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9/11 pushed Staat into retirement from NFL and into gun turret in Iraq

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By the morning the planes crashed and the buildings fell, Jeremy Staat was weary of football. A few days earlier he had been cut from a Seattle Seahawks team he was sure he was going to make and the politics of the game discouraged him. He sat alone in his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, the phone quiet, no one in the NFL ringing for a defensive end that just three years before had been a second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He felt empty and lost.

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Jeremy Staat played four season in the NFL, three for the Pittsburgh Steelers

A rage filled him on Sept. 11, 2001, as he watched the television, a "surreal day" as he would later say. "To me it was a huge slap," he recalls. "It was like being shot with your own gun."

And in the fuzzy haze of the worst morning, he suddenly knew what he wanted to do: "I can be a real warrior," he said to himself. "I can fight for my country." He would go to war. He would hunt whoever did this. Never would it happen again. He called his agent, Frank Bauer, and instructed him to tell any teams who might call he wasn't interested in the NFL anymore. He was going to chase bin Laden.

That is until his friend Pat Tillman called.

"What are you doing, stupid?" Staat remembers Tillman saying. Staat was only a couple of games short of earning retirement benefits and Tillman told him he needed to hang on to get them.

This surprised Staat since he knew Tillman hated that day as much as he did. But Tillman always had a sensible way about him. Be angry yes, fight if you have to, but set your life up first. So Staat went back to chasing his football career and a few months later, Tillman - his own future secure - went to war.

It is ironic now to see how everything unfolded. Staat eventually did enter the military, enlisting as a Marine in 2006 less than two years after Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. Staat went to Iraq and sat in a gun turret for nine months, returned to his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., and became an activist for veterans and soldiers' rights.

"He's a mover and a shaker," his mother, Janet Staat-Goedhart, says.

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There was a time Staat thought he would love football forever. This was at Arizona State, where he bulldozed through Pac-10 offenses on the field and roared through life with his friend Tillman and Tillman's brother, Kevin, off of it. They became the best of friends and partners in hijinks and life, and those mid-1990s days seemed so perfect.

Former teammates warned Staat the NFL wouldn't give him the same feeling of camaraderie as college football. They told him he wouldn't again love the game the way he did at that moment. But he never understood those emotions until he went to the Steelers and found himself in what he perceived to be a turf war between coach Bill Cowher and team vice president Tom Donahoe, the man who drafted him. Staat felt Cowher didn't believe he was right for the team's defensive system and never wanted him. By 2001 he was released. Staat turned down better offers to sign with the Seahawks because it seemed like a sure thing and Seattle was closer to home. When the Seahawks cut him just days before the start of the 2001 season, he hated the game.

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Staat with Pat Tillman (center).

After Tillman talked him into remaining in football he stumbled around the fringes of the NFL. Opportunities came, then dwindled. Oakland tried him as an offensive lineman but released him before he could play in a game. He was almost ready to give up when the St. Louis Rams signed him in 2003 to fill in for injured players. He played two games, figured he met his obligation for benefits and walked away. He half-heartedly played a season for the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena League because he heard the money was good, then gave up the game forever.

It was that April that Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. Despondent over Tillman's death and tired of football, Staat took a job at a drug store and began working out aggressively to shed the extra weight he had put on his 6-foot-6, 230-pound body in order to play football. In the back of his mind he knew he was doing this to join the military, getting himself ready for basic training. He was going through a spiritual transformation.

At one point he asked himself: "How can I serve God when I can't serve man?" It was then he knew he was joining the military.

The last thing Janet Staat-Goedhart wanted was for her son to go to war. Jeremy's father fought in Vietnam and all those days he was gone were filled with dread and waiting for that knock on the door telling her that her husband was dead. Still, her son always had a fascination with the military, yet it never seemed a serious possibility until Tillman's death. The two had been so close and she also knew Tillman well. And when Jeremy quit the Arena League and began training, she knew what was coming.

