Behind the empty bleachers he parks his green pickup truck and cuts the engine, spits Copenhagen into an empty plastic water bottle. He opens the door and stretches his legs. He pulls down the hatch on the bed of the truck and sits there for a minute, exhaling into the cold. He's leaving home in two days, leaving Versailles, Ky., driving 1,200 miles to start over again. He is moving to Laramie and walking on to the Wyoming football team, to try and kick field goals. It's been six years since he came home from the war, since he reintegrated into civilian life. He unties his tennis shoes, replaces them with a pair of black cleats, rolls his athletic socks up to just below his knees. In the pictures back in his house, on the walls of his neatly kept bedroom, he is a tall man in a Kevlar vest with SAPI plates, and grenades strapped to his chest, an M-16 cradled in his hands. In the desert. On the other side of the world.
The snow has melted from the Field Turf and from the roof of the press box at Toyota Stadium, home of NAIA Georgetown (Ky.) College, from the metal walkways and from the plastic seats on the home side of the stands, but still a few spots of white cover the hill beyond the end zone. He walks to a row of doors beneath the bleachers, and the key jiggles in the lock as he twists it back and forth. He was Sgt. Nathan Noble, in charge of a squad of 12 infantry marines in Haditha, Iraq. Now, he flips on the lights in the locker room. He's looking for a kicking tee.
"I don't want to kick too much," he says. "I'm gettin' old."
He has been kicking field goals for only three months. That is, he has only been practicing, twice a week at Georgetown, where he's been an assistant soccer coach working with goalkeepers for the past three years. He was a goalkeeper himself at Woodford County High, all-region, with a big right leg that could punt a soccer ball 80 yards, for a team that fell just short of a state championship. Noble is 29 now, and his brown hair is cut short in the style of a Marine.
He rummages through a laundry hamper, pushing aside old shoulder pads and half-deflated footballs, and finds a tee. It's red with a long neck and two prongs. He puts it in a camouflage bag and heads out under the bleachers and onto the middle of the field.
Two nights earlier in Lexington, Noble walked into a chain steak house called Malone's, hung his coat on a hook in the booth and told the waiter, "Thank you, sir," for handing him a menu. He ordered a 12-ounce prime rib, medium rare. He ordered a Bud Light. When his plate arrived, he sprinkled a lot of salt over the food, over the asparagus spears and the meat he had cut into strips, and neglected the beer until the head had dissolved and the glass was sweating onto the coaster. He was not as fit as he used to be, but he was still trim. His voice was deep, and he wore a Polo sweater and a white T-shirt underneath, exposed at the neckline.
At dinner he talked about a trip he had made to Wyoming this past summer, to visit a friend. He'd stayed on a farm, in that pale countryside, and thought, Wyoming would be a good place to live. And that was enough to compel him to leave Kentucky for the second time since he had been out of the Marines. He had one year to go at the University of Kentucky, which he'd been attending on the GI Bill. He was the president of the school's Veteran's Organization, where he'd been active in helping see to things like waiving the $50 application fee for retired servicemen. Kentucky was where so many people knew him; where his family had always been, where there were plenty of comforts and his soccer job and other jobs if he wanted to make a phone call; where he was a hero, but one living with the muted ache a man feels when he's far too familiar with a place. He decided he would move west in January and spend his senior year at Wyoming.
Football had no part in the choice. He had not played since Pop Warner. When he was growing up, he would try to kick footballs over the roof of his parents' house, to see how strong his leg was, and would mostly end up denting the gutters. One day in October he and another Georgetown soccer assistant, Josh Johnson, were at Toyota Stadium after a practice. There was a laundry hamper full of footballs on the field. "Can you still kick?" asked Johnson, who had also been a soccer player for Woodford County High. He was sort of joking and sort of serious. The Georgetown football coach was watching them set up and laughing. Some football players watched them too. Johnson was the holder.
"We get on the 35-yard line, right in the center," Noble says. "Three back, two over ... I pushed it straight through, into the wind, with plenty of room to spare." Yes, he could still do it. One of the players muttered, "Holy s---." Noble moved back to the 45, swiveled his neck to get loose, felt a surge go through him, as if he could kick it as far as anyone ever had. He swung through the ball as hard as he could, and it duck-hooked about 35 yards to the left.
Still, Johnson was impressed. "[The soccer team] was having a fitness test, and most of the team was doing terrible," says Johnson, "and Nathan started yelling at them, 'You think this is hard? When I was your age, I was carrying my buddy who got shot over a mountain.' He always has a story. They're always unbelievable. After that day on the field he said to me, 'I think I'm going to try and kick,' and I said, 'You're the only person I know who can do this kind of stuff.' He's one of those guys that you would trust with your life."