SB Nation

Lindsay Brauner | April 15, 2015

From The Desert To The Moon

The journey of a rugby player to Afghanistan and back

Far from the familiarity of UC Berkeley's Witter Rugby Field in Strawberry Canyon, a star rugby player turned U.S. Marine officer is in the middle of a fight.

Explosions fill the air in Barang, Afghanistan, as he leads his men up the dusty rural path surrounded by sprawling pastures of red poppies.

One of his men steps on a metal plate enmeshed in the dust and dry grass beneath their feet, and the IED's explosion blows off both of his fellow Marine's legs.

Sandwiched between blood-colored flower fields and evanescent insurgent hideouts, Captain Garrett Cross didn't know whether he would make it out of the Afghan desert alive. But he heard two voices that day. One told him to get this Marine back to his family. The second, and perhaps loudest, voice belonged to his rugby coach, Jack Clark.

"You're going to make it through," Clark told Cross.

"In Flander's Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place, and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below"

-- May 1915

The nineteen-year-old junior college tight end clutched the phone, waiting. Dave Ungerer, the recruiter (tight ends and special teams coach) from the University of California, Berkeley, had asked a few standard questions. How's your family? How's school? Football season going okay?

His hands began to sweat slightly as he waited, still.

Ungerer had requested more game tape a few weeks back, and of course the kid had sent it. However, he hadn't sent Ungerer tape of just himself.

"I sent a few tapes where I didn't really have a great game, but where Aaron had some phenomenal plays."

The tight end's teammate, a scrawny first-year quarterback he'd faced throughout high school during rivalry games, had a knack for throwing a football. Understanding the rarity of big-time colleges making it out to their small town, the kid had strategically inserted game tape to showcase the undersized freshman. Then he had sent it off to UC Berkeley, hoping someone would notice the youngster's talent.

"He needed exposure."

And just like that, Ungerer said, "Hey, your quarterback. How old is he?"

"I'll never forget that moment, because when I heard him say that, I just smiled."

He'd rehearsed his answer to Ungerer, had known what he would say should this moment come to fruition. So he followed the script that he'd carefully planned. "Yeah," he replied, "he's a freshman, but he's not going to be around for a second season."

On an overcast November day two weeks later, Cal head coach Jeff Tedford walked in to the Butte Community College stadium.

Tedford would offer college scholarships to two players that day: sophomore tight end Garrett Cross, and freshman quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Garrett Cross' selflessness would endure in years to come, as he navigated the bounds of perception, reality, and evil.

The trajectory of Aaron Rodgers' storied career is well known to many of us. Americans take great interest in upper-echelon NFL quarterbacks. We know the world of sports, of strategy, of victory within a hundred yards of grass and paint.

Contrastingly, the world chosen by Rodgers' longtime teammate-- in Chico, Berkeley, and eventually Green Bay-- is far darker, and far less understood.

What influenced Cross most in his career choice had everything to do with a sport that he played for just a few months, a sport whose coach Cross would later describe as "the difference between life and death."

A 25-year-old, ex-Green Bay Packer tight end isn't quite the typical profile of a Cal Rugby player, but that didn't stop Garrett Cross from walking through the doors of the Doc Hudson Fieldhouse, resolved to play rugby at the same school for which he had starred on the football field.

"It's not typical," says Cal Rugby coach Jack Clark. Over his three-decade tenure as head rugby coach, Clark has worked with a handful of athletes who, like Cross, are ex-football players who join the rugby team while they finish their degrees.

"That situation is more rare nowadays," Clark says. But Clark is no stranger to players athletic and ambitious enough to be dual-sport athletes.

In addition to playing lock on the Cal rugby team, a position that requires strength in winning possessions both in the air and on the ground, the imposing 6'5" coach was one of the linemen who protected Joe Roth in the late 1970's. Clark went on to play both rugby and football professionally.

"I could appreciate where (Garrett) had been," says Clark. Indeed, Cross' road from his roots in Chico, California, to the Cal Rugby team and subsequently the military, was anything but predictable.

What influenced Cross most in his career choice had everything to do with a sport that he played for just a few months, a sport whose coach Cross would later describe as "the difference between life and death.

Garrett and his two brothers, Tyson and Nick, grew up in Chico, where their parents, Rick and Valerie Cross, had moved from Sacramento when a friend of theirs opened a restaurant. Rick worked in every facet of the restaurant business for twenty years, until he returned to school to get his teaching credential. He now works as an elementary school P.E. teacher, while Valerie Cross, his wife, is a family and behavioral therapist.

"You couldn't find two nicer people," says Craig Rigsbee, the longtime Butte Junior College Athletic Director and football coach. Rigsbee recruited Cross from Chico High School, where he had starred as "a big, tall wide receiver."

Growing up, "things kind of came easy for Garrett, in a lot of ways," says Rick.

While Garrett and Tyson were naturally athletic and big in stature, their youngest brother, Nick, was smaller.

"Garrett was always tall and incredibly capable, and everything came easy for him," says Valerie. "Everything. So because of that, he struggled with what was important to him, and what his passion was. He didn't have one for a while. It was hard to identify."

According to his mother, Garrett played football simply "because he was good at it."

When I ask members of Garrett's family about his childhood, they all independently tell me the same story. The three boys would be out in the yard, raking leaves. A few minutes in, Garrett would disappear. An hour later, his father would find him on the roof, sunbathing, or hiding inside -- anything to evade yard work.

Valerie Cross laughs as she recounts a family hike up Mt. Lassen when her sons were younger. Tyson, the oldest, is blazing the trail. Nick, the youngest, is determined to not come in last, so he's doing his best to keep up with his older brother.

"And Garrett is sitting down, saying 'I don't want to go any further.' It's so hilarious. Physically, we would encourage Garrett all the time! 'Come on, buddy, you can do it!' He would give up, get mad, 'I'm terrible, I suck!'"

