Iraq veteran ready to start college football career

JACKSON, Miss. -- While other students planned to play
college football, Timmy Bailey signed with a different recruiter --
Uncle Sam.

Now, after serving a year in Iraq, the 21-year-old private in
the U.S. Army National Guard is back home. And remarkably, four
years after Bailey graduated from a tiny high school in the rural
Mississippi Delta, the soon-to-be sophomore has attracted more
attention from college coaches than ever.

"It's maturity -- I'm not your average recruit," Bailey said.
"I can talk better with the coaches on a one-on-one basis, and
they love it."

Bailey is expected to sign a binding national letter-of-intent
to play linebacker at Mississippi State on Wednesday, the first day
of the national signing period, and finally begin the college
football career that for years had been on hold.

"It's an amazing story, and he's an amazing kid who's not a kid
anymore -- he's an amazing man," said Jeff Horn, his coach at
Riverside High School in Avon, Miss.

"He's got a lot of positives going on in his life. He's done
his time in Iraq, and now is his time to move forward," he said.

Bailey was a star tight end and linebacker from the nearby town
of Glen Allan (pop. 1,118) who was preparing for his senior season
in 2001 when he came to a startling decision. Two days after
turning 17 -- and unbeknownst to his coach -- Bailey volunteered for
the Army National Guard.

"At the time, coach Horn didn't know I was going to join, and
he really didn't want me to join," Bailey said.

Bailey led the team that season with nearly 900 yards receiving,
Horn said. But he still couldn't get the attention of the big-name
college recruiters.

"I didn't get a lot of recognition out of high school. That
kind of hurt me," Bailey said. "But coach Horn always said,`Keep
your head up because you're going to get there one day."'

Only Southern Mississippi and in-state schools from divisions
I-AA and II offered scholarships, Horn said.

"He was full-speed whether he was blocking, making tackles,
catching -- he never stopped," he said.

Bailey, 6-foot-3, 237 pounds, completed basic training in 2002
and enrolled in Mississippi Delta Community College the next year,
leading the team in tackles in 2003 and drawing the attention of
several Division I-A schools.

But shortly before the start of his sophomore season in August
2004, he learned his unit -- the Hernando, Miss.-based Troop A 98th
Cavalry -- was being activated for duty in Iraq. Bailey reported
with his unit to the Guard's training site south of Hattiesburg,
then spent roughly a year in the war-torn country driving trucks.

"Basically, I was in harm's way," Bailey said. "It was more
IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. There weren't too many crazy
people that would shoot you. They liked to blow up people. That
made me even more scared.

"You can lose a limb, an arm or leg, at any given moment [but]
you can't think about that. If something happens, you've got to use
your training and react, and hope for the best."

He returned safely to his home state on Dec. 28 and found out
three Southeastern Conference schools -- Mississippi, Mississippi
State and Alabama -- were recruiting him.

"Most people had their slots already filled, and here I come
out of nowhere," Bailey said.

Bailey picked Mississippi State because he said coach Sylvester
Croom offered him a scholarship before his deployment.

He will have four years to exhaust his three remaining seasons
of eligibility, and is looking forward to resuming the playing
career that at times seemed lost.

"You take it one day at a time [and] you thank God for what you
have that day," Bailey said. "Now I have a chance to do something
I love."