Sander Gossard's journey began seven years ago, as a promising goalkeeper on a Division I soccer team in upstate New York. It has taken him on a path he never envisioned.
When Navy (6-4) plays at Northern Illinois (6-5) on Tuesday night, Gossard will be there for the Midshipmen, a reserve offensive lineman who made his college football debut against the Huskies last season.
Far from being a star, the 6-foot-4, 272-pound senior is a survivor, in more than a few ways.
"My mom and I get a good chuckle out of it sometimes," Gossard, 25, said recently, standing on the practice field in Annapolis. "I definitely did not see myself at this school, let alone playing football, when I finished high school."
An all-county goalie in Harrington Park, N.J., Gossard went off to Albany (N.Y.) University to play soccer in the fall of 2001. A few weeks after arriving, his life was changed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"A lot of people were from the New York area and wound up going home. They closed school for about two weeks," Gossard recalled. "I had friends whose fathers were firemen. My father was supposed to be there. He had a meeting that morning at the Twin Towers, but he got caught in traffic."
Like many students at Albany, Gossard went home and stayed. One of his jobs was cleaning debris from Ground Zero, where he helped build a small memorial to its victims.
"When President Bush spoke there a year after, I don't know if you remember the big circle everyone threw the flowers into as they walked the families down - my uncle and I built that," Gossard said. "That was kind of something neat to do."
The next year, right before the Fourth of July, Gossard enlisted in the Navy.
Nearing the end of a three-year enlistment spent mostly at the Navy's Nuclear Power School in Charleston, S.C., Gossard said he was asked by two of his commanding officers to apply to the Naval Academy.
"They said I fit the mold," Gossard said.
It was at the Naval Academy Preparatory School, or NAPS, that Gossard met a long-haired Hawaiian named Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada and a few other football players who were spending the year there before heading off to Annapolis.
"When I first saw him, I said, 'You've got to play football,' " Kaheaku-Enhada said. "When you saw his uniform, you saw all the ribbons, and it's like, 'Whoa, he's a prior-enlisted dude.' It kind of takes you back that there are guys out there [in the military] that big."
The transition to a new sport didn't exactly go smoothly for Gossard.
"The first day we had practice at prep school, [guard] Anthony Gaskins was helping me get my pads and my pants on, saying, 'This goes here and that goes there,' " Gossard said, smiling at the memory.
His four years in Annapolis haven't been easy for other reasons.
The hardest time was during his freshman year. After a practice in early November, Gossard was told that his father, Sam, had passed away suddenly at age 53. Again, he went home, but he eventually returned to the academy.
"I was home for about 2 1/2 weeks, to be there where I could for my mom and my younger sister," said Gossard, the oldest of three siblings. "It's been tough since I've been here. I feel really removed from my family, but they understand and I've come to grips with this. It is something I've got to do for myself."
Gossard credits his teammates with keeping him at the academy playing football. Recently promoted to second string, Gossard has started getting regular time when the Midshipmen have gone to their "Jumbo" package, as they did toward the end of their come-from-behind victory over Temple on Nov. 1.
"I'm just happy that after the time I've put in, the hard work has paid off," he said. "I understand that my role on the team is to help us win. I'm happy to fit in where I can."
Ken Niumatalolo, who coached the offensive line before becoming Navy's head coach last December, appreciates what Gossard means to the Midshipmen.
"He's a guy with the voice who can come back and tell guys what it's actually like in the military," Niumatalolo said. "The kids look up to him. Even though he hasn't played much, he's one of the great leaders on the team."
Said Kaheaku-Enhada: "He brings a lot, not only to the football team, but to the academy in general, a prior-enlist who's going to come out an officer. He knows both worlds. It's an amazing story."
NAVY (6-4) @NORTHERN ILLINOIS (6-5)
Tuesday, 7:45 p.m.
TV: ESPN Classic
Radio: 1090 AM