"He probably stopped every 25 yards," Nick laughs.

When I run his family's version of events by Garrett, he immediately protests.

"Well, that's not true," he says, then pauses and adds, "It might have been like, at least, every 30 yards."

The irony of Garrett's childhood attitude about physically demanding endeavors and the extremity and intensity of his profession is not lost on his family. But Garrett was not the first of the three Cross brothers to pursue a military career.

Two years Nick's senior, Garrett drove his younger brother to school every day. For most carpooling siblings, according to Nick, the communication usually stopped as soon as the car door slammed.

"It was the norm for the big brother or sister to not be around the younger sibling," Nick explains. "It was just not the cool thing to do."

But Nick's brother wasn't concerned with that.

"He was always above that," says Nick. "He was different."

Not only was Garrett above ignoring his younger brother, he always made sure that Nick was included in anything he and his friends were doing -- skateboarding, going to the movies, playing football.

"All the older girls always thought I was cute because I was Garrett's younger brother," Nick laughs.

When I ask Garrett about his attitude when it came to including his younger brother, he immediately credits his older brother with setting an example that he followed.

"My older brother did that with me," he says. "My brothers are my two best friends." While Garrett was 6'4" in high school, Nick was 5'2."

"He was definitely influential, always the cool man on campus," says Nick. "He was always there for me if I ever needed anything. He was never too cool to be my older brother."

But when Garrett and his family went to San Antonio, Texas, in 2011 to watch Nick's graduation from the Air Force Academy, it was Garrett who found himself looking up to Nick.

"Surprisingly enough," Nick says, "he told me when he came and saw the graduation ceremony, everything I had done, the commitment I had made, it inspired him to become a Marine."

"Nick's graduation impressed Garrett a lot," says Rick Cross. "We admire football players, but these are the people we should admire."

"You could see it in his eyes," adds Valerie. "He was so impressed with his little brother. It was a turning point."

Nick is now in the Air Force Honor Guard, where he renders military funeral honors.

In addition to the inspiration he found in his brother's professional path, Garrett was deeply affected by the events of September 11th, 2001. He had graduated from high school just months before, and had just begun playing football at Butte Junior College.

"That was at a really critical time in my life," Garrett explains. "I was 18 years old. We were the 18-year-old generation that said 'I must defend my country.' And that's what was on my mind."

"I'll never forget the events of that day. I was laying in bed, and my mom woke me up. She said, 'Garrett, people are flying planes into the World Trade Center.'"

Garrett felt that he had a duty to serve, an obligation, because of the timing of 9/11.

"The images of the towers going down always give me goosebumps, every time I see them. That attack is what drove a lot of us -- guys my age -- to serve."

Garrett got up and stared at the television, unable to move from the couch all day, until the afternoon when he left for practice.

"I had football practice that day," he says, "but my mind was thousands of miles away."

Even so, Garrett developed as a player throughout the season after deciding against his initial inclination to redshirt. He moved from wide receiver to tight end, a change that would majorly pave the way for his career. But in spite of his success on the field as a first-team All-American, he was still focused on the planes he had seen flying into the heart of two New York City skyscrapers.

Even prior to the events of September 11, Garrett had been uncertain about his future in pursuing football. He had decided in the summer leading up to his freshman season to attend Shasta Community College, where Tyson was playing baseball. But Rigsbee convinced the talented young player otherwise.

"I said, 'No, you're coming here,'" says Rigsbee. "I won't say I bullied him, but I said, 'This will get everything paid for.' In the end, it was really good for him. Football prepared him to be a leader, to lead other men like he has now."

After proving himself an elite player his first year on the turf, the converted tight end's eyes were trained north -- on the University of Washington. When the Huskies did not extend an offer, Garrett was crushed -- but motivated.

"I wanted to just flip them the bird, and say, 'well I'll show you.'"

Garrett and Rodgers, both Rigsbee's players, jointly headed instead to UC Berkeley. When the Huskies and the Bears faced off the following season, the result could not have been more cathartic for Garrett.

"They beat Washington 58 to nothing," Rigsbee chuckles.

The next year, when they played in Washington, Garrett scored a touchdown on the home turf of the school that had passed on him.

"It felt great," Garrett says. "It was almost like, I was finally able to say, 'this is what you guys missed out on. Your loss.'"

After playing for two years under Jeff Tedford, Garrett signed with the Wisconsin- based Packers franchise in April of 2005-- a milestone that most young athletes only dream of achieving. However, disenchantment began to grow in him as he finished his college career.

Immediately after Garrett's senior season in 2004 at Cal, he was invited to play in the all-star East-West Shrine Game -- a traditional showcase for elite talent.

"I was really honored," he says.

In the week leading up to the game, both teams participate in a series of events, many of which are geared toward exposure to the next level. The players stay in an upscale hotel in the hosting city, which, for Garrett's year, was San Francisco. The days are comprised of practices, where general managers, owners, and coaches of professional teams evaluate talent. Also included on players' itineraries are psychological tests, personality tests, and interviews with teams.

"I'll never forget answering the question: 'Do you consider yourself more like a cat or a dog?'" He laughs.

But one portion of the week became a key point for Garrett's disillusionment -- an event behind the closed doors of a large meeting room in the hotel, filled with coaches, scouts, general managers, and owners of all 32 NFL teams.

"When you're on deck to go in, you strip down to a pair of shorts. They announce your name and school. You walk up to a tape measure and they announce your height. Then you get on a scale and they announce your weight. Then they'll have you stand at the front of the stage. You're looking out at a room full of coaches, scouts, general managers."

He does not have a concept of how long he stood, alone on the stage, facing the management teams for the entire NFL-- in his underwear.

"I felt like I wasn't human."

"Everyone is there watching, and they're writing on their pad. And you just stand there waiting. Then they dismiss you, and you walk down the center aisle where they continue to size you up.

