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Afghanistan veteran Tehuti Miles knows the difference between football and war

FootballCollege FootballMaryland TerrapinsAfghanistanColleges and Universities

For years, war terminology has seeped into football telecasts. Quarterbacks become "field generals," games are equated to "battles."

Tehuti Miles knows better.

After four years in the Army — including a stint in Afghanistan, where he wielded an M4 during watch duty — Maryland's first-year practice-team running back has earned the right to dismiss the comparison. He knows all too well that the football-as-war metaphor amounts to hype.

"We all know it's not the same thing," he says.

After leaving the Army last January, Miles could not have imagined what would come next — that he would not only be a member of the Terps, but that his team would be in a bowl game celebrating military service.

Friday's Military Bowl matching Maryland (7-5) against Marshall (9-4) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis is the first bowl game to be held at a service academy. The game, which benefits the United Service Organizations, will feature a flyover of World War II-era B-25 bombers and a giant American flag that will be spread across the field.

And, with Miles, it will also have a veteran on one of the sidelines.

"That's a cool thing," said Steve Beck, the bowl's president and executive director.

'He's got that toughness'

Miles does not volunteer to share his war memories, although he will discuss them if asked. He spoke so softly in a series of recent interviews that media members had to lean forward to hear him.

"I do still have those [wartime] experiences," he said. "I try not to let it bother me. I try to think of other things. The only time it might bother me is at night."

Miles, 23, acknowledges that he isn't same person as when he enlisted in 2008.

"If I'm in a restaurant or something like that, I have to sit where I can see everybody," said the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Miles, who played high school football in Hammonton, N.J., and became interested in military service after attending a cousin's Air Force base graduation.

"I still have flashbacks sometimes. Some people won't even notice it. I might have it just walking with you somewhere," Miles said.

After leaving the Army, Miles wanted to treat himself and attend school in a warm climate. He looked at Florida colleges, "but I was thinking maybe I should be a little bit closer [to home]," he said.

After being admitted at Maryland, Miles contacted the Terps' coaches and asked about the possibility of walking on.

Miles isn't eligible to play in games this season because of questions about whether the high school courses he took met core academic requirements. Maryland won a waiver earlier in the season allowing him to practice, and he has been a member of the scout team that prepares the Terps for upcoming opponents. He is expected to be cleared to play in games next season.

For now, Miles' nature — his quiet intensity — is revealed on the practice field.

"If he's running with the scout team, he's going to run," center Sal Conaboy said. "A lot of guys on defense will get upset with him. He'll hit you. You can tell he's got that toughness to him. He has that drive."

The coaches' initial instincts about Miles were confirmed once they saw him practice.

"When we first got him out there and were watching the tape after practice — with his effort and intensity — it was great to see," coach Randy Edsall said. "It helps our other guys because they see how hard he's going. It's just great having a guy like that around."

'Whatever he's got to do'

Miles isn't the only Army veteran playing Division I football. Clemson wide receiver and special teams player Daniel Rodriguez served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their backgrounds set them apart from their teammates. For example, Miles says "I don't get nervous or anything like that" playing football because his perspective has changed.

Miles' experience in Afghanistan was chronicled by a New York Daily News reporter who joined the soldier on a night watch in 2010.

"Up on a hastily nailed together wooden guard tower called 'the deer stand,' Army Spec. Tehuti Miles, 19, of Newark and Hammonton, N.J., had the first watch as the sun fell across open farmland sprawled out below," the Daily News account said. "Using binoculars, night-vision goggles and a thermal imaging scope that detects warm things like people and animals, Miles protected his tiny 26-man unit as they slept or played dominos."

The account reported on homemade bombs exploding and platoon members being wounded or killed.

Miles doesn't talk about those things much. Asked whether he had lost many friends in Afghanistan, he replied simply: "One is a lot."

Miles' immediate goal is to win playing time next season.

"He's going to do whatever he's got to do to try to get on the field next year, be it as a running back or a special teams guy," Edsall said. "We've got some pretty good players at running back, so we'll have to see. I would think right now the best opportunity heading into next fall would probably be more of a special teams guy. But that's why we have spring practice, because we'll have a chance to evaluate him more."

Miles' ambition is to play in the NFL. But after shifting gears once — from the military to college football — he is prepared to do so again, if necessary.

"I'm going to school for theater. I've always been in acting and stuff like that," he said. "That could be a Plan B."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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