the practice field.

"He's a serious guy that is still a kid at heart because he feels this is a big void in his life and he's trying to fill it by playing ball," Bobo said.

"He earned his way and earned the respect."

A lot of Griffin's military service is redacted. You can count the five bars on his jacket -- each signifying a six-month deployment -- and tell he has spent a total of 2½ years overseas. Some of it was in Iraq, some Afghanistan. "The places I can talk about," Griffin said.

He specialized in communications but can't go into detail. He was attached to the 10th Special Forces for a while. Then he joined the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which goes by the nickname the Night Stalkers. Their motto: "Night Stalkers don't quit!"

He has had broken ribs and multiple concussions. At one point during breakfast, he extended a mangled finger.

"Right here, I take it and hmm" -- Griffin said as he manipulated the second joint of his finger to make a near-perfect right angle -- "then I break it back."

He said he continues to carry the stress of his wartime experience "each and every day."

"I barely sleep," he explained. "Any unsettling noise wakes me up. I'm always on alert."

Asked what sticks with him most, though, and he said it's the "brotherhood and tomfoolery." And in that way, the camaraderie and structure of a football team feel eerily reminiscent.

"It's the same spirit but in a different church," he said.

An injury set him back several weeks during training camp, and he has struggled to crack the depth chart. It's been frustrating. He doesn't want to be seen as the "rah-rah" guy on the team. If he's an inspiration to anyone, he says it's only because of who he is and what he does and not because he's trying to be. He thinks it's funny when he beats younger guys during practice.

But at the same time, he understands his role goes beyond touchdowns and tackles. Twice he's been asked to get up and speak in front of the team. He said he shares very little of his military experience, "Just enough to shut them up."

Ehlers said it's been remarkable how players have gravitated toward him. Before Griffin's injury, Bobo put him on the nine-man leadership council -- "That ought to tell you what we feel about him," Bobo said -- which drafted players from the team that they'd be accountable for throughout the season. Some guys drafted the most talented players or the ones who would be easiest to deal with. Griffin chose the ones who needed structure the most.

"I see a little bit of me in all of them," Griffin said.

They rag on him all the time, calling him everything from Old Man to Father Time. One player cracked during breakfast that if you see a white handicap van parked outside, it's Griffin's. Oh, and after practice, Griffin supposedly gets Ensure instead of Gatorade.

But coaches see through the heckling.

"When he talks, the kids listen because he has real-life experience," Bobo said. "He's been in battle. That's hard to imagine. I'm coaching football when I was 32 years old. He's 22-30 and he's fighting for our country. It's just an amazing story."

Not everyone knows it yet, but that story will be coming to an end soon. Griffin told Stenklyft recently that he wants to go through Senior Day this year. Unless something extraordinary happens, he'll return to the Army upon graduation.

He's only a junior in terms of eligibility and could petition the military for an extra year in school, but he doesn't see the point. He has already proved he can compete. All he ever wanted to do was show he could do it and be someone his teammates could count on, and he has done both.

"I'm done," Griffin said. "I know that I can play. I know I can play with them."

He doesn't want to make this about himself -- he never has -- but there's a sense of satisfaction when he speaks. Getting to try out and make the team felt like heaven, he said.

"If there's anything I want to come out of this, it's that, to stop placing your limitations on others," he said. "Don't let others put their limitations on you."

Griffin's words and his story have already resonated with others. Stenklyft has received multiple emails from soldiers interested in trying out.

Who knows who will come knocking on the door next?