"That was the first time that I ever felt I was anything less than a player. To be honest, it was the first time I ever felt like I wasn't human."

As it began to sit with him, that experience marked a turning point for Garrett.

"I became really disenchanted with football as a profession, as a business--because that's what it is at that point," Garrett explains. "Rather than a football player, I felt like a commodity. I didn't want to be a part of a business as a commodity within the business."

"I can remember in my conversations with Garrett that I knew what he was feeling," Clark says.

Clark may have been among the few who could say so; the football star's ambitions departed from dreams typical for players of his athletic caliber.

Rigsbee described Garrett as someone who "was always thinking of doing something else. That doesn't surprise me he told you he was unfulfilled. He was always a really reflective kid."

"I just felt like there was so much more in the world," Garrett says, "that was more important than football."

His vision for himself went beyond making the jump from Saturday to Sunday kickoff times.

"I wanted to do something bigger with my life than just play a game."

Ironically, in joining the rugby team, he had come to the right place to realize that goal.

On the last day of training camp in Green Bay, Rigsbee remembered how Garrett out-shined his competition on the field.

"He tore it up," says Rigsbee.

"They told him, 'Great job, you're going to make the team.' He told them, 'Yeah, I was going to talk to you about that. I'm done.'"

At the root of Garrett's dissatisfaction, Rigsbee believes, was a degree of stress that accompanies professional sports.

"D1 football is very stressful," says Rigsbee. "Then you go to the NFL, and they could cut you at any second."

Rigsbee laughs, however, as he considers the uniqueness of his former player's situation.

"You're too stressed to play football, but going to Afghanistan, leading 100 men, is not stressful?"

Rigsbee underscored the discrepancy between the worlds Garrett chose to inhabit.

"Normally, everyone walks out of a locker room and goes home," he says. "Afghanistan-- you stay there."

Perhaps even more than Garrett may have recognized it in himself, Clark understood that he was different.

"I think that he was destined for a huge challenge," Clark says. "Something not easy."

Clark cleared his throat, paused for a moment to consider what he saw in Garrett Cross ten years ago on Witter Rugby Field.

"Ultimately," he says, "for command."

"You're going to make the team"

How would you begin to explain this to anyone back home?

"A lot of people don't know what happens in the world in terms of violence. To be confronted with that reality would be really hard for people who aren't prepared for it, who haven't trained for it."

You're trying to keep your vision from spinning. Or is the ground spinning? Arms and legs on the ground, missing the bodies to which they were once attached. Blood and dirt and heat and screaming, and this can't be right, what you're seeing. It isn't real.

"But it's a reality, a reality that the people of Afghanistan have lived with for over a hundred years."

Mutilated bodies, the fragments that bodies become when they're blown up, cover the Afghan National Police courtyard. The remains of three suicide bombers are among them. You must secure the ANP compound, make sure the attack is over, and give aid to any survivors.

"When you see someone who is dead, and more to the point, someone who has been killed, and even more to the point, someone who has been killed violently, they just don't look real."

As you walk across the courtyard, you hear a man groaning. A piece of shrapnel bisects his cranium; a pool of blood beneath bears testimony.

His name was Koka. He was head of the ANP.

Critical to the stability of Helmand province, he was part of your team.

"Those," Cross tells me, "are the moments when I would hear that voice."

In the most difficult, seemingly insurmountable instances, he explains, his former coach becomes vocal in his mind.

What kind of voice could travel thousands of miles, could be so deeply ingrained in a mind that it would be the only sound heard in moments too filled with atrocity to be recognized as reality?

Jack Clark is very much a philosopher as well as a coach, a sort of arbiter of players' destinies. As esoteric as that characterization may sound, you'd be hard-pressed to find a former player of Clark's whose professional life was not directly impacted by his former coach. While Clark's pride in the success of his players is unwavering, his sentiments about Cross and his professional undertakings are different.

"It's just so big," says Clark. "It's a big damn responsibility to put the lives of others under your command."

Also different were Cross' ambitions, some of his reasons for being part of Clark's team.

"I think he wanted to prepare himself and prove himself ready for command," says Clark. "And he did. From the first time I met him until he was heading off to officer candidate school, I think he grew a thousand fold."

If you ask Cross, that growth had everything to do with a single coach.

"Jack Clark had the greatest impact (of any coach) on me as a young man," says Cross. "He's just a person who is really, really special. You can't help but respect him. You want to learn."

While Cross was a seasoned football player, he had no experience with rugby prior to walking on to the field of the nation's premiere college team. Furthermore, he had exhausted all but one year of eligibility that could apply to rugby-- only if petitioned through a complicated process.

While many coaches might have taken a "thanks, but no thanks" approach, facing a novice with a six-month expiration date, Clark saw Cross as an asset. Not only did he welcome the newcomer, he spearheaded the laborious process of petitioning the NCAA to win Cross another year of eligibility.

"He helped me out in the same way that I had hoped to help Aaron," Cross says.

Cross' eligibility secured, Clark didn't waste any time beginning the development of the rugby novice.

Remarkably, Clark expected that Cross would immediately play a significant role--at the highest level-- in a sport he'd never before played.

"Why don't we pick out a handful of areas where you can dominate the game-- even though you're the newest man to it?"

Cross' ability soon began to prove that Clark's faith was well-placed.

"I described Garrett at one point as having flypaper hands," Clark says. "It was natural for him to go into the air really gracefully, but powerfully, and then win a possession at the height of his jump."

What Clark terms "aerial skills" were an enormous asset that Cross brought to the team's makeup. During Cross' only season on Clark's team, the Bears progressed undefeated, leaving a smooth wake of victories that culminated in a final matchup against their longtime (inner-sport) rival, Brigham Young University.

When I asked if the footballer-turned-rugger had started the national championship match, Clark all but scoffed.

