Shawn Hibbard was born in Nashville, Tennessee. His biological father would tell him he was born in the back of a cab. I have no way of verifying this: the state of Tennessee doesn't keep notes on taxicab births, only live ones in hospitals. He's telling me this, some 32 years after that live birth, sitting at a table in the non-smoking side of a bar owned by the coach of the Richmond Revolution. In Virginia, they separate the sides of the bars with glass; on the other side of the wall, early evening drinkers settle in with cigarettes and drinks to burn off what remains of their day. We sit on the other side with three others, drinking non-alcoholic beverages and wading through the opening stanzas of Hibbard's life.
It is a small miracle Hibbard is sitting on this side of the bar. He pulls up his socks. "See that?" He points to a fine white scar running along his lower leg, a footnote to some past malice.
"Where'd you get that?"
"My mom," he says, with a knife."
"How old were you?"
"Three. Drugs, alcohol, stuff. My biological mom had problems," he says, rubbing his arms and adjusting the baseball cap he wears inside.
Hibbard was the youngest of three brothers. He was the one who led them out of the house and to a nearby playground where locals found the three children hiding from the horrors of their home. Even then he was the biggest kid around, and that has not changed. Hibbard is country big: 6'4", with huge hands, big forearms, broad shoulders, but with a lankiness to him. Sitting across from him, tight end is the natural position you'd slot him in by hunch. Lumberjack would be another. He has no idea how much he squats or benches or power cleans.
"I'm the kind of strong who just picks up 125 pounds of gear and heads out for eight hours straight. I have no idea how strong I am, but I know I'm strong," he says when I quiz him on measurables. In my imagination, he is on that day the littlest giant leading his siblings into the arms of the Virginia State Police.
He folds his hands around his sweet tea and continues. He recites his story not by rote, but like someone who has been over the story so many times with others that the recitation itself is an act, a ritual, a declaration of fact devoid of any serious emotional harm to him. There was the State Police, then the state, and then the Virginia foster system. Separation from his siblings when he was deemed too much of an influence over his brothers after a group adoption.
Then came foster homes, and foster homes, and still more foster homes throughout the state of Virginia. Fifteen family homes in all, and abuse, and two group homes, and one detention center, and then the foster family that finally adopted him and gave him his last name but not a sense of identity or home. All parts of a story he tells over, and over, and over again to whomever will listen.
He's talking, and he keeps talking. He's communicating, and doing so compulsively, without pausing between anecdotes to remind himself as much as me that he would not believe any of this if you told him yourself. Some would sew themselves shut together and bar the door with a childhood like Shawn Hibbard's. In another reality, a parallel universe, a different Shawn Hibbard is on the other side of the glass. He is not speaking. He is drinking steadily and quietly and deliberately to obliterate what remains of his memories, even if that memory is everything he is.
In this reality, Shawn Hibbard is telling me everything on the non-smoking side of the glass with nothing more than high blood sugar buffeting his mood. "I shouldn't be like this," he says. "I shouldn't be normal. I don't know how you get through this with what I know about other people and how they're supposed to be and not be anything but what I am."
Does that include war, I ask?
Yeah, that includes war.
Hibbard and friend, Afghanistan.
I am following him from the bar where we met to football practice, where Shawn Hibbard, Sergeant Shawn Hibbard, 32 years-old and already with a 15-year military career, two tours in Afghanistan, five children, one Bronze Star with Valor, four IED explosions, and one bloody boot behind him, is going to continue his late-blooming career as a professional football player.
First, I have to catch him. Hibbard drives like someone whose brain still runs on wartime traffic protocols. He speeds up, then slows down, then pulls over to the side of the road altogether when his iPhone craps out and fails him altogether. The Impala pops over to the side of the road with no blinkers or warning, like a Humvee popping over a berm. At one point in the chase he zips through an E-Z pass gate on the Midlothian Turnpike. I break off and head through the cash toll, and he's waiting, pulled off to the left of the road like traffic isn't ripping past him at 85 miles an hour inches from his car. He drives quickly. He drives like he's being chased. He drives as if there were no one else on the road.
The license plate has the words along the bottom: BRONZE STAR WITH VALOR.
We find the practice field. HIbbard is 32, and is playing professional football for the first time in the Indoor Football League for the Richmond Revolution. Shawn is not suiting up tonight, and won't be on the field for Saturday's game. He walks gingerly to the field because he has a full ACL tear to go along with a tear of the meniscus in his knee. It happened on the last kickoff of a game with three minutes left. He walked off the field afterwards, and even now is moving way too well for someone missing a functioning ACL. He smiles when I ask him how he walks on it. "The doc asked me the same thing, and I just shook my shoulders and said, 'Army, I guess.'"
