Saturday, October 11, 2003

Soldier trades war nightmares for college football dream



By PAT FORDE
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The war wasn't so bad until bedtime.

Cpl. Rodney J. Estes II, the soldier, spent the dusty desert days in the company of his M1A1 Abrams tank crew or with the other members of Alpha Company, 8th Tank Battalion.

On the dull days the Marines opened care packages or talked about family, sports and what they'd give for cold water and hot showers. On the deadly days they went out and killed Iraqis because it was their job, and when the battles around Nasiriyah, Iraq, were done, the soldiers rehashed them in detached terms.

But at the end of the day, when Jimmy Estes, the 23-year-old Louisville native, would lie down and stare up at the inky Arabian night, he was alone with the whole thing.

It was just him and the horror: the dead women and children, the dogs tugging at corpses, the Iraqis he personally shot in combat.

It was just him and the heroism: Riding the lead tank on the famous Jessica Lynch rescue mission, laying down fire and securing the perimeter before Army Rangers and Navy SEALs retrieved America's most famous POW.

He took all of it to bed with him.

"Those were some lonely nights," Estes said.

It was during those lonely nights that he made a vow: "If I get out of here and make it home alive, I'm going to do it."

Go to college. And play football. For his hometown team, the University of Louisville.

Today Jimmy Estes is a walk-on wide receiver for the Cardinals.

He saw enough death in the desert to learn that dreams have an expiration date.

"Absolutely, it changed me," said Estes, who hadn't played organized football in six years. "I kind of piddled around at jobs here and there, not anything I'd call a career. If I hadn't gotten deployed, to be honest, I don't know where I'd be right now."

Now he is a justice administration major with designs on becoming a football coach. On the field he is a humble freshman who hasn't even dressed out for a game.

Yet there is no bigger hero in the UofL football program.

Said offensive lineman Will Rabatin, Estes' friend since grade school: "I'm proud to know him."

Think of all the coddled athletes out there, complaining that a full ride isn't enough. Then listen to Estes, who's been through more than those guys can ever imagine."I look forward to going out there every day," Estes said. "I really appreciate the opportunity. It's just so great to be a part of it."

In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, the Marines played touch football in Kuwait all the time. Tankers against tank maintenance. In combat boots. In the desert.

For Estes, this was a continuation of his lifelong love of sports.

When he was 6 he persuaded his father to get him out of school early for the first two days of the NCAA basketball tournament. Jimmy sat in front of the television from noon until midnight each day, transfixed.

At age 7 he was reading Sports Illustrated cover to cover.

When it came to college, Estes' only football option was a partial scholarship to Georgetown College. He turned it down to follow in his grandfather's footsteps - into the Marine Corps and into a tank.

A day after graduation from high school, Estes was off to Parris Island for boot camp as a Marine reservist. Then last Jan. 7, the phone rang at Ruby Tuesday, where Estes was bartending. The order was expected but still jarring: Report for active duty.

"I was a policeman 25 years, and I'm not the kind of guy who gets overly worried," said his father, Rodney Estes. "But I tell you, that night he left I thought, 'This could be the last night I ever see him."'

Over in Iraq, the A-8 Marines were pushing hard toward Nasiriyah and some of the most intense fighting of the war. On the first day of combat Estes watched a rocket-propelled grenade blow up an American vehicle and kill several soldiers.

When the tanks bogged down in the sewage that flooded the streets, the Iraqis lit up. They were firing on foot, from orange-and-white taxis and from SUVs.

Estes was the loader in his tank but also was charged with manning the 240-millimeter gun on top of the vehicle. With the upper half of his body in view, he exchanged fire with the enemy.

"It was a heck of an adrenaline rush," he said. "I was scared, excited, all those things. I think of it like going into a big game, only times 100. Obviously, the stakes are much higher. You get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach."

Asked if he personally shot anyone, Estes looked down briefly and answered yes. There was no bravado in his voice.

"The first time you see somebody get hit with a round is a crazy feeling," he said. "It's a sick feeling ... I can tell you what I saw, but in no way does it simulate what it was like."

One day Estes and his tank crew got the call to be part of a hush-hush mission. They were to lead three tanks escorting a group of Special Ops forces into town. It had the potential to be dangerous. Estes' tank commander had him clear out space inside the tank, in case they needed it to transport bodies.

They had no idea that they were going to play a part in the most dramatic event in the war.

In the early hours of April 1, their tank led a group of other vehicles carrying Special Operation Unit Task Force 20 into Nasiriyah, storming into position around the hospital. Night-vision goggles on, Estes laid down suppression fire with the 240-mm gun for a few minutes and set up a perimeter before the Rangers and SEALs went in.

Lynch was rushed out and loaded onto a helicopter, though most involved in the rescue were unaware of exactly what was happening.

Special Ops soldiers borrowed Estes' tank shovel. They used it to dig up a shallow grave that contained the bodies of several Americans from Lynch's 507th Maintenance Company.

It wasn't until days later that the crew realized that their mission was the rescue dominating news coverage at home.

Alpha Company pulled out and returned to Kuwait on May 5, and Estes returned to Kentucky on July 2. The war was over for him. It was time to act on his vow.

After about a week of acclimation, he began working out six days a week toward his goal of becoming a Cardinal. He arrived for a one-day group tryout in excellent physical condition, performed well in the fitness tests and was one of four walk-ons chosen.

"It was awesome that first day, just putting on the equipment again," he said. "I was looking around saying, 'I'm playing with a Division I football program. Four months ago I was shooting at Iraqis running around with AK-47s."'

Today life is easy. The load so many student-athletes find so difficult is like vacation to Jimmy Estes.

"All you've got to do is go to class and play football," said Lance Cpl. Nick Rassano, a Louisville native who shared tank duty with Estes. "That's got to be the easiest thing he's done all year. After going through there, everything's easier.

"The whole experience kind of straightened him out. I'm real proud of Jimmy."




PREP SPORTS
Elder 28, St. Xavier 7
Princeton 14, Lakota East 7
Conner 29, Dixie Heights 16
Colerain 44, Hamilton 24
Wyoming 40, Deer Park 13
Turpin 54, Goshen 13
Reading 38, Indian Hill 32 (3OT)
Winton Woods 16, Loveland 15
Roundup of Friday's other Ohio games
Roundup of Friday's other Kentucky games
Scores, how poll teams fared
Bacon's Zeller trails by 7 at state
CovCath finishes third in state
Friday's results
Today's schedule

REDS / BASEBALL PLAYOFFS
Allen completes interviews
NLCS: Cubs 5, Marlins 4 (11)
Pedro vs. The Rocket
Damon back in Red Sox lineup today
Boston businessman to purchase Dodgers

BENGALS / NFL
Bengals' Graham landed on his feet
Injured girl's family sues league

COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Guidugli, UC fighting for balance
Bucks braced for big battle
Clarett sues Ohio State, seeks $2.5M in damages
MU offense aims for 40-plus points vs. lowly Buffalo
Soldier trades war nightmares for college football dream
Panthers wary of 1-3 Irish
Michigan's rally stuns Gophers
Major games, major stakes

GOLF
Verplank, Flesch tied for lead at 23-under par

NBA
Bryant case strategy shifts

SOCCER
Americans want a winning ending

MOTOR SPORTS
Kenseth's recent struggles have field gaining ground

ON THE AIR
This weekend's sports on TV, radio