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The humble hero: Former SEAL Tom Hruby plays for a cause bigger than himself

The former Navy SEAL’s impact on his family, his team and his country cannot be overstated.

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Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Tom Hruby remembers the nights.

The nights he spent underneath his bed with his brother, hiding from his father, an abusive and rage-filled alcoholic.

He also remembers the days.

The days of intense training — sometimes up to 20 hours of excruciating exercises — that eventually gave way to missions in Iraq. And Afghanistan. And the Philippines.

But before those long hours and those deployments, before donning the Northwestern uniform and returning to football a decade after he left it, there was high school fullback Tom Hruby, the product of a single-parent household fractured by alcohol.

His mother, Kathy, worked three jobs to keep the family afloat. His father, an alcoholic then and still today, did all he could to sink it. Tempers flaring. Fights. Negligence. Absence. Kathy had had enough by the time Tom was beginning his teenage years and got a divorce.

“I had a good relationship with my mom,” Hruby says. “She was always around. She worked hard. She worked — at times — multiple jobs. She finished her degree, went to school, started a business, which was eventually the foundation of bringing us up out of that situation.”

Hruby used sports to help pull himself out of that situation as well — “spending my time in a gym” was his release — and that led him to both football and wrestling. At Andrean High School in Merrillville, Indiana, he was a standout in both and played fullback for the 59ers.

It was during those years that Hruby became interested in joining the military. Though a solid athlete, Hruby didn’t get anything other than small school offers. After graduation, he formed a company with one of his high school peers. He went to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. But the desire to serve his country never left, and after working with various recruiters over several years, he finally decided on the Army. More specifically, he decided on the Green Berets, a division known for carrying out unconventional and highly-specific missions in smaller units. And so Tom Hruby, the soldier, was off.

That he became a Navy SEAL, frankly, was pure chance. Hruby was fully prepared to sign up to become a Green Beret and was on his way to do so when a SEALs (Sea, Air and Land teams) poster caught his eye. He didn’t know much, but he was intrigued.

“(My recruiter) tells me a little bit about it and I go and research it and I go, ‘Yeah that’s absolutely it,’” Hruby says. “You learn so many skills. You go so many places. Every man skill you could imagine, you learn it throughout the SEAL program.”

Hruby, who had grown up directionless, without a father for guidance nor a stable home, had his arrow. However, the process was merely beginning. For starters, there was the testing and paperwork: numerous basic examinations, both physical and biological, as well as contracts to sign. Taking the next step — attending boot camp — can take months. Hruby worked hard back home, getting in shape either on his own or with recruiters and other Navy hopefuls. When an opening at Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago opened up, Hruby snatched it. His training to join the SEALs had taken a crucial step forward.

Those months of preparation paid off for the eight weeks that lay ahead. Hruby was in fine shape, physically. That was hardly a challenge.

But early on, something unexpected came over him. For the first time since that poster had caught his eye, Hruby wanted to quit. Camp was just a few days old.

“It was so bad for me,” Hruby recalls. “I thought about quitting. My chief at boot camp — I gotta get outta here — he pulled me aside and convinced me not to.”

He learned to fold his clothes correctly. He learned basic techniques aboard a ship. He took classes. Eight weeks after nearly ending his naval career, he graduated boot camp.

Then came Coronado.

Gary Sinise & Lt. Dan Band Fathers Day Concert Photo by Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Coronado, California, located across and around the San Diego Bay is, as one would expect, absolutely beautiful.

But don’t let luscious greens, endless golden beaches and perfect sunsets fool you: Coronado can get ugly.

Four hundred hours. This is when Coronado is ugly.

The sounds of gunshots ring out in the darkness. Flashes go off randomly, attempting to daze or distract the weary soldier. Commanders are barking instructions. Push-ups. Sit-ups. Constant motion. Organized chaos.

This is Week 3 of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. The final step toward becoming a SEAL, the program consists of eight weeks of physical conditioning, eight weeks of diving and nine weeks of land warfare. But Week 3 is special. It’s called Hell Week, but hell might be generous. Over a sleep-deprived five-and-a-half-day period, in addition to swimming and a bevy of other exercises both in and out of water, the SEALs run over 200 miles.

“Is that what it was?” Hruby says with a wistful grin. “Yeah, that’s accurate...” He trails off. A smile returns. “ least.”

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But struggle breeds success, and in the struggle, there emerged an unbreakable bond formed among Hruby and his fellow SEALs. The 34-year-old doesn’t get into much detail regarding his time overseas. Rather, he focuses on the relationships he formed and the perspective he gained from his deployments.

No relationship meant more to Hruby than the one with his wife, Jen.

The two met in high school — Tom two grades above Jen — but didn’t hit it off until a few years after they both graduated. They got married shortly after Tom left for the Navy. With Tom gone for the vast majority of two years, it wasn’t the challenges overseas that troubled him most, but the longing for his wife back in the States.

“That was by far one of the most difficult aspects of being in the military,” Tom says. “Trying to balance and sustain a solid marriage and relationship. That was very challenging, and I know that that’s a massive challenge and problem in the military community.”

He was deployed for more than 280 days a year as he served across the seas. Aside from leading a training mission in Lebanon, he was just another “cog in the wheel,” a role he embraced fully. Back home, Jen, the mother of young children, worried.

“It’s a dynamic that’s really difficult to describe to other people,” she says. “It’s stressful on a marriage, and to say otherwise would be untrue. What really got us through it was our commitment, God, and our wonderful support system.”

The young couple persevered. Each trip was more difficult to let go, each safe return that much sweeter. And every time, he came back safe. But the man who grew up to defend a nation never forgot the boy who grew up without a dad.

