Robert Waggoner is not your conventional college goalkeeper.
At 37 years-old and a Marine Corps veteran of the War on Terror, he is now a unique reserve keeper on the men's soccer team at West Virginia Wesleyan. Amazingly, he has made the move to be a college student-athlete at a time when many men are moving into their middle age.
"I have already had a lot of experiences in life many have not...both the good and bad," Waggoner said. "At this point, I am focusing on my academics and moving into the next chapter of my life."
For Waggoner, several big chapters have already been written.
He was a standout young athlete at Charleroi High School in Pennsylvania. He was a three-year starter on the soccer team, played high school basketball and was a standout long sprinter in track, specializing in the 400 and 800-meter races.His personal best was a 1:53 in the 800 and anchored some highly successful 4x400 and 4x800 relay teams for Charleroi.
After graduating from Charleroi in 1998, he joined the Marine Corps and would remain active for a little more than 11 years. He would rise to the rank of E-7 Gunnery Sergeant and served five tours in Iraq for the Corps.
"I was with the initial invasion in 2003, and I was sent back pretty much every year through 2008," Waggoner said.
His life and military career changed after becoming injured in action in 2008. He was on patrol in the Iraqi town of Kirkuk when the incident happened.
"I was on patrol and went up on the roof to get a better view of the activity in the area. While I was in that position, the enemy ambushed our unit, and the building received several hits," Waggoner said. "I was thrown from the roof. I suffered a broken back, and my pelvis was crushed.
His recovery began with a series of surgeries, including a rod being inserted to fuse his pelvis back together. His lower back was also surgically repaired, but he gradually began to regain some mobility.
Waggoner had intentions of returning to his unit and continuing his military career, but his health prevented this comeback. In late 2009, his military career was over.
"I tried, but I just couldn't do the things I used to do. I did the best I could to get back into the fitness level required, but I could no longer pass the Marine Corps Fitness Test," Waggoner said. "I went before the Medical Board, and it was jointly decided that I go the route of a Medical Discharge."
Waggoner was honored with two Purple Hearts and one Bronze Star with the "V" device (for Valor). He was part of a heroic group that is fighting a unique enemy in our history, and the former star athlete had given a great sacrifice.
Like many veterans, especially those with a disability, he found re-integration into society difficult. He spent two years driving a truck and enjoyed the life of transporting products.
"I got to see a lot of places, but my back just could not handle it," Waggoner said.
In 2012, he had to return to the operating table as he ruptured a disc in the lower back. It was during this portion of his rehab that more fusion was needed for his repaired pelvis. Disabled and not working, he moved to Jane Lew, W. Va. where his mom had relocated with her side of the family.
"At that point, I needed a plan to move on in the next part of my life," Waggoner said.
He applied to West Virginia Wesleyan and enrolled as an applied physics major. He is intending to receive an undergraduate degree at Wesleyan then attend WVU to eventually obtain a Masters in mechanical engineering.
But, the academics is only part of the story. Waggoner is now a college athlete.
"From the time I was four until I was 18, I was involved in athletics year round," Waggoner said. "Then, I went into the military. Until I was injured, I had always been on the go. Before I came to Wesleyan, my weight had gotten up to over 300 pounds. I began to work out again and got back down to around 250. It may have been a long shot, but I decided I wanted to play college soccer."
Waggoner went into the office of long-time Wesleyan soccer coach Gavin Donaldson and expressed his interest. Donaldson, was on board with letting him join the team, and he was added to the roster as a goalie on the program's reserve team.
"He is a neat guy to have around," Donaldson said. "I have a lot of respect for what he is doing and for the work he is putting in for us, and for the work he is putting in academically."
"I really try to, but my body won't let me do a lot of things now...when I am running with the guys, their jogging pace is my surge pace," Waggoner said. "I am on the reserve team, and hopefully, it can work out for me to get in goal for them at some point, but if it doesn't, I have really enjoyed working with a team and being around the guys."
"What he is doing is a real inspiration," Donaldson said.