Former Seattle Seahawks player Nate Boyer and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long led a group of former and current NFL players to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in February to bring attention to the current water crisis in Tanzania. Their journey was captured in the two-hour documentary "The Way Up -- Chris Long & The Waterboys," which premieres Friday, Dec. 28, at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network.
On Aug. 18, 2015, I was cut by the Seattle Seahawks midway through training camp after playing in just one career NFL preseason game. I was 34 years old, the oldest player on the Seahawks' roster, and the oldest rookie in NFL history (in the modern era). I was, of course, devastated, but not because I felt like a failure or that it could or should have gone any other way. I was devastated because the mission had ended, and I knew what it felt like to lose identity, brotherhood and, ultimately, purpose.
On Aug. 19, 2015, I received a text from a good friend of mine named David Vobora who was a former St. Louis Rams teammate of Chris Long. David said Chris wanted to connect with me, and one hour later, Chris and I were on the phone. Chris said he was curious about my background and appreciated my military service, but what really drew him to my story was the two months I had spent in Africa in 2004. That journey led to volunteering at refugee camps in the Darfur region in Western Sudan and inspired my decision to eventually become a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces. To this day, traveling alone in the war-torn developing world, surrounded by grateful people in the midst of genocide, has had a far greater effect on me than anything I have ever experienced.
I thanked Chris for the kind words, then asked him why he was calling. He told me about Waterboys, a clean water project in East Africa that was part of the Chris Long Foundation's mission. Chris was raising money through the locker rooms and fan bases of NFL teams with an initial goal of digging 32 wells to represent the 32 teams in the league. He asked me if I wanted to be involved as an ambassador. Without hesitation, I said yes, and asked if we could involve military veterans. Chris said of course. The idea of being a part of a team again, of having a mission to fight for those who can't fight for themselves, had my mind racing.
I went straight to the gym and hopped on a stair climber, because for some reason, I think clearer when I'm pushing myself physically. I began clicking through the program options on the exercise machine and saw that one of them was supposed to simulate climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. To double-check my initial thought, I did a web search and confirmed that Kilimanjaro was in fact in Tanzania, where Chris Long's Waterboys initiative had begun. I hit the stop button on the stair climber and called Chris immediately.
"Why don't we take combat vets and NFL players to climb Kilimanjaro and raise money for the wells?"
Since that conversation, we have climbed for the last three years straight, leaving just a couple weeks after the Super Bowl each season. Conquering Kili has helped contribute to the 53 water wells (and counting) that the Waterboys initiative has dug since being founded in 2013. We have climbed with wounded amputee veterans, future Hall of Fame football players, Gold Star wives and water warriors from all different walks of life. We tackle the mission together.
Every year on that mountain is special to me, but this most recent journey was different. I was joined by my veteran family, my Texas Longhorn family and my immediate family. Elliot Ruiz, who grew up in Philadelphia and is one of the biggest Eagles fans who ever lived, has been a hero of mine for all he's overcome since being injured at the age of 18 in Iraq while serving with the Marine Corps. Jon Arnold, who is a fellow Texas Longhorn, lost his leg in a grenade attack in Iraq while serving with the Army. Another Longhorn legend who joined us on the mountain had never been on a hike before in his life. Vince Young faced adversity on the first day of the climb, but he gutted it out for the men on his right and left, partly due to the encouragement that he received from the men around him. But to me, the biggest hero of all on Kilimanjaro this year was my 64-year-old dad, Steve Boyer. Although he's not a former NFL player or a military veteran, he is a vet -- as in, a racehorse veterinarian. He's worked long days, nearly every day for as long as I can remember, to provide for his family. My parents sacrificed so much for my sister, brother and myself, which is probably where my giving spirit comes from.
So this holiday season, amidst the gift giving and receiving, please remember that there are billions of people in the world who go without essentials like clean water every day. Also remember we can all do something about it. De Oppresso Liber.