“I had to make that choice and that played a big role in making that decision,” he says. “I can’t allow four boys to grow up in this world without a dad being around. I’ve seen the effects of it and I’ve seen what being there can help and how beneficial that is.”

So he returned home in 2013. He still worked at the Naval Station Great Lakes, but he wanted more. He wanted a return to the thing that helped him escape his nightmarish childhood: sports. He got in football shape, met with Pat Fitzgerald, met and joined the team and enrolled.

“I mean honestly, I didn’t really think much of it in the sense that I know that whatever he truly wants to do and puts his effort into, he’s going to accomplish,” Jen says. “So that’s kind of how I embraced it. All right, let’s do it. Why not?”

When the Navy cleared him to — and not just practice — after his honorable discharge in 2015, Tom Hruby fully became a Northwestern Wildcat.

Linebackers coach Randy Bates was ecstatic when he heard the news. A former Navy SEAL joining his team? It was perfect. Bates coached at the Naval Academy from 1989 to 1992 and is a retired Naval Lieutenant. Even though Hruby had been out of organized football for over a decade (he had tossed the pigskin around during deployments to kill time), Bates knew he was getting a man he could count on.

“You’re talking about a [guy] who takes orders, so I have no problems,” Bates says. “He does exactly what I tell him, and does it to the best of his ability, which you would expect with a Navy SEAL.”

Still, the transition on the field was a difficult one. Hruby dealt with injuries. He had to learn a playbook. He was learning to play college football in Evanston at over 30 years old while others were coming in at close to half his age. He worked hard. He filled in where he could, giving starters extended rest during practice. He learned new positions.

Maybe the most important transition was fitting in in the locker room, a transition he had struggled with way back at boot camp. Even just months after serving his country and being recognized as a national hero, he had to be another cog in the wheel, just as he had been overseas. Luckily, he found a home of what he calls “unbelievably mature men.” Even though they didn’t quite share the same taste in music or pop culture — Hruby jokes there weren’t a lot of Metallica fans — his teammates could count on him to be a rock, steady, consistent and compassionate.

He’s grown close with new dad Joe Jones, who he affectionately nicknamed Papa Tart Joe following the birth of Jones’s daughter and for his love of Pop Tarts.

“He’s always talking about leadership and a band of brothers coming together for one goal,” linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. says. “Nobody’s bigger than the team; that’s his motto. His leadership is like no other.”

He’s filled the role that his drill sergeant did so many years earlier, when Hruby himself nearly dropped out of the SEALs in boot camp.

“There’s times that guys want to quit or they don’t want to do the extra step and I think that they’ve learned the hard way through his experiences, and I think that he’s helped with those,” Bates says.

Having gained his teammates’ trust off the field, he went to work on the field, though rarely at 100 percent, health-wise. And finally, after years of work, Hruby made his debut against Eastern Illinois in 2015. He would go on to play against Michigan later that year and Purdue in 2016.

“It was amazing,” Hruby says of his chance to play in his early 30s. “It was just kind of a surreal thing. It was like the culmination of a ton of hard work. There were a lot of people involved in that, my parents and my wife and my family and people in the Navy that I know and friends.”

NCAA Football: Eastern Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Five-year-old Ethan Hruby blurts out “He is awesome!”

Six-year-old Troy, the eldest of the four Hruby kids, calls his dad “Captain America.”

“You know why I’m more excited?” Bates asks rhetorically. “Not just because he’s on the field but because he has little kids. Could you imagine if you had little kids and they had the opportunity to watch you play? Only NFL players get that option, and his kids are old enough to watch him play.”

And while his kids and teammates — who shout out “MERICA!” as they pass by — rightfully shower him with praise, Hruby pushes the focus elsewhere, just as any SEAL would. He cares about the team infinitely more than the individual, even if that individual deserves all the attention in the world. It was never personal gain that he sought by coming back to football.

He plays to inspire veterans, especially those who may struggle after deployments.

“I’ve always felt like a big part of what I’m doing and a reason I’m doing it is somehow it’ll maybe inspire veterans, inspire active duty guys that are overseas. I hope that it inspires some veterans maybe that are home, that are here having a tough time dealing with some different mental or emotional issues. Hopefully in some way this will give them just a little bit extra to go and look for something; there are a lot of options out there and you just have to go and fight for them.”

He plays to inspire any father out there who may hear his story.

“I’m also representing fathers,” he says. “I’m grinding until 2 or 3 a.m. Not everyone has the opportunity to do this. I hope it’s inspiration for guys on their daily grind.”

He plays to inspire his kids, who often double as his workout partners.

“He’s pretty much a big kid,” Jen says. “He’s a great father. He inspires his kids, and he has this amazing patience with his sons that I envy. He will have them go do workouts, go do something and build something on the farm. What’s cool to watch is the boys actually genuinely want to help him do pretty much everything.”

So when he ended up on the shoulders of J.B. Butler and Joe Gaziano after Northwestern’s romp over the Boilermakers on a brisk fall day in West Lafayette, he admits he felt a bit out of place.

“This isn’t really all about me,” he says. “It’s really all about something a lot bigger, and if that’s what it takes to bring some awareness, bring a little bit of inspiration to people who might need it, that’s awesome.”

Tom Hruby plays for the men and women struggling post-deployment. He plays for the people currently deployed who hope to have a happy life when they return home. He plays for the dads out there hoping to rekindle a passion once lost. He plays for his four young sons. He plays for his teammates. He plays for everyone except himself.

But on one Veterans Day weekend, his teammates played for him. And the boy who started on the bottom became the man who finished his football career, in every sense, on top.

Cody Cejda on Twitter