"Oh yes," he says. "He was an important player."

Clark expanded upon the way Cross' background contributed to his approach of the biggest match of the year.

"You get off the bus, and this isn't the first time that Garrett has gotten off the bus for an athletic contest where everything is on the line. So he would have brought with him a lot of athletic maturity that would have bred a confidence within (the rest of the team)."

Playing a sport in which he had no experience, Cross was still a leader-- a quality that he sees distinctly in Clark.

"Being an officer in the Marines, that's what I've done for the past seven years; lead people," Cross says. "I've studied leadership. Jack Clark is a natural-born leader of people."

In turn, Clark saw this ability manifest in the newest member of his roster.

"Garrett was very much a hardened campaigner," says Clark. "He wasn't going to shy away from a big-time contest or a big, strong opposition team. He was going to get steely-eyed around those moments and be able to perform because he was a bit of an operator in those environments."

"He wasn't going to shy away from a big-time contest or a big, strong opposition team. He was going to get steely-eyed around those moments and be able to perform because he was a bit of an operator in those environments."

Throughout our conversation, Clark never mentions Cross' lack of rugby experience- - or really, Cross' lack of anything. Clark is not a coach who will hesitate to either praise his players, or candidly represent his outlook on their shortfalls. And while it may logically follow that novice players would merit more discussion of such athletic shortfalls, Clark sees Cross solely in a capable light. This perception of Cross permeates Clark's reflection on the process of immersing Cross in an entirely new game.

"I don't think we spent a lot of time talking to Garrett about the things he couldn't do," he says.

From day one of practice, Clark explains, he and his teams talk about being at the top of the medal stand. The expectation if that goal is not reached, he says, is that they will be shattered. Those sorts of expectations, in Clark's eyes, change the

dynamic of a team, but they also change the individuals on that team-- in many cases, permanently.

When I ask Clark about why he thinks his voice is uniquely ingrained in Cross' mind, he hesitates to take it as a sign of his own coaching prowess. Instead, he circles back to Cross' abilities-- as an athlete, and as a teammate-- that were potentiated by the culture of Cal Rugby.

"You give everything," Clark says. "You don't hold back anything. Your honesty, your love, your effort, your preparation, you're just kind of all in."

Particularly for a player like Cross, the experience of participating in that multitudinous high-stakes culture roots itself so deeply that its principles continue to guide a participant through even the most intense circumstances imaginable.

"When you're in a situation where everyone is giving full measure," Clark explains, "and a guy like Garrett would expect that from himself anyhow, those kinds of experiences are going to take priority in that soundtrack that's playing in all of our heads."

As we finish our interview, the majority of which has been reflective in tone, covering Clark's deep respect for Cross as a rugby player and more generally as a human being, I hear Clark begin to chuckle.

"Say whatever big words you want," he says to me. "But that is one substantial dude. It's kind of like, 'you win.'"

A shipment of soda came in to Marine headquarters in Helmand Province this morning.

The infrared thermometer in your forward operating base read 130 degrees by afternoon.

You can't buy a cold drink around here. Soda would be perfect.

You and the other men gather around the metal crate, ripping the packaging apart, the "moondust" of the Afghan desert covering everything.

As you first glimpse the Soviet-blend packaged drinks, you can feel that the temperature inside the crate far surpasses that of the 130-degree desert heat.

All the Marines share soda that's more like coffee or tea by the point it reaches you.

Your wife asked you: what are you most looking forward to, when you come home? You replied: Ice.

Garrett Cross told his mother that he was becoming an officer in the Marines on Mother's Day.

"He said, 'Mom, I want to lead men into war to keep them safe,'" Valerie Cross recalls.

"He said, 'Mom, I want to lead men into war to keep them safe.' I said, 'That makes no sense to me.'"

"I said, 'That makes no sense to me.'"

To Valerie, it made similarly little sense that her son -- who had a promising NFL career ahead of him, who had a degree from the top public university in the world -- would choose a career in the military, a career she typically equated with a sort of desperation or lack of alternative. Furthermore, for a family with little military history at all, having two of three sons in the armed services is "a little shocking," according to their mother. But as she asked him about the decision he was making over the course of several hours, Garrett Cross' mother began to see something she had rarely seen in the son for whom everything had been easy, the son who had done many things by default, rather than resolve.

"Every answer he gave me was amazing," Valerie says. "Every answer had passion."

As a family therapist, Valerie has extensive experience dealing with trauma and its effects. She recalled asking her son if he understood that war would change him.

"He said, 'Yes, I'm ready to take it on. I can lead men into war to keep them safe. I'm emotionally capable. I'm mentally capable. I'm physically and intellectually capable. I can do this. Not everybody can."

After their conversation, Valerie was the one whose perspective had changed. "That day," she says, "my level of respect for him just skyrocketed."

Some of Cross' early assignments included a mission to Korea with a Marine Expeditionary Unit. En route, the company received news of an enormous tsunami that had hit Japan.

Immediately, they were re-routed to give aid to the suffering country, which, Cross explains, is much of what the Marine Corps represents.

"It's not often heard about," Cross says, "but there are Marines deployed throughout the world, to react to a global crisis. In the event of a natural disaster, we provide humanitarian aid."

Unsure of the degree of the radiological threat as the stability of the nuclear plant in Fukushima crumbled, Cross and his company floated atop freezing waters off the northern Japanese coastline, organizing supplies, handing them off to helicopters, getting as close as was deemed safe. Temperatures were difficult for the American Marines to endure, but Cross' mind was on the condition of the people he had set out to help.

"It was so cold," he says. "It was freezing. It made me think about how cold and miserable it was for these people who just had their homes wiped away."

Less than a year later for Cross, freezing temperatures would become sweltering. The opponent he would face would be different, but still share many characteristics with a natural disaster.

