He recognized the emotions wrestling in his gut.
Nerves and pride. Fear and exhilaration.
Reminded him of the Husker locker room prior to kickoffs.
But this was seven years after Dion Booker's last tunnel walk, 2008. He was a man now, almost 30. The stakes were higher than national championships.
He had just come from San Diego, where on the banks of Mission Bay he made a solemn vow — “I do.”
Now he was sitting in an Omaha military center with nothing but toiletries in his travel bag.
He looked at his pregnant wife and daughter. He squeezed their hands in silence.
When he was growing up, Booker's father inspected his bedroom with a white glove. Examine him now.
See the failed tryouts and reckless mortgages. See the days when Dion was so down he barely left the bedroom. See him looking for a way out of his brother's shadow. Some dirt is hard to scrub.
Time to go.
Take a short walk into a large room, line up next to teenagers and face the flag. Raise your right hand:
“I, Myreon Booker, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
Three years later, he was toting an M4 rifle through the mountains of Afghanistan.
* * *
Nebraska was going to win the 1999 Big 12 championship, that was certain.
But the Blackshirts had dominated Texas all night. Why give up a charity touchdown on the last drive?
Major Applewhite dropped back, eluded a blitzer and threw into the end zone. Nebraska's sophomore free safety grabbed the deflected pass. Interception.
Dion Booker started 21 games in a Husker uniform, the last coming up the road from his hometown, in the Rose Bowl.
He expected to play in the NFL, like his brother, Michael. But Dion didn't hear his name during the 2002 draft.
He signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He injured his groin during preseason and got cut.
He tried out for an arena team in New York, but hurt his calf. He tried out for a team in Peoria. Groin again.
Booker temporarily put football on the shelf. He went to work as a mortgage broker.
He liked helping people realize a dream. He liked the pressure of a commission-based job. He liked the feel of a big sale.
For four years, Dion wore a business suit. But something rubbed him wrong. Increasingly, his customers qualified for loans, but they were signing mortgages they couldn't afford.
“It just didn't sit well with me. It got to be more about someone signing on the dotted line than doing what's best for them.”
At the time, Booker may have been the toughest mortgage broker in Texas. One day online, he saw an ad: The Calgary Stampeders were holding an open tryout in Southern California.
Calgary coaches had expressed interest in him a few years earlier. This could be his chance.
He found the black Adidas cleats he'd worn at the Rose Bowl. He bought a plane ticket.
The coaches measured Booker's height and weight. He ran the 40. He participated in 7-on-7 drills. He played well.
He flew back to Texas, waited a day or two, then sent the coaches an email.
The reply was short: Sorry, Calgary was going a different direction.
* * *
Myreon “Dion” Booker was born at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
His father was a career Marine who demanded that his children respect camouflage and curfew. Michael and Dion grew up at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. The yard was pristine, the bed sheets precise, the showers limited to two minutes. One of their father's favorite phrases was “Police the area.”
“When he walked in the room, you said ‘Hi' and left,” Dion said.
In ninth grade, Dion bruised his meniscus. The doctor told him to stay off his feet for a week. Two days later, he was watching TV when his dad stormed in and yelled at him. It won't heal with you sitting there!
Dion didn't understand his father. “This is what I won't be,” he thought.
He had already decided his future.
At El Camino High School, Dion developed into a highly recruited athlete — they called him “Primetime.”
Meanwhile, Michael was becoming a star cornerback at Nebraska. He returned an interception for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl. He won two national championships.
Faced with a decision to come to Nebraska or set his own course, Dion did what felt natural.
He followed Michael.
* * *
Their sibling rivalry has always been unspoken, but unequivocal.
It reignited about five years ago in Dallas, where Dion found a home in Michael's spare bedroom. Big brother was printing apparel, little brother was still wearing suits and selling mortgages.
One day, they played 1-on-1 at the gym, like old times. If Michael remembers right, he conceded after Dion busted his lip.
“It was like two big elephants banging back and forth on each other,” Michael said. “It's terrible to watch.”