We stand on the sidelines and watch the team go through their warm ups. Hibbard's childhood may have been the stuff of Sling Blade nightmares, but it did get him here in a roundabout way. Hibbard was playing in a charity golf tournament in 2010 for the Timber Ridge School when he was paired up with some former Washington Redskins.
"You're a big boy. We could have used you on the field," one said.
Now understand that these were former linemen he was playing with at a golf tournament. Former linemen who were relaxing on the golf course, and possibly drinking a few beers, and who could have in theory told a ball washer it had the stuff to make a squad as a placekicker in the NFL. In Hibbard's case, though, they were right: at 6'4" and 230 pounds, Hibbard did have pro-style size. At 4.65 in the 40, Hibbard would prove to have viable football speed. His hands were good enough, and he took punishment while giving an equal share back to his defenders.
He also did not have the wear and tear on his body that many 32-year-old football players did. His only major injury was not football-related in the least, but certainly not a common concern for most football players. Hibbard had a shrapnel wound on his leg from an IED explosion. He got it in Afghanistan, where he was not on vacation.
On February 17th, 2009, Hibbard's up-armored Humvee was hit by an IED. This was not a new experience. In his two tours in Afghanistan, Hibbard would hit four different IEDs. The force of an IED is something you can't really imagine until you experience it. The force blankets the ears; the shock shuts down a lot of your higher brain function. The pressure creates your own private diving bell, and everything gets so loud it gets quiet, and then you're upside down in an inverted Humvee.
When the smoke cleared, he was shocked to find there were no casualties. Hibbard returned to his base, and when he was undoing his boot noticed a trail of blood from his leg downward. He turned over the boot and dumped a disturbing amount of blood onto the floor. He then called his wife on a satellite phone.
"I've been hit," he said.
"Have you gone to the doctor?"
"No, I haven't gotten checked out yet."
"Shawn, go to the doctor and call me later."
"Okay. I just wanted you to know I've been hit, but I'm okay."
"Go to the doctor and call me later."
Carrie, Shawn's wife, is standing with me two years later under the eaves of the concession stand as the Revolution wait out a rain delay. Rain is blowing in sideways from a vicious late spring thunderstorm, and lightning is sizzling around the horizon. (Later, a direct hit takes out a power pole not a hundred yards from us, and blows out all the electronics on the scoreboard. They play anyway and keep time manually.) I ask her if she worries about her husband getting hurt on the football field.
"Football worry is nothing to me. I know he can get hurt out there, but it's not getting a call from Afghanistan. It's nothing compared to that."
Working a counter IED team for Hibbard as a Sergeant meant a lot of things. It meant keeping his men's morale up, for one. In Afghanistan, he became to his base what Red was to Shawshank Prison: a fixer, a hustler, someone who could barter his unit into their own small palatial estate. His unit had an above ground pool complete with pump, every video game system imaginable, and a gigantic flat screen with satellite television hookup. He could get things if you needed them. He could have you playing Rock Band as the dust of Afghanistan swirled around you.
It also meant fighting at extremely close range. Engagements with the enemy in Afghanistan could take place at distances of less than 10 meters, so the rules never changed for his team: shoot, move, communicate. Things slowed down during battle for Hibbard. Decisions became clear, instinct became action. Later, I'll ask him the obvious question I expect him to dismiss; is that what football's like? Is the tired comparison to war at all accurate? Unlike a thousand other people with very strong opinions on the matter, Shawn Hibbard is one of the few people who would actually know the answer.
"I know there are the fans and the crowd, but all you need to worry about is the guy on my left, and the guy on my right. For me, if I block everything else out and do what I need to do. So yeah, I'm planning my battle strategy."
"It's battle. You have to have the same mentality. You have to count on people to protect you."
There was a strategy on May 22nd, 2009. Hibbard's unit was sweeping a road prior to a convoy's passage, clearing IEDs from its path. The EOD team came under small-arms fire from both sides of the road, and the entire unit was pinned down as machine gun fire and an RPG joined in on the ambush.
Hibbard climbed to the top of an armored personnel carrier (APC) to find where the gunfire was coming from, standing up in a hail of bullets. (Later, Hibbard and his men would find the gear around him on the APC's roof riddled with bullet holes inches from where he was standing.) A British Joint Tactical Air Controller joined him, on the roof as his spotter, and with 10 rounds in his sniper rifle he killed four of the enemy before running out of ammo. With his scope and empty rifle, he then stayed on the roof of the APC and called in air support on the positions.