Serving in Afghanistan, as he faced the possibility of death, it was like his rugby coach had come with him.

In much the same way as a tsunami is unpredictable, unidentifiable from afar, and indistinguishable from more benign waves until it is too close, and too late, Americans in Afghanistan faced an opponent that could hide in plain sight, an insurgency that had irrevocably permeated the daily lives of civilians, an enemy that could, in a split second, inhabit the form of an innocent.

In such a world, where a tiny rural village could either be a remote agricultural community or a Taliban stronghold, where a beautiful child with deep green eyes could either be pulling at your sleeve because they know the Americans give them chocolate or because they are tasked with your murder, most words from the world of your past are rendered obsolete, unable to apply to the reality of ubiquitous violence.

Even under the most successful circumstances, Cross' athletic endeavors had left him feeling unfulfilled.

But serving in Afghanistan, as he faced the possibility of death at almost every moment, it was almost like his rugby coach had come with him.

As he walked on the dirt roads peppered with IEDs in abandoned towns, as suicide bombers blew apart the police complex in which both Cross' advisor team and allied Afghan forces worked, as he faced the bounds of the human capacity for evil, Cross heard Clark, coaching him through.

He'd be back on Witter Rugby Field, doing a rugby drill designed to push players to their outermost limits of physical and mental fortitude. Cross would be on the verge of collapse, the hills around Strawberry Canyon seeming to impose all of their weight on him, pushing him to stop, daring him to give up.

"'You're going to make it through, but this pain now is going to make it easier when it's game time,'" Cross would hear Clark say.

Among Clark's specialties as a coach was getting his players to this place, the place where they believed that their exhaustion superseded their ability to function, think, continue, and then revealing to them that their limits were not what they thought.

"When you make the transition (from rugby), it applies in combat. That's how his coaching translates."

On Jack Clark's rugby field, limits were not immovable, but rather, malleable.

"I'm almost on the verge of losing consciousness," Cross recollects. "And I hear him. 'Go to your dark place. Keep pushing.'"

Without pause, Cross clarifies.

"In combat, that attitude can be the difference between life and death."

"Attitude can be the difference"

Sweating in the dry desert afternoon, you sleepily rummage through a few snacks by your bed, waiting until it cools off to go next door to begin work. But you're suddenly jolted out of the heat-induced daze.

If you weren't in a war-zone, you might have thought the rattling of your window could have been caused by the booming laughter of the head of the ANP, who always seemed to be joking around.

Gunfire. Later you'd find out it was from the ANP guards, who were firing at their attackers. The attackers had silencers on their weapons.

You head up to the top of your building, to coordinate a patrol next door where your allies at the Afghan National Police live and work. You're flanked by snipers. If you say the command, they shoot.

The ANP guards were dead.

Every day, you drink Chai with these men while you work together. You sit with these foreign friends, undergo the peculiar but happy process of discovering shared topics of humor, so that you can laugh together as well.

They educate you so you'll know the slippery terrain, the obstacles and threats in the ground, the mountains, and the structures around you.

You educate them so that when you leave, they are able to maintain independence from the Taliban.

Your friends next door want to live in a world free of violent radicalism.

They are the exception, not the rule. Many Afghans simply do not care to be independent. As soon as you leave, they'll pick up a gun and join the Taliban. You are risking your life fighting for the independence of an indifferent people.

As you file through the American Marine quarters, you can see that everything looks intact, if slightly askew here and there.

But next door, where your friends at the Afghan National Police live, there's been an explosion.

The livelihood of Afghanistan's most powerful terror organization depends, of course, on a flower.

"Vibrant, bright, beautiful poppy," says Cross. "When they're blooming, they're really pretty."

In 2012, Cross was stationed in the Musa Qala district of Afghanistan's Helmand province.

This region is extremely important to the Taliban, as the root of their finances comes from the poppies grown in Helmand. Cross and a group of Marines were assigned to the tempestuous Musa Qala city as advisers to the Afghan National Police.

Historically, Musa Qala has been a contested space between Taliban insurgencies and Coalition forces. Its central placement is key for controlling much of the revenue generated by the illicit drug trade. When Cross and his Marine unit entered in 2012, the goal was to bolster the ability of the ANP to patrol and ultimately drive out insurgent forces from the area, therefore severing a main economic artery of the Taliban.

While the goal was clear, the means to accomplishing it were not. Cross and his men were fighting forces that were often organized and refined in their attacks, but that had none of the dressings of such sophistication.

Cross described one particular mission in detail. That day, his Marines were on foot patrol, clearing a tiny Afghan village of the Taliban so that the ANP could establish police presence. The village was called Barang.

"It looks like something out of a medieval movie," Cross says. "It's just mud, mud stucco buildings, big rectangular courtyards, dirt roads. Bordered by fields of poppy."

"One minute, the guy could be shooting at you. All he has to do is set his rifle down, walk around the corner, and he's just another guy."

After the long hike up the dusty road to the village, Cross and his men stopped villagers to ask about the Taliban.

"The hardest thing is that whether the villagers support the Taliban or not, they're scared of them."

Accompanied by a team of linguists, the Marines searched for answers, asking in Pashtu if anyone had seen the Taliban.

"You know they're not telling you the truth," Cross says. "They all say the same thing: 'I don't know. They went up into the mountains. They're gone.'"

But they do know. They could be Taliban themselves. Americans are the ones who don't know. And American forces are all too aware of that. The stalemate that the Marines encounter when they try to accrue information about the enemy has much to do with economics.

"All they want to do is make money to put bread on the table," says Cross.

Many rural Afghans are extremely poor, powerless against organized terror networks. In poppy-harvesting regions, this means that innocent villagers often work for the Taliban.

"They say, 'we just came in to harvest the poppy. They're paying us to harvest it.' Obviously, they're not going to rat out the Taliban. They're paying them."

