Lamar freshman makes transition from war hero to college football player

Guiseppe Barranco/The Enterprise

BEAUMONT, Texas -- Considering his military background, Marcus Abbott's teammates made a habit of calling him "Sarge."

It's a nickname that developed organically, a nod to his status as an Army veteran. The 27-year-old Lamar University defensive lineman traveled a path to college football unlike most college freshmen.

Recently, his teammates became more aware of Abbott's past. How he survived an IED (improvised explosive device) attack. How he's lucky to be alive. The Purple Heart he earned. What he had to deal with in the aftermath. Suddenly, they realized the gravity of Abbott's life experience.

"They don't call him Sarge anymore," defensive line coach Carey Bailey said. "That's kind of sacred ground."

* * *

Growing up in nearby Port Arthur, Texas, Abbott fell in love with football at 10 years old. As an adolescent, it was a way to keep him out of the streets and out of trouble. In his old neighborhood, "it's very easy to get caught up into criminal life. It's easy to get into a gang. I hung on to football."

He excelled in high school. As a two-time second-team all-district defensive lineman at Memorial High School in nearby Port Arthur, Abbott had dreams of playing college football. He hoped big-time programs like LSU and Texas would recruit him, like they did with his one-time teammate Jamaal Charles, but they didn't. Junior college and Division II playing opportunities existed, but ego got in the way and Abbott didn't pursue them.

A few months after graduating from Memorial in 2007, Abbott was 19 and working at a local sporting goods store with no real plan. He decided to join the Army. Once he enlisted in February 2008 and began basic training, Abbott thought "Man, what did I get myself into?"

"I think that was the day I became a man," he said.

That summer, he was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington (now Joint Base Lewis-McChord) as a military policeman. In 2009, he received word that he would be deployed to Afghanistan. In June 2010, after a year of training missions at Fort Polk, Louisiana, "I guess you can say that's when the fun began," Abbott said.

He would spend a year deployed to Kandahar province in Afghanistan, but it was Sept. 21, 2010, when Abbott's life changed forever. Abbott and about a dozen other soldiers were on their way to an Army stronghold from a forward operating base. They were walking on a busy main road, took a left turn and "all of a sudden it was just dead," Abbott recalls. "It starts getting real eerie. Things start getting real quiet. Everybody had a gut feeling that something's wrong here."

They pressed on. Their mine detector spotted what Abbott called a dud on the left side of the road. They kept moving and the minute they moved to the right side of the road an explosion went off. The force threw Abbott and knocked him unconscious, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. He doesn't remember much beyond the explosion. He was knocked out for about three to five minutes but wasn't coherent for at least two hours. Miraculously, nobody else was injured.

"We were very fortunate," Abbott said. "My whole squad should be gone right now. Only a part of that bomb went off. They daisy-chain their explosives. They can have anything from homemade explosive jugs with three artillery rounds and they're all linked together so that when it goes off, everything hits and the artillery rounds will shred off all the shrapnel and cut you right up.

"It would've wiped out the whole squad, but luckily, they don't know how to wire. Their wires were frayed and the portion that hit me is what went off."

He returned to his mission about a month later, and in December 2010, was awarded a Purple Heart, given to armed service members wounded or killed in action. The honor took on a different meaning months later, when he lost two of his best friends four days apart in IED attacks. David Fahey was killed Feb. 28, 2011, and Jason Weaver was killed March 3, 2011; both were awarded Purple Hearts posthumously.

"All I could think about was 'I've got a Purple Heart, but I'm walking,'" Abbott said. "How can I be on the same level as them? Those are heroes. I'm no hero. I don't care what anybody says about me ... I did my job. I went out there and did my job and came home. The heroes don't come home. They laid their life on the line."

Fahey and Weaver's names are tattooed on his left forearm. On his right wrist, the date he was injured by the IED is tattooed as "9-21-10." Every morning, he wakes up and looks at the tattoos as reminders of what happened, and they motivate him when he might have a rough day on the football field. When he talks about them, his eyes well up.

"They make me realize that it could be so much worse," Abbott said. "Today really isn't going to be that bad."

* * *

Abbott remained in the Army until 2013, when he then returned home to Port Arthur and "basically my world came crashing down," he said.

Still reeling from the loss of Fahey and Weaver, he discovered that his then-wife cheated on him. They divorced. He had surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. He dealt with alcohol problems, substance abuse problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. He wanted to play football but was unmotivated. He gained weight and was out of shape. For a year, he was stagnant.

"I looked in the mirror, I was 25 years old, 330 pounds with high blood pressure," Abbott said. "'How in the hell am I going to make this dream happen?' I was disgusted with myself."

He changed course, began running and making daily trips to the gym. The weight melted away. He enrolled at Lamar where he majors in kinesiology. In the fall of 2014, at 275 pounds, Abbott walked on with the Cardinals. His first scheduled practice was on his 26th birthday, but it got canceled because of rain. It didn't dampen his spirits, though. "You couldn't give me a better birthday present," he said. He redshirted that season.

Abbott was definitely modest. Teammates and coaches were aware of his veteran status but not of the details of his military past.

"He didn't tell me his whole story," Lamar head coach Ray Woodard said. "He doesn't talk about it a lot."

Most people on the team didn't become aware of his Purple Heart until it was mentioned in a recent story published by the Beaumont Enterprise. Abbott confided in only a couple teammates, but primarily Bailey, the defensive line coach. He had weekly, sometimes twice-weekly, sit-down meetings with Bailey where Abbott would open up about everything that came with transitioning back to civilian life. When Abbott struggled to find a counselor he could confide in, Bailey filled that role.

"Honestly, the man should be a counselor," Abbott said. "He pulled me out of some tough times."

* * *

Football provided a smoother transition for Abbott to civilian life. The structure that accompanies a football team has been invaluable. His passion for the game is what drives him.

"This has been my therapy," Abbott said. "This has been counseling. It gave me a purpose again."

What the future holds is unknown, but Abbott has goals. He wants to obtain his degree and pursue a career in the NFL. He knows that between being 6-foot-1 and being out of football for eight years, the odds are against him. Bailey said Abbott is around 245 pounds now and is still developing his skills. It's too early to tell how much of an on-field impact he can have at Lamar, but Abbott is "headed in the right direction," Bailey said. He provides leadership and sets an example for his teammates.

"There's not one kid in this program that doesn't respect him because they know his journey," Bailey said. "He's taken a path that none of us will ever see."

Once his playing days are over, Abbott wants to coach Texas high school football and eventually become an athletic director. He's convinced he'll accomplish all of his stated goals. Why?

"After everything I've been through, I'm [still] alive," he said. "What's going to stop me?"