Football forever altered the course of Brian Stokes' life, but not until after he had served two tours in Iraq as a Marine.
His military experience also forever altered the course of his life, but not until long after football had already kicked Stokes to the curb.
That's a lot of twists and turns for a 30-year-old man who is now happily married, living in a three-bedroom home in a new development in the Greensboro, N.C., suburb of Gibsonville, five minutes from his mother's home, and working as a deputy in the Guilford County sheriff's department. The zigzags of his life's journey, especially the parts that took him from an aborted stint at East Carolina a dozen years ago to the Marines to Fallujah to a pair of Division I-AA national championships in his late 20s at Appalachian State, are what landed him where he is today.
His life is playing out as a movie and someday soon it might be one. Dan Marino is one of a group of investors who have optioned the rights to Stokes' life and hope to turn it into a feature film.
Stokes survived tours in 2003 and '04, and was awarded a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds and loss of some of his hearing in his right ear received in a car-bomb explosion. He came home without ever having lost a member of his unit, then found out two members were killed in a later deployment while he was back playing college football.
He battled the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress, swerving around abandoned cars at roadside and fleeing crowds of strangers in malls. Yet after all of that, he told FanHouse recently, "I would go back again. I've never been to Afghanistan. If I weren't married, if I didn't have a family and a wife that I'm responsible for, I would go for another tour.''
At the same time, though, Stokes' re-adjustment to life after combat is remarkable. He gives credit for that to the two years, 2005 and 2006, that he played for Appalachian State. The school was the only one to accept him of the 20 to whom his mother, Heather Feroe, had pleaded his case while he was still serving in the Middle East, as head coach Jerry Moore told him (along with a fellow returning soldier, Wayne Norman) he was welcome to come and play.
"Coach Moore had given us the opportunity to get back into life, back to normal life,'' Stokes said. "And I didn't realize it until later that that's what he'd done. The teammates, the camaraderie, the fellowship -- I didn't realize how much I needed that until I was done (with the military) and it was all gone.''
A lot of people, such as Moore and his mother, had to do and say the right things to make Stokes' story possible. But before any of that, Stokes himself had to figure a lot out. Before becoming a war hero, a football champion, an inspiration and a motivator who, during his senior year in 2007, spoke at a campus Veterans Day ceremony ("It was very moving. I was so proud of him,'' his mother said), Stokes was just a college drop-out, a flop in football, bouncing from nowhere job to nowhere job, sleeping on his big sister's couch because he had been evicted from his apartment.
This was all after Stokes' freshman year at East Carolina in 1997 ended almost before it had started; he injured a finger in summer practice, then felt forgotten about as the season approached and he healed from surgery. Then, as he recalled, on the day he moved from his home in Burlington, N.C., into his dorm for the fall semester, he found out that his parents were divorcing.
"I sat on my bed,'' he said, admitting that he had never spoken about that moment before, "and I basically made up my mind and said that was my reason to fail. It's not an excuse, but I used it as an excuse.''
He skipped enough classes from that point on for East Carolina to ask him to leave. He enrolled at Elon the following spring but didn't last the semester, popped in and out of community college and then, for a good two years, just bummed around.
"I gave up on school,'' he said. "I was staying up late, drinking a lot, having a lot of fun -- I thought. But that got old real quick.''
"Basically, he was depressed,'' Feroe said. "He had been a big shot, and now he was a nobody.'' She said she eventually told him that he needed "to find yourself'' and suggested he join the military and take advantage of the discipline, structure, and financial help if he ever wanted to go back to school.
"I had always thought Brian was someone who was part of a team, a member of a group,'' she said. At the time, in mid-2000, it was a viable option. Stokes agreed, partly motivated by proving wrong his father, who, he said, figured he'd never be able to follow orders from anyone. He studied the benefits of the different branches -- and picked the Marines because of the uniform.
He enlisted in November 2000 ... 9 1/2 months before September 11. When his mother realized what was happening that morning, "I said, 'Oh, Lord, what have I done?'' she recalled. "I thought, 'I've just killed my son.'''
What Stokes had done, though, was find leadership skills he never knew he'd had. He moved up the ranks to sergeant, and his unit headed to Kuwait and Iraq in the summer of 2002; they were actually on their way back when the U.S. invasion began in March of '03. He stayed until May, seeing no action, and returned home for six months, before being re-deployed the following February.
That tour lasted until October, he said, and was the complete opposite of the first: bombings multiple times a day, firefights every other day. That was when he was injured, by a roadside car bomb that blew the doors off of the Humvee in which he was patrolling.
