Nate Boyer knows there are combat veterans and former professional athletes who are in need of a new team.
He knows because he was once in both their shoes and combat boots. That's why he teamed with FOX Sports personality and MMA coach Jay Glazer in creating Merging Vets and Players, a national nonprofit that utilizes physical fitness and peer support to help members of both groups transition to the next stage of their lives.
MVP's reach has already helped thousands in cities across America, but its next step could be its greatest up to this point when it officially opens its New York chapter this week at Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan.
The most common aspect of both professional sports and military service missed by members of each (or in Boyer's case, both) is the camaraderie built and enjoyed by those involved. Whether it's time spent between practice and games in a locker room or a gathering space within a military base, or the teamwork required to achieve success in each arena, that element is extremely difficult to replicate in regular civilian life. Too often, combat veterans return home and professional athletes begin life after their playing careers experiencing a massive void for the first time. With their own identities and self-worth in question, these individuals frequently struggle to figure out their purpose and what they should strive to achieve next in life.
"All of a sudden, I've got nothing," Boyer told NFL.com of his personal experience after his playing days ended. "I've got a uniform, no identity, purpose, team, camaraderie, all those things were just gone all at once. I was 34 years old and I felt like I'd already peaked and that was it. Come to find out, it's very familiar feeling between a lot of former professional athletes and combat vets."
Boyer found a next step in joining NFL Media as a contributor and host of the NFL Network show Indivisible. But his work didn't end there, as he soon realized he was far from alone in feeling isolated and without a team. That's what led to MVP, and thanks to its close proximity to the four major sporting leagues' headquarters, its launch in New York could assist hundreds more like him.
"It's easy to feel alone in a big city," Boyer explained. ... "It's hard to find people that can relate to some of the stuff that you're experiencing and going through, or at least it feels that way. People are busy in a big city. People are running around, everyone's got their aspirations and their hustle and it's easy to get wrapped up in that, forget to breathe and forget to stay connected to your community and kind of where you're from.
"It's the worst feeling in the world to be around a bunch of people but still feel lonely, still feel disconnected and like people don't understand you. So we want to combat that. Being in New York, it's essential."
Boyer's group has helped "hundreds" change their lives for the better, from notable former athletes like Ryan Leaf and Aldon Smith to homeless veterans with significant needs for support and a group to be a part of. MVP does so by meeting weekly, training together and gathering on a wrestling mat afterward to share their feelings and needs with the unique individuals who understand their struggles.
"It's an opportunity for us to share, to connect on a different level and talk about stuff that we're going through and kind of coach each other up and help us through those tough times," Boyer said. "Just be there for each other so we know we're not alone and somebody's always got our back and we've always got a place to come and a person to call on. Build that network and that fight team, as Jay likes to call it.
"We don't just do this thing once in a while and then go away, because that's not what we need. We need that structure and to be truly connected and feel that community again."
Boyer aims to continue to grow the program with no statistical limit in sight, as he knows there are many more veterans and professional athletes who will be experiencing the same battle he's fought and will need the support MVP provides. Sometimes that includes even bringing in those who are the model of success, like tight end Tony Gonzalez, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and premier broadcaster, to tell them that he too felt like he'd peaked before he stepped off the field. Even with those feelings, Gonzalez found his next path, and the members of MVP can, too.
"Understand the value of these people, first and foremost, because it's tough," Boyer said. "They are a business, just like the military is a business in a lot of ways. It's about the current mission. It's easy to forget that the people that paved the way, that laid the groundwork, but they need to be taken care of, too.
"They need to be remembered and need to be taken care of. Without programs and organizations like this, it can't happen. There's too many things going on in the present with all these leagues and with the military. They need organizations like MVP to step up, people to step up that have been in those shoes and walked that walk to help those that are transitioning out of their respective sports."