Further complicating American efforts, the Taliban have no uniformity of dress, of weapons, of vehicles, of appearance.

"We knew this was a place that the enemy operated," says Cross.

But that was about it.

"That's the thing about an insurgency," Cross explains. "One minute, the guy could be shooting at you. All he has to do is set his rifle down, walk around the corner, and he's just another guy."

When innocent and enemy occupy the same form, the only thing that can distinguish one from the other is action. In this case, action often meant American lives.

That day, some of Cross' fellow Marines got hurt. Some of them died.

"That was one of those days," he says, "when I heard Jack Clark's voice coaching me through the chaos."

"That was one of those days"

Dusty expanses of hazy desert stretch endlessly in every direction. An eerie layer of blurred illumination hovers in the darkened cloud cover, in the liminal space where earth and sky meet. Other than a faint rumbling in the distance, the air is noiseless, carrying no communication from the worlds governed by either man or nature.

The Marine next to you begins to shift, his dust-covered boot digging into the finely ground earth that all of you call "moondust." The weightless particles puff up around you. They stick to everything.

You know how light they are; you have tasted them as you have run through the desert carrying one hundred pounds of equipment on your back, and they kicked up in your wake. You have felt them press against the skin of your cheek, where they have left their smudged tracks as you lay as inconspicuously as you could, wishing you could melt into the earth as shots flew overhead.

Tonight, you're expecting it. You've prepared for this, prepared for the faint rumble to become more audible, more pressing, now invasive, even oppressive as its volume reaches a point of uncomfortable reverberation within your ear canals, and its source becomes visible through a metastasizing cloud of dust that has filled the darkening horizon.

The front bumper of what looks like a 1980's-era truck scrapes the ground. Faded blue paint on the exterior chips; burnt orange rust has almost entirely overtaken what must have once been silver door handles. Tires smoking, the worn vehicle protests that it can barely comply with the pressing demands of its erratic driver on the gas pedal, as it nonetheless barrels through your patrol formation. Its disarmingly decrepit state belies its lethal nature: the run-down car is carrying passengers, and an IED- a car bomb. The vessel is a vehicle-borne IED, or a VBIED, ready to explode.

There it goes. An explosion joins the roar of the overtaxed engine, commemorating the union of smoke and dust. The overbearing sounds and substances impossibly press against the bounds of infinite desert space.

Out of the vehicle rolls a man who has lost a leg that he had moments before. It is your job to rush forward and give him medical aid. You go through the motions almost mindlessly; you've done it many times before. You're hot, tired, carrying far too much weight for one man. You need water, but this man needs life. Your job is to make sure he gets what he needs.

The Marine Corps makes sure that you get what you need, too. For drills, like this one, they use deserts in Nevada and Southern California to mirror the environment of Afghanistan. They find actors, real-life amputees who look and act the part of a wounded person. Since you haven't yet experienced real combat, this, for you, is real combat. What is truly happening fades into a dizzying focus, a focus that cannot necessarily afford to differentiate between the real and its counterparts.

You successfully treat this man. You give him aid. Your body has gone through the motions so many times that you know you are as prepared as you can be to go to war.

When you're fighting in Afghanistan, though, nothing can prepare you for the first thing you think about when you see that the man beside you has stepped on a land mine. His legs are severed from the violent explosion. You're the first one at his side.

Your body is going through the motions on auto-pilot. They're the same motions you've done a thousand times in training.

But there has never been a time in training when the only thing going through your mind is, "I've got to get this man back to his family."

Awhile back when Garrett Cross was a Second Lieutenant, during a prolonged training exercise, he received news that would blindside a subordinate Private First Class in his platoon.

Rain was pouring down that day at Camp Pendleton. Cross had a platoon -- about forty guys-- up in the mountains. Usually, these sorts of exercises lasted a week or so. In the moment when Cross received the foreboding information, the men were in the middle of live-fire attack exercises-- as close to combat as training can simulate.

The PFC was young, with a wife, and two children. Cross watched as a sergeant informed the man that his wife was leaving him, and taking his two small children with her back to Texas.

It was about dusk. Cross made his way over to him.

"I spoke with him about it," Cross says. "There's not a lot he can do. It's not like there's a bus line going back and forth; we're out in the middle of nowhere, training."

Cross recognized the powerlessness of the young man in preventing his life from falling apart.

"I sit there," Cross says, "and talk to him, and determine that he needs to leave." Cross dismissed him from the week-long training.

"He needs to get back to his wife," Cross explains. "They're just too young to be doing that."

Right away, Cross saw the situation as potentially detrimental to not only this man, but the entire platoon.

"He would be completely ineffective if his wife and children left him," he explains. "He wouldn't be able to focus, to the point where it's endangering guys to his left and right."

Cross additionally mentions the "empathy of wanting to make sure he's okay."

"What's more important, that he's up here on this mountain training with us? Or that he reconciles whatever is going on with his wife?"

Cross pauses, then answers himself. "Well, it's kind of clear."

Cross immediately got the young man in touch with a marriage counselor, and other sources of family support.

Not everyone Cross helps will become the best quarterback in the National Football League. Because of him, some of them simply have basic supplies like food and water in the wake of a ruinous disaster. Some of them sleep soundly at night, unaware of the terrors he has faced in hopes of keeping their slumber safe. Some of them openly thank him for his recommendation that they receive a meritorious promotion ahead of schedule.

Some of them are young men who need anything they can get to save a crumbling marriage.

Cross adds one last detail to the story of the young PFC and his wife. "They're still married to this day."

"Well, it's kind of clear"

Standing inside the ANP headquarters, you, a fellow lieutenant, and Haji Agha, a high- ranking Afghan official, are talking about a Toyota Camry.

Summer, night, pillows and rugs out because it's cooler later. Tea and watermelon, rice and chicken. One of the moments sitting around, BS-ing.

