James Halford’s grandfather doesn’t talk about World War II often. James can only remember one time his grandfather spoke about his experiences.
“All he said was one second he looked over and saw his best friend next to him, then the next second his friend was dead,” James said.
James, a walk-on linebacker for IU football, grew up in a military home in northern Chicago suburb of Mundelein, where he would traipse around his house with a little green military cap on his head and an oversized military jacket that belonged to his grandfather.
His father and several uncles served in the Marine Corps, and his brother, Joe, serves in the Army now.
“He always had a G.I. Joe,” said James’ mother, Lisa. “Starting in elementary school, he wanted to be in the military.”
That dream became a reality in 2010, as the boy who wore his grandfather’s jacket in elementary school chose to earn his own in the Marines.
“It was heartbreaking when he left,” Lisa said. “We’re such a close family, and with all these wars going on, you just don’t know what could happen.”
Now on Individual Ready Reserve, James served four years as a Marine, training in southern California. He was stationed along the Asian Pacific Coast. Now, he’s enrolled in his first semester at IU and has found a role on IU football’s scout team as a 26-year-old walk-on.
“Everyone was really receptive here,” James said. “They told me that based on my numbers it seemed like I had a shot, so I just told them that I’d apply to IU and come here.”
James had contacted other Big Ten schools about trying out and got no replies, but IU Assistant Athletic Director for Alumni Relations Mark Deal replied in 2012, and the two maintained contact for two years while James was overseas.
James left active duty Aug. 1 after serving for four years and immediately made his way to Bloomington to practice and try out with 15 other athletes. After tryouts, he had earned a spot at linebacker.
“These guys can hit pretty hard,” James said. “I remember the first practice with Clyde Newton. He loosened my chinstrap, and I was like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be interesting.’”
James made the team and began pursuing a degree in secondary education this fall.
As a walk-on, James’ role is limited to the scout team, where he acts as the opponent in practice to prepare the starters for each game.
“A lot of these guys have been playing since they were seven years old, so everyone on this team knows what they’re doing,” James said.
James, on the other hand, quit football after his freshman year of high school. He hadn’t strapped on his pads in 11 years.
Groups of Marines marched through the mountains of southern California in the smoldering heat to train for their first deployment. All of them were wearing body armor and carrying at least 160 pounds of equipment, which included military-grade weapons and stuffed backpacks.
It was the 23-mile movement.
“There was no food or water,” James said. “Guys were collapsing one-by-one from heat exhaustion. That’s one thing that I’ll always remember for the rest of my life.”
About 15 miles into the march, Calvin Poling, a Marine from Minnesota, twisted his ankle and fell to the ground.
James hurried over to the 18-year-old, helped him to his feet and carried his pack for three or four miles until Poling had recuperated.
“The guy’s an animal,” Poling said. “He’s the most loyal person I’ve ever met. He’s one of those guys that’s always been a real stand-up and always has your back.”
James and Poling quickly became friends at Camp Pendleton, where they bunked together in the Infantry Training Battalion.
On their first deployment to Okinawa, Japan, James told Poling he was thinking about walking on to a college football team when he got out of the military.
James began to watch videos online of Nate Boyer, a fifth-year senior long snapper at Texas, who had served as a Green Beret and then found a spot on the Longhorns’ offensive line.
Poling never doubted that James could make a football team.
He said James would lift more than anybody in the platoon. Poling said James got his weight up to 240 pounds and could squat up to 600 pounds at one point. Without any lifting equipment, the platoon would use bars with backpacks attached to them for weights.
“I remember when he got in contact with IU and they said they’d give him a shot,” Poling said. “He kicked in my door at 4 a.m. freaking out, screaming, ‘I got a try out!’”
James was in Southeast Asia in late 2012 when his brother, Ryan, rushed his mother to the hospital in Mundelein, Illinois. Lisa was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare disease in the spinal cord that targets cellular fibers of the central nervous system.
“Over a period of four days, I went from feeling healthy and normal to nearly completely paralyzed from the shoulders down,” Lisa said. “It started in my back and worked its way down to the point where I could barely move.”
Doctors told her one-third of patients recover with mild traces of paralysis and, if she didn’t die, she would never walk again.
“There was one night where I thought I was going to die,” Lisa said. “I had a little bit of movement in my fingers so I tried to text my kids goodbye, but I couldn’t move my fingers enough.”
James hadn’t had contact with home for a month or two when he called home one night and heard the news about his mother. With no way to get home, the Marine’s stayed with his platoon.
There wasn’t any part of him that wanted to stay, but he felt a loyalty to his fellow soldiers, James said.
Poling said James had a rough time with the news and he was not in a good place emotionally, but James took out his frustration by lifting weights. When the rest of his group was sleeping, James was up lifting.
“It was better than him getting into drinking or drugs, which could have been a possibility for anybody in his position,” Poling said.
James kept his eyes set on making a Division I college football team, with his mother’s serving as inspiration from thousands of miles away.
Now she is running on her own after three years of recovery, which James said he thought was a miracle.
Lisa said while she served as his inspiration, he served as hers and she knew if he committed himself to making a Big Ten football team, then he was going to do just that.
James’ platoon was stationed in Thailand, and he and his fellow soldiers were eating lunch in the mess hall. Blueberry cobbler was for dessert.
“It tasted like paste, and nobody wanted it,” Poling said. “So we piled it all up — it was like 4 pounds of this stuff — and we dared James to eat it in a minute.”
While everyone taunted him and told him that he couldn’t eat it, James got started.
“He got damn close,” Poling said. “After a minute, he stood up — and this stuff is just all over him — and he turned around and just puked for 10 minutes. I’d never laughed so hard in my life.”
That’s what Poling said he loves the most about James: he never turns down a challenge.
After four years of service and two deployments overseas — a total of 14 months outside the United States — James said the closest he got to combat was being packed to head off to Afghanistan before the mission was aborted.
“There’s a lot of times I’ll come home and just say I’m a construction worker instead of being a Marine because everyone wants to ask you those questions, and I feel like it’s service for a reason,” James said. “You serve to serve the country, not to get attention.”
He said his grandfather’s experiences changed him as a person, and basking in undeserved attention would shame him and other Marines who fought in battle.
James said he feels like he fits in on the team, though, even as an older student-athlete.
He even compared it to his old platoon.
“These guys like to lift weights and hit people,” James said, “and that’s where I’ve fit in for the last half decade.”
This article was written by Taylor Lehman from Indiana University / Indiana Daily Student and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.