ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — Hank Goff was a standout on the Minnetonka state championship football team in high school.
He went onto South Dakota State to play football, but it didn’t work out academically. That’s when his life changed. He enlisted in the Marines, went to Afghanistan and returned a bit broken until he found football again.
Goff will enter this year a Second Team All-America selection with the Concordia-St. Paul football team. It all started with a phone call from an assistant coach.
“Saturday morning at 7 a.m. I get a phone call ‘Hey what are you doing? I’m like who is this? He’s like you want to play ball? I’m like absolutely.’ Monday I was down here and I was off and running,” Goff said.
What that coach was taking him away from was a life of dealing with the after effects of a stint with the Marines in Afghanistan.
“I was not really going to school and kind of hitting the bottle too much and then you just lose track of it and you’re deep into it. A lot of guys don’t know what to do after that and they just kind of go into a shell. Then it’s kind of hard to reach guys,” Goff said.
He had already played on a team. He was a machine-gunner in Afghanistan, a place where the stakes were high every day.
“When you’re over there and you’re fighting you don’t really do it as a human being because it’s either your life or his,” Goff said. “It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.”
Under those circumstances, you bond and under those circumstances you learn about life, about death and about a world that is only theory to most of us.
“One of my best friends got hit and I had to carry him in. He made it, but he lost his legs so you carry him in and two hours later I’m back out on patrol,” Goff said.
That’s why when he returned he needed something like football, something that pushed his mind in a different direction.
“He needed football as much as football needed him,” Concordia coach Ryan Williams said. “He’s a tremendous football player, but Hank is an even better person. It’s been great for him to take his mind off things that he’s obviously had to deal with having had experiences that none of us could even fathom.”
He needs football because of what has become of the men he served with. It’s a group that’s still close, but a group that has gotten smaller since they returned. Goff said his unit is among the leaders in veteran suicide, having had 21 since he left.
“That’s higher than the death rate we had in Afghanistan,” Goff said.
His football career is in part a tribute to those who did not come home.
“You’ve got to live your life for the guys that didn’t get to come home and live. That’s why I’m out there,” Goff said.
At 28, he’s an elder statesman to his teammates.
And what still is somehow hard to connect is that there’s a part of him that still craves the ultimate battlefield, against an enemy that simply wants to see you dead.
“Oh I was a machine-gunner and I loved it. I loved being shot at, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s the scariest thing in your entire life, but the adrenaline rush you get from it — I would be shaking after fire fights, ” Goff said.
Even though he’s content back in Minnesota playing football at Concordia, he would go back to Afghanistan if called.
“You can’t get rid of it and you never will, you just have to learn how to deal with it,” Goff said.
It’s something that can be understood only by those that have served on the front lines.
Goff will be a senior on the defensive line this season. He played in 10 games in 2013 with nine starts and collected 21 tackles, three for a loss, an interception and a forced fumble.