The moon is hanging in the dusty sky, the opaque glow of dusk sinking upon jagged cliff faces in the distance.

"Very soon," Haji Agha is saying. He can't wait to see his new car. Full moon.

There is a momentary return to a time before the desert, the mountains, and the moon above knew the sound of gunfire, the color of blood, and the faces of dead men.

"Haji Agha," you suddenly ask him, pointing at the opalescent arc in the sky. He looks up, then back at you, questioningly.

"Did you know that Americans landed on the moon?"

He looks at the moon for a moment. Then he stares blankly back.

You say, "Did you know that mankind has landed on the moon?"

Haji Agha says nothing. He blinks, and looks at you. There is a silence, a momentary return to a time before the desert, the mountains, and the moon above knew the sound of gunfire, the color of blood, and the faces of dead men.

Within another moment, the grin Haji Agha wore before is back.

"The most beautiful car I've ever seen!" he says.

How do those of us who have never witnessed a degree of violence that breaks the framework of the knowable understand the experiences of Garrett Cross?

"I don't think you have to have lived in someone's shoes," Cross says, "to have compassion for what they have gone through."

Throughout our conversation, he emphasizes the deleterious nature of making assumptions about combat, or the men and women who have experienced it.

As a member of the armed forces, Cross faces judgment from numerous angles. Extremist Christian groups protest funerals of service members, saying war is the devil's work. Even in more relaxed, social settings, Cross has exchanges with people who tell him that "what you guys are doing over there" is wrong.

If Marines do not follow orders, they go to jail.

An avid student of history, as well as a practiced leader in both sports and combat, the leadership crisis that has taken form on the contemporary world stage is at the forefront of Cross' mind.

"The world needs a leader," Cross says. "It always has. I don't know if that's going to be us or if it needs to be somebody else. People say the U.S. doesn't need to be the world police. But my question is, if not us, then who?"

"This is a point in our history that doesn't have a world leader."

It is both invisible and palpable, a divider between the few of us who have witnessed, and the many of us who have not.

Another hurdle Cross and his fellow Marines face all-too-often upon their re- entry into the world of American life smacks of equating desensitized video- game glory with reality: "What's it like to kill someone?"

"Every returning veteran faces this question. And I don't know anyone that's really comfortable talking about it with anyone that hasn't shared the experience of combat," Cross says.

While the latter question is very clearly steeped in insensitivity, it is also representative of an uncomfortable and often painful dynamic that stems from the experience of atrocity on one hand, and the lack of consciousness of, or the lack of ability to conceptualize, its existence on the other.

It is both invisible and palpable, a divider between the few of us who have witnessed, and the many of us who have not.

For those of us who have not seen combat firsthand, the problem remains of understanding violence that belongs to a reality we cannot fathom.

For servicemen like Garrett Cross, the problem becomes how to talk about events that belong to another world; how to describe the experience of sight to someone who is blind.

When I ask him about suicide bombings, losing friends, brushes with his own mortality, Cross replies that he prefers not to talk about these things.

But then he tries. He struggles to find the words, not knowing exactly where to place the brush to paint a picture I can recognize.

"Those moments don't feel real," he finally says. "We get the best training. But nothing can prepare you for the fact that it is actually real."

The real of one world is not the real of the next. Unlike most interactions, those who have seen combat belong to two realms of reality, and continue to exist in both spaces even after returning home.

You don't want to do this anymore. Your body is screaming at you. You really want to lie down. You can't, though. His voice, again, like a sonorous boomerang through the canyon:

Be okay with the fact that it's going to hurt.

70 degrees, Strawberry Canyon, surrounded by green hills and skies that were beautiful blue indifference to your pain.

It's going to be tough, said the voice.

120 degrees, Afghanistan, helmet, body armor, weapon, way down, moving, in a hostile

area. You have no option but to keep going. Go to your dark place, his voice instructed. You're already there.

And he is, too.

Notably, the training that Cross received from the Cal Rugby program was, according to him, at the root of his capacity to persevere. His coach's voice could uniquely act as a bridge between the relative shelter of everyday life in America, and the reality of pervasive violence in the Middle East.

After leaving the culture fostered by his rugby coach, Cross became a coach of sorts himself.

"Man, that's war," Cross says. "It's a disgusting beast that no one really wants to wrestle with. But you accept that someone has to. So you raise your hand and prepare for it as best you can."

But rather than dealing in the stakes of championships, the stakes on Cross' playing field would be human lives.

"It's overwhelming to me," he explains, "that these games are such a big part of our culture to the point where people know more about who they're drafting to their fantasy league than they do about world issues, or even American issues."

What then, is ultimately the place of sport in the life of a man who left its professional echelons unsatisfied with the thought of devoting his life to a game, yet credits the teachings of a former coach for his ability to operate in life-threatening circumstances?

For Cross, his relation with sport is dualistic-- the lack of fulfillment in the internal space where sport becomes business, and the guiding force in the external space where its principles continue to pave professional and personal paths.

However, as someone who has seen a fuller picture of world issues than civilians, Cross doesn't quite know what to make of the place of sport within the framework of American priorities.

"It's overwhelming to me," he explains, "that these games are such a big part of our culture to the point where people know more about who they're drafting to their fantasy league than they do about world issues, or even American issues."

Cross felt an early connection to issues outside of the safe confines of his home; his ambitions to serve were still forming as he and Rodgers arrived on the Cal campus in the summer of 2002 and crashed at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house until their scholarship money for the year kicked in.

"We just spent a lot of time getting to know each other," says Cross.

Among the topics of conversation between the future roommates was their shared patriotism.

"We often talked about service," says Cross, "a sense of duty to the country. I think his grandfather served in World War II. It was something that I think he wanted to do, and felt he should do."

Cross pauses, laughs lightly.

"But I think he probably made a good decision to stick with football."