Sometimes they stayed up all night, connecting in a way they hadn't since childhood. They were both struggling for direction. They leaned on each other.
But Dion didn't tell Michael everything.
He didn't tell him that after the Calgary tryout, he cursed the world. He cried. This on-again, off-again pursuit of professional football — something he'd dreamed about for 15 years — had drained him emotionally.
“At times, I just felt like there wasn't any purpose to get out of bed,” Dion said. “Being depressed, it's hard to get out of that. You've got to find something good to hold onto.”
Dion had career options. Police department. Border patrol. He could stick to mortgages. Without Michael's knowledge, Dion was also looking into the military.
He missed adventure and camaraderie. He missed travel and training.
He wanted a sense of purpose. He wanted to lead.
There was something else, though. Something that motivated him to take a risk.
He would do anything for his big brother — anything. But he was tired of comparisons to Michael. Tired of chasing Michael's accomplishments. Tired of feeling inferior.
In the back of his mind, Dion said, enlisting was his way of making a statement.
“I'm not Michael Booker, I am Dion Booker. And I choose to be in the Army and serve and risk my life. ...
“This is my own path.”
* * *
On Jan. 11, 2011, 1st Lt. Dion Booker deployed to southern Afghanistan.
For one year, he led a platoon of 15 soldiers. His mission: coordinate support for a special forces unit as members train Afghan police, border patrol and soldiers.
Some days the job was mundane. Some days bullets were flying and bombs were exploding like fireworks. When an IED goes off, Booker said, “you check to make sure you have all your body parts.”
More than once, he attended a rampside ceremony for a fallen soldier.
“It slaps you like a pile of bricks. This is someone yesterday you were laughing and joking with and today, he's going home to his loved ones.”
Booker stayed out of firefights, and every member of his battalion returned home; a few earned Purple Hearts.
He celebrated when the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. But his best memories were the occasional barbecues, the nights when it felt like he was building a new family.
Sometimes he missed his old one. He got worn down.
But he found that he could handle the pressure. He could block out distractions and focus. He credits his football experience at Nebraska.
There's something else, though.
“My upbringing really helped me because it got me away from being an emotional person. Sometimes in the heat of battle, especially in Afghanistan when it got really hot, you've got to put emotion to the side and just deal with tactics.”
Sometimes his soldiers wanted to take an easy way out. Booker took a hard line.
“Guys may not like it, but who cares?” he said. “Lives were at stake. This is what needs to happen.”
When he was young, his father often used a big word that Dion didn't understand. He preached it over and over. It meant raising your hand when a job needs to be done.
On his living room wall — next to his Blackshirt picture — Booker keeps a photo from Officer Candidate School graduation. His mother is pinning his rank to his right shoulder. On his left shoulder, his dad is doing the same.
* * *
Three-hundred fifty-one days after deployment, Booker landed in Topeka, Kan.
He came home to Jessie and his two daughters. Savored a Sam Adams and an Omaha Steak. Celebrated Christmas, New Year's and his 33rd birthday — all in the first week.
Adapting to a house full of girls wasn't easy — occasionally, Booker barks orders and his kids start crying. “Daddy's being mean!”
“You've got to build those relationships again,” he said. “It takes time.”
The family isn't thrilled with Fort Riley — they wanted something more exotic — but there is one perk.
In April, Booker saw old teammates on Nebraska's spring game weekend. Two weeks later, he visited Cherry County — Jessie's home — to help brand cattle.
“This is not what city slickers do,” he said.
It's been 10 years now since he played a real down of football. Sometimes he watches a game and still thinks, “Oh, I could do that.” Last fall, he watched the Nebraska-Northwestern game on the Internet.
“The computer almost got broke that night.”
Booker has settled into his new job at Fort Riley — he coordinates brigade transportation. In October, he'll receive a promotion to captain. Next year, he may return to Afghanistan, where the football fields are few and far between.
There is one — at the Kandahar air base.
In December, Booker's platoon won a three-day flag football tournament on the artificial turf.
The old Blackshirt found a new position.
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