Noble sent Readdy a video a few days later, which he shared with Wyoming's coaches. They all looked on as Noble drove 50-yarders well beyond the uprights. "When you look at that, all the raw skills are absolutely there," Readdy says. But there's something more, too.
Nathan visited his parents' house in Versailles two nights before he left, for an event his family calls January Birthdays, because so many of them have one. This year it was also a gathering that would allow everyone to say goodbye and wish him luck. When he arrived, the bushes in front of the house still sparkled with Christmas lights. His cousins were there, with their kids, as were his aunt and uncle and his two sisters. The house was warm and loud, the kitchen countertop full of pots of chili and ham sandwiches and vegetables and dipping sauce and cups. Some of the men were in the living room, sitting in front of the big wooden TV stand David made, watching golf on the flat-screen. Nathan waited for everyone else to eat before he got himself a plate. He ate chili with tiny crackers on a tabletop covered by a polka-dot cloth. He stood in front of the room after everyone had eaten and listened to his sisters tell stories about him playing guitar and being a daredevil, once jumping off a roof onto a trampoline and another time leaping from a roof into a swimming pool. Nathan opened a Star Wars birthday card. His father, a sociology teacher for more than 35 years at Woodford County High, was filming the occasion with a new camera. When it was time for Nathan to go, he got his coat from the bed, made his way into the hall and stood near the door. His mother lingered next to him, then wrapped him in her arms and held him there, as though she didn't want to let him go again.
Back on the field at Georgetown the next day, for one last practice session before he drives off, he drops a few footballs at the hash marks, moves out to the 35-yard line and places a ball under the long neck of the tee. He takes three steps back and two to the left, shakes his arms out, looks down. When Noble was a coach, standing under the lights of a soccer game, he felt nostalgia and realized he was living vicariously through the Georgetown players.
He understood he wanted to be in the focal point of those lights and says that "I'm just dumb enough to go out there and think I can hit a couple of game-winning field goals and be someone everyone relies on. Just like in the Marine Corps."
He practices with a former Arena League kicker named Trey Kramer, who was an eighth-grade goalkeeper in Versailles when Noble was a senior at Woodford County and had looked up to him the way a rookie looks up to a legend. Over the last few months they've joked about who could kick the farthest or be the most successful, but weren't really being competitive. They kicked twice a week for a couple of hours, maybe 30 tries.
Noble makes three kicks in a row from the 30-yard line, with plenty of room to spare. He moves up to the 20, and his leg looks tired; the first bangs off the upright, then two more go through and a third misses wide. He repeats this, for about 15 minutes, over and over, making 25 of 30. The last kicks fly deep onto the hill, including one that smacks off the bronze head of a tiger statue well beyond the end zone.
"In the Marines, if there's another squad going out on patrol and they need eight guys, and I send one of my guys and he gets blown up by an IED ... I live with that the rest of my life," he had said beneath the table lamp at Malone's. "Or a firefight, if I don't react the right way, and as a result of my actions someone dies ... and if I miss a field goal?" He paused, shrugged his shoulders. "I'm a 29-year-old kicker. You know?"
He gathers the footballs, and before he places them back into the bag, he wipes the snow off them with the sleeve of his warmup jacket. Beneath the jacket, unseen, at the top left of his back, a tattoo angel looks down, as if in prayer, over a list of names of his friends and fellow soldiers, now dead.
Nathan Noble was recently told by someone who had no idea who he was that kicking a field goal in front of a big crowd in a college stadium is an experience of inconceivable pressure and that trying to be a kicker on a football team would be the hardest thing he could ever possibly do.