It’s just another Tuesday night, but for a group of combat veterans and former professional athletes from around the country it’s an opportunity to open up about their transitions once their respective uniforms come off.
For around an hour, the mix of ex-military and former players join a virtual call to get in a short workout and offer each other peer-to-peer support while candidly sharing intimate, often heavy anecdotes about their personal journeys.
For former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk Nate Boyer, who helped found the group — called Merging Vets and Players — with FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer back in 2015, it has been nothing short of life saving.
“It’s very organic and open and authentic,” Boyer said in an interview with Military Times. “It’s a place where vulnerability is encouraged but at the same time it’s a safe place. We’re sort of heroes to each other.”
The MVP group is not looking to compare a battlefield to a ball field, but the similar challenges that come with rejoining civilian life offer everyone, at either the virtual sessions or one of the eight physical chapters across the nation, a shared sense of belonging.
The powerful and meaningful work of the organization helped inspire Boyer to write, direct, co-produce and co-star in a new film, also called MVP, that showcases a fictionalized version of the genesis of his veterans service group.
The 112-minute film follows a former Marine (played by Boyer) living in a homeless shelter on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. There, he meets a former NFL player (played by Mo McRae) in his first year out of the league who is likewise struggling to find a new sense of purpose.
“They’re going through the exact same thing,” Boyer said. “That same issue of feeling like, ‘I could have done more. I left people behind. I don’t belong. I peaked, and I’ll never be great again.’”
The authenticity piece was especially important for Boyer, who shared that every one of the vets in the scripted film is portrayed by an actual vet. Many more worked behind the scenes.
The film is executively produced by none other than Sylvester Stallone, and after opening in theaters on Sept. 14 it is now available on Amazon Prime Video as well as other streaming platforms.
For his role in the film, Boyer drew from his own experience of making several transitions through new highs and lows.
Born in Tennessee, and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Boyer joined the Army in 2005 after a stint doing relief work in Sudan. He joined the Special Forces the following year. In April 2008, he was deployed to Iraq with Operational Detachment Alpha 0324, 10th Special Forces Group, serving there until Jan. 2009.
After leaving active duty, Boyer enrolled at the University of Texas and joined the Longhorn football team, playing as a long snapper. During his breaks from school, he served tours in Afghanistan from April-Aug. 2013 — as a member of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan — and again from April-Aug. 2014, this time with ODA 3116, 3rd Special Forces Group. He also participated in various training missions around the world, including one in Israel in 2009, another in Bulgaria in 2011 and one in Greece in 2012.
When his college sports career ended, Boyer embarked on his next with the Seattle Seahawks, but that too would not last forever. Boyer was cut by the Seahawks in Sept. 2015, just seven months after he left the military.
Just like that, Boyer went from having two uniforms and a reason to be somewhere every day to having none.
“MVP the organization, even though I was a co-founder of it, I was a member first,” he said. “It helped save me.”
Through his organization and now through the film, Boyer is hoping to inspire lasting conversations among everyone, not just vets and retired athletes, about self-belief and finding community.
“We all want to feel like we belong,” Boyer said.
“I want people that go and see this film ... to not only learn more about MVP, but to understand, ‘I never went to war, I never played pro sports, but I actually understand all those feelings those people are talking about.’”
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media