Sports

He spent five years in the Army. Now he’s 28 and wants to be a kicker at Wake Forest.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson looks on during practice on Aug. 1. Eric Osteen is one of four kickers competing for a job on Clawson’s team.
Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson looks on during practice on Aug. 1. Eric Osteen is one of four kickers competing for a job on Clawson’s team. AP

Eric Osteen is on a mission. Several missions, actually.

He left the Army in May after five years of active service, most recently as a Signal Corps captain, and is adjusting to civilian life. He’s newly acquired a house with his wife, Erin, an anesthesiology resident at Wake Forest Baptist hospital. The couple expects their first child in January. Osteen additionally is enrolled in a two-year MBA program at Wake, paying his own way.

“It’s an exciting time. I have a lot going on, but that’s how I like it,” says the 28-year-old graduate of West Point.

Osteen also successfully petitioned the NCAA for a fourth year of eligibility, qualifying him to join the Wake Forest football squad as a walk-on graduate student. He’s competing with four others for kicking chores. “He just kind of dropped in our lap,” Wake coach Dave Clawson, who turns 51 this week, told Demon Deacon Digest in July. “He’s probably more mature than I am, which isn’t saying much.”

Military veterans were scattered throughout football in the mid-20th century, but are rare today. Osteen is the 10th man since 1957 to play the sport at Wake after serving in the military but the first since the early 1970s.

Osteen mostly handled kickoffs for Army, registering 39 touchbacks in 110 attempts. That was teeing off from the 30-yard line; now it’s the 35. He also made three of four field goals during his final season, all but one against archrival Navy.

“I thought I was taking the pads off for the last time in 2012,” says the square-jawed product of Augusta, Ga. “Who doesn’t look back to a certain point in time and say, “Hey, I’d like to do that again and see what we can do?’ Well, I got that opportunity so I definitely intend to make the most of it.”

Osteen finds much in common with Casey Carroll, a Duke lacrosse player who served in the Army Rangers, then returned to school in 2014 as a grad student and expended his final year of eligibility. Carroll believes veterans “are confident people who understand they’ve done something that has given them a special set of raw skills.” He returned to college intent on “harness(ing) the experience that I’d gained” on the playing field, he says.

That resonates with Osteen, eager to get back into harness. He’s not as limber as in the past; entering preseason practice he took 30 minutes to warm up to kick versus five as an undergrad. He also notes “it’s been awhile since I kicked over a 6-6, 300-pound lineman.” But the 6-1 Osteen is more enthusiastic about workouts and being part of a team than he ever was.

He gave much thought to playing football while in the Army, doing casual kicking and appropriate exercises. “Now I’m in the moment,” he says. “Now I’m going to lifts and running, and I absolutely love it. I have a different perspective. I know what it’s like to be apart from this now. You come back and you see the brotherhood, the bond that these guys have. You want to be out there with them. I absolutely love it, and I can’t tell you anything else.”

That focus on team and, most especially, on the qualities of leadership continues to enthrall Osteen. (No relation to lefty Claude Osteen, who pitched in the majors from 1957-75.) At the U.S. Military Academy Osteen studied “how to be an influential leader in different kinds of ways.” He fondly recalls annual speeches over dinner by a distinguished former Black Knights athlete and alum, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who refers to his West Point experience as his introduction to the art of leadership.

As a cadet Osteen also learned how to operate on minimal sleep and to study with minimal time. He saw how white his scalp was beneath his thick, dark hair following a severe introductory haircut; absorbed how being on time meant being early; and experienced a special thrill each morning as he saluted the American flag before running four or five miles up and down Hudson Valley hills. And he mulled the topic of leadership daily even as he “prepared for war,” as he puts it blandly.

Leadership still occupies his thoughts now that his uniform is a football player’s and he’s part of another closeknit, regimented unit with common goals.

He immediately contemplated how best to fit in upon arrival at Wake. “What are the things that drive success, what are the things that make you accountable? What’s the mission?” he challenged himself. “What words can I put on to describe how I can link that to my leadership so I can link that to success?”

While Duke’s Carroll was deployed in battle-battered Iraq and Afghanistan, Osteen was stationed in Georgia and dispatched to participate in relief efforts for floods and for hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Matthew. Osteen had mixed feelings about escaping the dangers of combat but assiduously avoided dwelling on the subject, lest it affect his comportment.

“If I would have felt that way, I think that it could have influenced the way that I led,” he says. “If I have that attitude, my posture’s going to be different, the way I look at you is going to be different, the way I talk is going to be different.”

These days Osteen aims to bolster the Demon Deacons’ chances to win. Should he fail to emerge in a major kicking role, precedent and training indicate he’ll shift immediately to other tasks necessary to support his team.

“What better example of leadership than a guy who’s been captain in the U.S. Army?” asked Clawson, answering his own question.

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