The result was his Purple Heart, awarded after his return late in 2004, but also a desire to finish everything he had never finished back home. It also resulted in his mother spending the next several months frantic every time the phone or doorbell rang. As she did, he lay atop his Humvee at night while on patrol, thinking about how he had a chance to get home safe and healthy -- and finally, he decided to call her and ask her to help him get back into college and onto a football team again.
"That was something that I'd failed at coming out of high school,'' Stokes said. "I was a total bust, basically. I wanted to re-write that story a little bit.''
Once she got over her shock, Feroe said, "I would think that any mother who is reaching out to her son and trying to keep him hopeful, would do anything possible to bring him home and give him hope.''
So she and his sister Ashley started working the phones and websites. They contacted 19 schools and got 19 rejections. His test scores were outdated, he had no transcripts to speak of, he was 26, and he had been in the service for four years. The one that hurt most, they both said, was North Carolina State, his dream school coming out of high school and his grandfather's alma mater -- she was told that Brian needed two years in junior college "to prove himself.'' His grandfather actually accompanied Feroe on that visit and, Stokes said, "he told them, 'My grandson is in Iraq. He doesn't have anything to prove to you' -- and he walked out.''
The 20th school was Appalachian State, a few hours west of their home, in Boone. The chancellor himself, Kenneth Peacock, said yes. The next part was actually harder: getting the coach to let him join the teenagers on the team, eight years after his East Carolina career had ended so badly. Moore knew Stokes from when he had recruited him in high school, but there was no reason to believe he'd give Stokes the time of day. Or so they thought.
"It was an easy decision. I made up my mind shortly after Brian's mother started speaking, for many reasons,'' Moore said. "First, Brian deserved the chance to pursue his dreams after what he had done for our country. Second, I thought that it would be good to have Brian around our other players, so they could see what true leadership and toughness is.
"And finally, I knew that he was a pretty good player, and thought that even after all those years that he could probably help us on the field.'' Moore actually made sure of that part, by promising Stokes that if he and Norman made it through the rigors of preseason, they would run down on the kickoff-coverage team in the opener.
So in January 2005, three months after returning from his second tour, the 26-year-old Stokes enrolled at Appalachian State -- and inadvertently found the tools to transition from soldier to civilian, at least somewhat. He was a walk-on and had to work his way onto the roster, but he did cover the opening kickoff of the season opener, and became a special teams ace. He also met his future wife Katie, then a freshman. The season would end with Appalachian State beating Northern Iowa for the national title.
But before that, the war would exact a toll on Stokes again. In late October, shortly before a highly anticipated game at LSU -- the defending FBS champion meeting the defending FCS champ -- he found out that two members of his unit who had gone on another tour of Iraq had been killed. Lance corporals Steven Szwydek and Andrew Russoli were lost in an IED explosion.
"I had what they call survivor's guilt,'' Stokes said. "Here I was doing things over here that are fun, like playing football.''
"He kept telling me, 'I'm in charge of those guys,''' Katie said. "It wasn't in the past for him.''
Russoli was from Greensboro; Stokes attended his funeral during the week of the LSU game, then played the following Saturday. Before the game, he sat at his locker in Tiger Stadium and looked at the program from the funeral, tears streaming down his face, then laced up his spikes, which had the names "Russoli'' and "Szwydek'' written across the tops. Then he ran down to cover the opening kickoff -- and made the tackle. He went to the sidelines bawling.
"When that first tackle happened,'' Stokes said, "it was the greatest moment of my football career.''
The game itself didn't have a storybook ending (LSU won 24-0, but it was not easy), but Stokes began seeing rewards. Moore put him on scholarship for the next season, the second and last of his eligibility. Appalachian State won another national championship in 2006. He finally got to play on N.C. State's field, where he long ago had dreamed of playing, and made the tackle on the opening kickoff that day, too. After the season, he was invited to an all-star game in Texas, even though he had never started on offense or defense in his career; organizers asked him to wear the uniform number of former NFL star and slain soldier Pat Tillman, and he got to meet injured soldiers and tell them his story.
The story began making the national rounds -- but soon enough, it was time to make the second transition, this time from football. He graduated in May 2008 and became a deputy less than a year ago. The psychological scars of war are still healing, he said, but law enforcement provides many of the challenges and satisfaction he felt in combat and in football.
Now, Stokes has a college diploma and a Purple Heart hanging on his walls, a home and family (including a cat named Sniper and a dog named Ambush), two championships in football and the makings of a career. The slacker who couldn't stay in school or pay his rent is long gone.
His wish from atop the Humvee in Iraq had come true. "It may have taken a little while,'' he said, "but I finished what I started.''