Only a few weeks after he kicked that very first field goal, a three-minute story called Gridiron Soldier aired on local TV news, and it showed Noble smashing a 55-yarder straight through the uprights. The reporter noted that Nathan could consistently hit from beyond 50. Off camera, friends and workout partners say Noble hits regularly from beyond 60 and has made a 68-yarder. The video found its way to YouTube, and before long Nathan had been contacted by Michigan, LSU, USC and Oregon.
Versailles is pronounced Ver-sails, and six years ago and after three tours of duty (two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan) Noble returned there, a decorated Marine. His parents, David and Beth, threw a party at their house with paper plates and a cake. More than 40 people showed up to see him and thank him for his service. He was 22, and he thought he had earned the right to be a civilian, to make a life for himself somewhere. He had come home, in part, because his mother was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And because he had put in his years, had been in dozens of firefights and was tired. The Citizens Commerce Bank put his name on the marquee that stood out front for the cars passing by to see, and so did Woodford County High. He stood by that sign and took a picture with his father.
Noble took a job for his uncle's hay-brokerage company, throwing bales from trucks into the barn lofts of thoroughbred horse farms, sometimes 720 of them a day. He told the stories of walking dusty streets and climbing mountains in Afghanistan, of recognizing Coke bottles full of sand with wires sticking out as IEDs. Stories of the other men of 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, of air strikes and snipers, being on a squad searching for a month for a high-target member of al-Qaeda. Stories of friends getting wounded, and killed. He went to the bowling alley with his old buddies, and patrons stopped to talk to him, and he was feted with free meals and drinks, and when he went to a high school football game, he would be announced, then stand on the bleachers and turn around and wave and feel the applause turn to him instead of the field. The first few months were as though he were home on leave, as though he were still a hero, and then the novelty of his presence wore off, and everything went back to the way it had been before he left.
He got bored, and he got angry. It felt as if there was nothing for him, as if he were still in high school, hanging out with his old friends, who hadn't changed, and who, as time passed, treated him as though he hadn't either. He went to bars and listened to arguments and complaints about problems that were petty compared with what he had seen. He did not want to be home anymore. "I'm not the type of guy who goes out to look at the stars and wonder about things," he says, but one night a few months after he came home, he did just that.
His parents had spent four years wondering about his safety, at various points not even knowing what country he was in, his father waiting by the computer in the hopes of getting an e-mail or a phone call. Once he surprised them for Christmas. He flew in from Hawaii, had a friend pick him up at the airport and drive him to the house, and walked downstairs into the basement wearing his uniform to shrieks and claps.
"It was very interesting to me," says Beth. "The stereotypical things—you wonder, Is he going to have nightmares? Is he going to remember the horrors of war? No, the problem is, and this was true for Nathan, he had been responsible for the lives of 12 men in his unit twice a day when he went out on patrol. That was over. He was no longer in that intense situation or getting a high level of satisfaction that we can't even imagine, to have made it through another patrol and no one has gotten hurt or killed. You go from that intense leadership, and suddenly you're back home in a small town and everyone remembers you from when you were 17."
He thought about going back into the service, but a friend offered him a job as a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. He lived there for 1½ years and then moved to Knoxville for a few months before moving back to Kentucky. He sold playground equipment and made pieces of furniture in the basement shop of the house he was staying in while spitting Copenhagen into a trash can full of wood shavings. Then he got a job coaching soccer. "I've been on the move, always," he said. "I don't ever spend a lot of time in one place. I guess I just ... can't do well if I stay in one place."
He was not exactly sure what to do. It felt strange, and great, to be wanted by the best football schools in the country. Most of his friends were in awe and told him he should just, you know, pick one, and go walk on. But he had already planned on finishing his last year of school at Wyoming. He hadn't talked to the coaches, but he knew the school had a team. He reached out to Devin Barclay, a friend who had retired from Major League Soccer at 22 and walked on at Ohio State, where he won the placekicking job in 2009.
"I told him, at these bigger programs, like LSU or Michigan, it's really hard to go out and do that as a walk-on, with one year left," Barclay says. "They have their scholarship guys, and those are the guys they're going to push. They want those guys to be the guys. You have an uphill battle at one of those bigger schools. But at Wyoming it's probably a perfect fit; he could really have a chance to make an impact."
So while visiting this past December, Noble walked into Tucker Readdy's office in Laramie and told him he wanted to play football. Readdy, a sports-psychology consultant who works with the Cowboys' kickers and punters, was struck by Noble's broad shoulders and confident air. "He walked through the door, and he gave the impression that this guy is something very special, compared to the young men I deal with on a day-to-day basis," Readdy says.