The forces regrouped, and a second ambush began. The Humvee behind Hibbard's hit a pressure plate-triggered IED, flipping the vehicle and severely injuring two of them. The instinct would be to run towards the injured men, but Hibbard first got a metal detector, cleared a safe path to the two men, and then administered first aid, suctioning blood and bone from one man's nose and throat until the medevac team arrived.
So Shawn Hibbard is a 32-year-old Indoor Football League tight end prospect, and he is also that dude, the one who killed four men in a firefight with a sniper rifle, leapt to the aid of two fallen men while debris was still falling but who had the presence of mind to take a metal detector with him to test for additional booby traps, and the guy who is telling me at one point in our interview about a sniper rifle's bullet.
"What does a person 1000 meters away look like through a sniper's scope?"
"Oh, well, " he pauses, and looks around the table. His eyes find the white shape of my crumpled coffee creamer. "Like that, actually exactly like that. About that size."
"That's not big," I say
"It's big enough," he says. "You know, a sniper's bullet doesn't necessarily travel in a straight line."
"No, not at all. Sometimes it begins to tumble, end over end, especially at long distances. I don't even have to hit dead on. See, I could just nick you here, or come close to your head, and that would be enough."
He gestures at me, showing me all the fatal hit points a sniper's bullet could strike.
"It's nasty," he says.
When he points at the exact spots on my body where a bullet could take me out, I get deeply uncomfortable for the first time this interview. He's that dude, and he's also the guy who has squeezed the trigger and ended someone.
Hibbard is a tight end, and a sniper, and also a father of five who murmurs orders in his sleep. "He's always telling me to direct fire over here, move over here," his wife says. "He tends to be a little military in everything he does. He's stern with the kids, but he's fair, and they know he loves them. If he has to leave for a few days, he starts to get upset and snippy because he doesn't want to leave, and doesn't know how to deal with it."
He tries to teach the battle buddy system on Black Ops: Call of Duty, too, but with less success. He says the kids don't understand having your six, or keeping your back, or lines of fire or anything. "They're 13," his wife will say. Sometimes, deep into the night, he'll play and Carrie will hear him preaching shoot, move, and communicate to anonymous teenagers on the end of the headset. (For personal lessons, his gamer tag is Gyratefir7457 on XBox Live.)
The family is an extended one for Hibbard. There are the five kids, but there are the kids at the Timber Ridge School, where he'll pop in and talk to anyone who needs him even though he hasn't worked there for years. (His wife Carrie is still a teacher there.) There is the snack program he runs in his home of Winchester, Virginia, and the football camps for military kids he organizes, and the kids who ask the entire team for autographs after the game. There are the random diehard Revolution fans at the sports bar we're eating at for dinner who come over and talk to Hibbard, or "Sarge" as he's know to his teammates and the fans.
I ask him where this is all going. Hibbard is 32. He has an agent, and through the same crafty maneuvering that got him an above ground pool in Afghanistan he got a tryout, and a deal with the Revolution, a team in the Indoor Football League. But he is coming back from an ACL tear, and the clock is ticking on odds that were long to begin with. He has a day job working as a military contractor, and the five kids, and his wife, and yes, late night drill sergeanting to do on XBoxLive.
"At first I wanted a tryout with the Redskins, and then I thought, well, maybe I'll get a UFL deal, or Arena League. But now I realize it's about the kids. It's always easier to help kids and for people to take you seriously if you have a story to go with it, he says. If it happens, it happens, but I'm going to have fun and use this to get my message across to kids. You can decide what you want to be. You don't have to let your circumstances dictate what you become. I didn't. You don't either. it's up to you. That's my message. That's what I want to tell people."
He pauses. "Plus, there's not many 32-year-old men who can say they've crossed football player off the 'Bucket List.'"
Our server brings our food. I've ordered a chicken salad with dressing on the side; Hibbard has ordered "The Steinbrenner," a pile of meats, cheeses, and fried edible matter sticking out at all angles from its heaping bulk. It is so big they don't cap it, and serve it open-casket style with the lid on the side. A line of onion rings sits in the cheese topping the mound of pure hot death piled onto his plate. He tears into what is easily a two and a half pound sandwich like it is a petit-four.
"How is it," the waitress asks.
Hibbard looks up at her thoughtfully, pauses, and says in his most serious of voices. "It's glorious."