When Robert McCune hears football players talk about going to war, he just shakes his head. Three years of Army service taught him that football is a game, war a battle for survival.
McCune lived on military bases in five states and was deployed to South Korea and Kuwait. He's heard the crackle of nearby gunfire and camped on a roof during a monsoon. He spent days refueling military vehicles and free moments lifting a 50-pound rock.
McCune endured it all so he could keep playing football. His Army buddies found that funny.
"I told them that after this I was going to go to college and get my degree, I was going to play football, and they laughed," he said.
Now the linebacker might be close to playing in the NFL. McCune, among the 332 players invited to this year's combine, will be 26 by the time of the April draft, and he might be the oldest player selected.
"If the guy is a real good football player, you don't worry about it," Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "If he's in the development stage, it becomes a concern."
McCune wasn't even offered a Division I-A scholarship when he graduated from LeFlore High School in Mobile, Ala. He earned a spot on the Louisville team as a walk-on and finished with 320 career tackles. Some scouts wonder if the 6-foot, 245-pound McCune is big enough to play inside linebacker, but no one has questioned his commitment or work ethic.
"You assume he has a character that's very high, and that's very important to all of us," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. "People who not only can avoid off-field problems, but who can be productive like that are very valuable."
McCune had hoped to play in college at Alabama or Auburn. The only offers came from places like Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Southern University and Grambling.
So McCune joined the Army in 1997 and quickly started moving. During the next three years, he lived in Fort Lee, Va.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Knox, Ky.; and Fort Irwin, Calif. The arduous training regimen included 4-mile runs, pushups and situps.
"My plan was to go into the military, grow up and walk on at some Division I school," he said.
When he went to South Korea for one year as a patrolling specialist, McCune improvised. He used his fueling truck rig as a pullup bar and a heavy rock for weightlifting. Between missions, McCune found just enough time to pull out the sharp-edged rock for a workout.
"I'd sit on top of the truck and do curls over my head until they came," he said. "I was in Korea for 365 days, and I'd say I worked out 340 days."
McCune learned to deal with the odor of raw sewage and poor living conditions, but wasn't prepared for the monsoon season. One night, with his barracks covered in about 7 feet of water, he scrambled onto a roof and spent the night there as lightning lit the sky.
"I didn't think the rain was ever going to end," he said. "I was trying to think of a plan of what to do next."
Many fared far worse.
"A lot of the Koreans lost a lot," he said. "Some were caught by the water, and I have no idea where the water took them."
During a six-month tour in Kuwait, McCune and the Americans rarely met the locals. Occasionally, McCune was awakened by gunfire, unsure where the shots came from.
"It sounded pretty close," he said. "I would just jump out of bed when I heard it."
McCune finished his active duty in 2000. When he returned home, he pursued his football dream despite a five-year commitment to the National Guard. Some coaches were wary, knowing he might miss practices.
But he persuaded John L. Smith, then coach of Louisville, to let him play and used the G.I. Bill to pay for his first semester. By the second semester, he had earned a scholarship.
In March 2003, he nearly had to leave football again. McCune's Guard unit was alerted that it might be deployed to Iraq. He was sent to Fort Knox for training, missed part of spring football and worried he might miss part or all of his junior season.
"It was tough because I had been selected captain and my coaches expected a lot out of me," he said. "They told me not to worry, that my spot would still be there when I got back. I missed about two or three months of school, but everything ended up working out. We weren't called up. It just made me appreciate football that much more."
McCune finished 2003 with a team-high 143 tackles, including four sacks. This past December, McCune completed his military service with the rank of corporal in time to start preparing for the NFL combine. He also earned a degree in education.
McCune will spend the next two months preparing for football, watching the news and getting updates from friends never far from his mind. But you'll never hear McCune making comparisons between the game he loves and the battles he's fought.
"In war, you have real, live bullets flying around," he said. "My buddies, they have a saying: 'Stay alert, stay alive,' and one of my friends said it's true. I talk to them all the time, and they tell me they hope I make it. I tell them 'I hope I make it, too.'"