"I think it was always in the back of his mind," she says. "Pat and Kevin just filled the gaps for him."

Still, when Jeremy told her he was going to be a Marine she got "physically sick."

It's odd the things that run through a mother's mind when her child tells her he'll be going to war. For some reason she kept thinking about his Ralph Lauren bedroom set back at the house in Arizona. They had so little when he was growing up and one of the few luxuries he allowed himself upon signing an NFL contract was furniture. "How do you leave such beautiful furniture to sleep on the sand in Iraq?" she kept wondering.

Janet remembers the night in San Francisco when Jeremy had been cut by the Raiders and they were together with Bauer and Tillman. It was right after Tillman had completed his first tour of duty. He was asked, now that he'd done one tour, if he was going back to football.

"No," Tillman said. "I made a commitment. I have to take this tour."

Everyone at the table got quiet.

"I thought, 'That's really a commitment,'" she says.

Iraq was indeed hard but it wasn't as bad as Staat expected. He was stationed in Haditha, which had been a hot spot earlier in the war, yet was relatively quiet by the time he arrived. What changed was his impression of the war. Somehow he expected Iraq to be stirred into a frenzy of hatred for Americans. He figured everyone would detest them and that the nights would be filled with gunfire.

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Jeremy Staat at boot camp, getting yelled at by Drill Instructor Sgt. Jaramillo.

Instead the Iraqis he encountered were people tired of war and desperate for a normal life. In his nine months sitting in the gun turret, his most vivid memories were of children running through the streets hoping for handfuls of candy from the American soldiers or a pencil or notebook or if they were really lucky, a soccer ball.

Asked what he learned most in Iraq, Staat pauses and says: "I learned humility and a life of patience."

He can still hear the laughter of the children as they approached the soldiers. A war raged on, life was hard, the power came and went, but the children laughed. Laughter didn't need a translator. Laughter didn't need a gun or a bullet-proof bunker. Laughter was simple.

"To make them laugh because we were human beings - that was amazing," he says.

He was going to return for another tour. In fact he was in line, sleeves rolled up, waiting for the battery of vaccinations that precedes a deployment, when his heart started to race. He felt sick. His hands spasmed uncontrollably. He looked up and said, "Man, I think I'm having a heart attack." They rushed him to a doctor who hooked him to an EKG and determined he had an abnormal heart rate.

The doctors told him they believed the stress of years spent building his body big to play football only to be stripped down for the military combined with the months in the gun turret led to his heart condition. He isn't so sure, but the heart problem coupled with hip and lower back injuries led to a medical discharge.

It was 2007 and he had no idea what he was going to do next. His time in the Marines left him conflicted: The war he'd fought was not the one he went to fight. Why were we there? The government's attempt to cover up the fact Tillman died of friendly fire angered him as did the sad state of equipment the soldiers had in Iraq. On the other hand, the rage he felt on Sept. 11, 2001, remained. He went back to Arizona State, finished his degree, then moved back to Bakersfield.

He felt a need to build something there for veterans, so he started the Jeremy Staat Foundation and started raising money for a wall honoring all the residents of Kern County who fought in wars. He said it would be called "the wall of valor." Suddenly his life was filled with projects - some designed to get tickets to sporting events for veterans, others to reward those wounded in battle. He's organizing a bike ride next February that will go from the Wall of Valor in Bakersfield to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.

The work makes him happy. For the first time in more than a decade, he has a purpose he loves.

It's amazing how his life has changed since that one awful morning that came just days after the lowest point in his football career.

"To me 9/11 is this generation's Pearl Harbor," he says. "I was stationed in Hawaii and so I went by it multiple times. I can't fathom just hanging out in Hawaii on those big ships when all hell breaks loose. It's like on September 11, you had all these individuals just going to work and getting their Starbucks coffee and having trouble finding a parking spot and then, boom, you're gone. ''

Football is a distant memory.

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