As Memorial Day approaches, Robert McCune will take time to think about how fortunate he is.
The former University of Louisville linebacker spent four seasons in the NFL and now plays for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.
But McCune’s path to professional football was not the traditional one. He joined the Army out of high school, spending four years serving his country and four more in the National Guard while in college.
His tours included Korea, Kuwait and Afghanistan. He built friendships with men and women who, like him, are back stateside as well as those who remain in the service and others who never came home.
As an Army petroleum specialist who rose to the rank of corporal, McCune drove fuel trucks, fueled aircraft and supplied communities with heating sources for their homes.
Now 33, McCune left active duty in 2000 to attend college, where he walked on for the Cardinals. As a sophomore, he played in every game. As a junior, he started every game and led his team in tackles.
As a senior, he was a Conference USA first-team selection who made 115 tackles and turned enough heads to get drafted in the fifth round by the Washington Redskins.
Along with being a 26-year-old rookie in the nation’s capital, his career has taken him to Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland and now Canada.
He smiles when he gets out of bed each morning. He’s still grinning when he gets to work – often well before the doors have opened.
McCune knows what struggle is. He is well-versed in overcoming adversity. Football is his passion, but it is still just a game.
He has seen war and remembers those who fought alongside him. He holds dear the men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country.
Most soldiers love football, McCune said, and some probably could make it in college or the NFL. But commitments to their country and to their families keep them in uniform long past their playing days.
For them, he can run a little farther, lift weights a little longer and push his body a little harder to remain a part of the sport.
McCune now lives in Atlanta and works with high school and college athletes trying to reach the next level. He recently spoke with USA Football. Here is a Q&A:
Why did you join the army instead of attend college after high school?
Coming out of high school, things didn’t work out for me in football. Growing up in Mobile, Ala., I always had a dream of going to Alabama or Auburn but that didn’t play out. I would go with my coach to Alabama to watch them practice. I remember seeing linebacker Dwayne Rudd and wanting to do what he did.
My sister and my dad have military backgrounds, and they told me how being in the military will pay for college. I decided to go that route, do my time and use the money to pay for school.
How did being in the military help you get better at football?
To be in the military, you have to be committed to your job, be able to work with different people, learn to communicate and do what your leaders want you to do. It’s about accomplishing tasks.
Going to different countries and seeing how people live taught me to appreciate being able to do what I love to do – playing football. Being around a bunch of great men and women where we’ve all got to do a job to get specific goals achieved, that’s what football is.
It makes me smile and helps me go another day. You are tired and coaches are on you, but you are feeling good, ready to work hard, stay focused and be humble about the situation
How do coaches and officers motivate in the same way?
Being around the coaches in the meetings, they give us a task to do, and we have to take it to the field to perform the task. It’s the same as in the military.
You get up in the morning, do exercises and get to the job. The sergeant would tell us the mission for the day, what it will take to get it done. We had to go out and get it done – no matter what. Rain, snow, sleet, shine … we are out there.
What are the bonds between soldiers like?
The brotherhood in the military … it is something I will never forget. Some of the best people in my life I met in the military. It amazes me how you can meet a guy from another country, and I’ll understand that his way and my way – as different as they are – can come together and become great friends.
You have to take care of one another in the field. I might run out of food, and one of my fellow soldiers will share. Someone may run out of ammo, and you have to give him some of yours.
You go into the Army in your teens or your early 20s, and you don’t know anything about each other. But then you develop such a great friendship with people. Those memories will be with me my whole life.
How did you end up at Louisville?
My dream was always to play college football on the Division I level, preferably at a big school. I called college football programs for six months before getting out of the Army to tell them about myself.
I had a cousin at the time who had a scholarship to Louisville, so I gave them a call, told them about myself. They asked me to come up.
How did you approach college football?
I was always at the front door ready to go first thing in the morning. I appreciated everything people complained about. It can always be worse. I was in some bad situations, and with football, it’s not as bad as they think it is. The Army taught me not to complain. With football, we are doing what we love to do.
Sometimes in life, everything doesn’t go as planned but just being at Louisville I appreciated every day and used every minute to improve my life. No matter how tough it gets, I’m still there. There’s a reason you have opportunities in front of you. It’s up to you to make the most of them and to appreciate the chances you have.
How did you react when you were drafted in the NFL?
The whole thing has been a blessing. For me to be able to serve and be able to come out healthy was one thing and to play alongside Lavar Arrington, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Jason Taylor … I’ve been around guys who are going to be Hall of Famers some day.
Are you recognized as a former soldier playing football?
A lot of people come up to me and thank me and appreciate what I did. They appreciate me as a football player but also what I did for my country. It followed me to different NFL teams. Even in Canada, a lot of reporters will talk to me and tell me how much they appreciate the veterans.
Do you talk with men and women you served with?
Some guys still keep in touch, and we laugh and talk about it now. We remember doing pull-ups on the back of trucks or from a tree just to exercise. It keeps them motivated that a friend that they served with has gone on to play professional football. It’s tough to stay focused in the military. You are not thinking about going to college. You don’t know what is going to happen day to day.
I know what they are doing out there, the hours that they are up all night pulling guard duty. I’m in my bed asleep and they are up with an M-16 rifle so we can sleep at night and not have anything happen to us.