Hall knows dream could end at any time
AUSTIN -- Texas walk-on Ahmard Hall has a touchdown run and eight special teams tackles this season. But describing Hall as merely a football player would be like describing the Middle East as just another part of the world.
The 5-foot-11, 234-pound sophomore fullback from Angleton, Texas, is first and foremost a Marine sergeant who served four years of active duty, with tours in Kosovo and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
And even though he is enjoying his dream of playing college football, Hall, a husband and father of a 21-month-old son, could be called back to active duty at any time. With ongoing war in Iraq, Hall's military commitment is never far from his mind.
"This means so much to Ahmard," said Hall's wife, Joana, who is also a Marine. "He hears from friends who are still fighting overseas, some of whom have been injured, and he knows how lucky he is to be doing what he's doing."
|“||Seeing Ahmard, a sergeant in the Marines, run out there with the stars and stripes was one of the highlights of the game for me. ”|
|— Texas coach Mack Brown, on Hall leading the team on the field on 9-11|
Hall doesn't take a game, practice or single drill for granted. He remembers all too well his thoughts on Sept. 11, 2001. His mind raced as he sat with his fellow Marines on a C-130 aircraft transporting them from Kosovo back to the Mediterranean Sea, where he would await orders on the U.S.S. Kearsarge.
He thought about how the world would change because of the death and destruction caused that morning by terrorists in New York City and Washington D.C. He thought about Joana back at her Marine base in South Carolina and how the events would impact their lives. In the back of his mind, he wondered if he would ever get to live out his dream of playing college football.
"The events of that day just left me with a nauseating feeling," Hall said. "I didn't know where I was going to be in the next 24 hours. I told myself, 'If I can get out of this alive, I'm going to college to accomplish my goal.'"
On Sept. 11 this season, Hall led the Longhorns out of the tunnel at Arkansas carrying an American flag to honor the U.S. men and women fighting around the world, as well as those who lost their lives on Sept. 11 three years ago.
"Seeing Ahmard, a sergeant in the Marines, run out there with the stars and stripes was one of the highlights of the game for me," said Texas coach Mack Brown.
A week earlier, Hall scored on a 1-yard run in the Longhorns' 65-0 victory over North Texas. That score helped bring closure to a promising high school career that ended in humiliating defeat. Hall's last memory of playing football was fumbling the ball at the 2-yard line in a second-round playoff game between Angleton and Pasadena Dobie in 1998.
The turnover cost his team the game after an otherwise productive day for Hall, who had more than 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns. It may have been a fitting ending for Hall at the time, however. He had failed to take school seriously enough and couldn't achieve a qualifying score on his SAT despite taking it four times.
"I didn't break any laws in high school, but I totaled my mom's car a couple times and was just kind of in the party scene," said Hall, who grew up with his mother and a younger brother. "I would go away with friends for a weekend and not tell her where I was. I was just rebellious."
After recruiting efforts by Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Kansas and Washington vanished, Hall looked into junior colleges but was turned off. Then, he got a visit from his brother-in-law, Ricky Jackson, a first sergeant in the Marines.
"We use a military term -- 'squared away' -- and Ricky was totally squared away," Hall said. "He had his life in order. Once I saw him, I knew I wanted to go into the Marines because I wanted to get my life together."
There was basic training and then cold weather training in which Hall would hike up snow-covered mountains in freezing temperatures carrying a 100-pound pack on his back that included a pair of skis. Hall served as a radio technician infantryman, a job that helped promote him to sergeant in less than four years.
He was often on the front lines in charge of communicating logistics with other platoons. In Afghanistan, Hall knew life was day to day. He crawled into his sleeping bag at night with explosions in the distance and never knew when a sniper might be lurking on his patrol.
"In a situation like that, you know at every moment that your life can be taken from you," said Hall, who signed up for four years of active duty and four years of inactive duty.
Once his four years of active duty were up, Hall used the GI bill to enroll at Texas. He chose to walk on at UT, in part, because of a game he saw on the U.S.S. Kearsarge in 2001 in which linebacker Derrick Johnson made play after play against North Carolina.
"I hadn't seen anyone like Derrick in a long time," said Hall, who shunned some Texas A&M roots in his family and headed to Austin.
Hall walked on during the season last year and has been a special teams contributor and backup to starting fullback Will Matthews this season.
"Ahmard gives everyone on our team someone to look up to," said running back Cedric Benson. "He comes from a single-parent home, just like a lot of us, and he's made something of his life. It's inspiring."
Said Matthews, "Ahmard went and fought for our country so people like me could have the freedom to play football. You just watch how he carries himself, and you never want to complain about being tired or anything ever again."
Hall gets a chuckle because teammates always ask him if football conditioning is harder than Marine training.
"I tell them, 'The stuff we do for football could be a lot worse,'" Hall said, laughing.
Even though Hall is inactive right now, the Marines can call him back at any time over the next two years, when he hopes to finish out his football career at Texas. He would love to play professional football but says he's realistic and will probably try to use his kinesiology degree to become a physical therapist, coach or personal trainer.
For now, he's enjoying erasing the lasting memory of fumbling on the 2 in high school. Hall's 1-yard TD plunge in the North Texas game has done that, he says, and more. It got him on ESPN's SportsCenter.
"I told myself if I ever got another chance to score near the goal line again, I'd do it," Hall said.
The touchdown run was indicative of Hall's perseverance. He was hit immediately after taking the handoff and spun outside until he regained his balance and drove into the end zone.
Joana, a corporal in the Marines who is also inactive after four years of active duty, cheers for her husband like she did when they were in high school together in Angleton. She does so even though his class and football schedule creates a juggling act with her now working full-time and both of them raising their son, Mason.
"If he got called back to active duty tomorrow, it would be hard on our family and hard to have his dream of football taken away," she said. "But he'd go in a heartbeat and defend our country because his platoon would depend on him."
Chip Brown covers the Big 12 for The Dallas Morning News.