When Cross shipped off to Officer Candidate School, he thought that his athletic background as a starter on a national-championship contending college football team, and a member of an NFL roster, would give him an advantage in the eyes of his superiors.

"I thought, 'I'm a shoe-in!'" Cross recalls. "'They're gonna love me!' They didn't care. I hadn't proven anything to them."

He came to a realization of a sort of mantra that seems to mirror the outlook Jack Clark had on Cross as a rugby player.

"Nothing I had done in my past mattered as much as what I was doing in the present and what I was capable of doing in the future."

As he continued with officer training, Cross met aspiring Marines who had gone to Stanford, Dartmouth, Cal. Some had advanced degrees from Cambridge, Harvard, Yale. Many had played at various levels of sport. One of his buddies from infantry training was a former Atlanta Falcon.

"I was very humbled," Cross explains, "to be surrounded by guys who were equally as impressive as I thought I was."

Cross strongly believes that each individual has a story-- and that no story is more or less important than another. For this reason, he often dodges questions of starry- eyed subordinates who've worked up the courage to ask their captain about his athletic accolades.

The inclination to deflect questions about his accomplishments does not stem from any kind of false modesty. The gaze Cross casts on fellow Marines is one of a cultured egalitarianism.

"Everyone has a story to tell," he says. "And I don't feel like my story is any more special than where the Marine who is asking me has come from, the things he's done."

I can't help but be reminded of someone else in this moment-- a man who once told me that in thirty years of coaching nearly 100 rugby players each year, he remembers every player's name, and every player's story.

As I continue to write this article, it's been a while since I've touched base with Cross. He has been unreachable on Facebook, our initial means of communication, for weeks. After about a month, Cross sends me an apologetic email explaining that ISIS had been overtly threatening service members through social media. He had deactivated his Facebook as a result.

That day is the first in a long weekend honoring Veteran's Day. Cross looks forward to one thing in particular on his days off: being able to pick up his son from school.

"I don't usually get to do that," he says.

Born ten days after his return from Afghanistan, Cross' two-year-old son attends preschool a couple of days each week.

"He's just such a sweet and happy little boy," says Cross. " It's just super fun watching him do anything, except throw a tantrum."

Later that night, he and his wife have a date planned.

"Actually," he laughs, "we're going to a high school football game." Cross will not, however, be a casual observer, detached from the action.

"I am constantly analyzing the coaching," he says. "I watch subtle things like how the players carry themselves; how do they interact with each other and the other team? Do they display respectable sportsmanship?"

He's focusing on strategy-- but above all, on character.

"Are they aggressive? Smart? Disciplined? When they score, do they act like they've done it a thousand times, or that it was the first, and possibly only, score of their life?"

"I really believe that Clark's program is one of the best out of any sports program there is -- now I watch other people and compare it to what I learned at Cal. Which all ties into my philosophy as a Marine officer."

But tonight, as the former star sits in the aluminum bleachers of a California high school with his wife, he may also be somewhere else.

"I think of Afghanistan all the time," says Cross. "Randomly, I will find myself thinking about some of the times in combat. It always amazes me how the visceral feelings of those moments will never become any duller."

Tonight, Garrett Cross might buy a beer from the stand by the field. It'll always taste different, to him, because he's tasted soft drinks the temperature of a hot desert sand dune.

"My thoughts about war will not go away, and I honestly do not want them to."

He might kick up some dust as he walks on the track back to his seat, but it'll settle back down, because it's not sticky or lighter than air.

"I most consistently think about Afghanistan when I am taking a moment to realize some of the guys that were hurt in my unit, and some that made the ultimate sacrifice."

He might look up at the moon, knowing that Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on its surface on July 20, 1969.

"I often stop to think about some of those experiences..."

He might watch a game that he played better than most other people on the face of this planet.

"... out of respect for the guys who don't have the luxury of having those thoughts anymore."

He's not just watching for himself.

When I first interviewed Jack Clark for this article, nearly a year ago, he expressed pride, awe, and respect for Garrett Cross' service. He also told me that Cross would not be in the Marines forever -- that he would choose another career at some point in the future, and "then he'll be very good at that, too."

Clark's pulse for his former players and their endeavors, the trajectories of their lives, is eerily uncanny.

At the end of April, Cross will take the GMAT -- on almost exactly the same day that he and his wife are expecting a daughter.

"I love my son more than anything, but I've got to be somewhat hard on him," Cross says. "It's my duty to make sure he grows into a good man."

For Cross, the process of facing the unknown is not, in itself, unknown.

However, as one of three boys himself, Cross does not quite know what to expect with the impending arrival of a daughter.

"She's just going to get everything she wants," he laughs.

He plans to leave the Marine Corps in January of 2016, attend one of the business schools to which he is currently applying and transition into the business sector.

"I gave up an NFL career and dove head first into the unknown. I joined the Marine Corps and went to combat; I was tested," says Cross. "It's time to move on to something else; to find the next challenge."

The next challenge is not only attaining a new, higher degree, but looking for a job in an entirely new realm.

"It feels really good, actually," Cross says. "Having accomplished one goal, becoming a Marine officer and knowing I've been successful, I can move on to what is next in my life."

Cross says it's both exciting and scary, a future that is "uncertain."

He currently does not have a job lined up in that transition, and he will be entering the business world with two more mouths to feed than he did as an undergraduate.

But for Cross, the process of facing the unknown is not, in itself, unknown.

The tight-end-turned-rugby lock-turned Marine Captain succinctly states:

"I'm optimistic."

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

-- Major John McCrae, May 1915

About the Author

Hey, I'm Lindsay.

I like to read, write, and play basketball. My favorite athlete is my little sister.

I have a business called The Treasury Media. We write grants, campaigns, proposals, stories, app language, articles, bios, you get the idea -- for cause-related projects. We work with clients who make it their mission to improve people's lives.