Don't let his youthful face fool you. Jake Skinner's the old man on the Robert Morris football team, and there are times when he feels his age.
Six years off from football builds layers of rust that takes dozens of practices to jar loose. The leap from high school football to a pro-style defense can overwhelm even the sharpest freshman, let alone someone who has been away for a half dozen years. There are times when Skinner needs help, when he needs defensive coordinator Scott Farison to go over the calls one more time or seniors Kyle Cooper and Mike Cook to show how they handle the defense. It would frustrate some, perhaps even to the point where they'd hang up the cleats for good.
Not if you're Skinner. Not after deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Not after you've undergone six months of rehab to regain your balance after an explosion rocked your vehicle. Because if you're Jake Skinner and just about to turn 25, as complex as the defense is, as hard as two-a-day practices are on the body, being back on the football field makes you feel like a kid again.
Skinner played linebacker and tight end at East Allegheny High School in North Versaille, Pennsylvania. When he graduated in the spring of 2007, he eyed Glenville State, a Division II school in West Virginia, as his potential new home for football and academics. But he had reservations about going to off to college right away.
"I thought I was a little immature for school," Skinner said.
Skinner's father was a Marine and shared his experiences with Jake, who gravitated toward the idea of enlisting, maturing, and using the G.I. Bill to pay for college afterward.
"There's four of us," Skinner said. "I never wanted to burden my parents with debt for school."
Three days after his 18th birthday, Skinner enlisted in the Marines. Stationed at Camp Lejune in North Carolina, Skinner became a combat engineer. Mobility is vital in modern warfare, and combat engineers help with construction of bridges, destruction of enemy obstacles, and route clearance. In Afghanistan and Iraq, route clearance almost always means searching and clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), perhaps the most hazardous element facing troops.
Combat engineers are also trained infantrymen. In Skinner's first deployment to Iraq, he was attached to the military police, searching vehicles and houses for enemy combatants and information.
"My first deployment to Iraq wasn't that bad," Skinner said. "But my deployment to Afghanistan, we did a lot. We got involved in a lot of firefights and found a lot of IEDs."
If not for modern technology, one of those IEDs might have killed him.
In February 2010, 15,000 American, British and Afghan troops launched the largest joint offensive in the War in Afghanistan in the town of Marja, a Taliban stronghold. Skinner was attached to the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines as part of a route clearance team, using metal detectors to search for and eliminate IEDs and clear out weapons caches. IEDs are the most challenging component of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as they wreak havoc on Humvees and other troop transports. The U.S. military pushed for revisions to mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) to handle the rocky terrain in Afghanistan.
"They're a lot more upgraded than the Humvees," Skinner said. "They can take more of a blast."
The MRAPs have an excellent success rate against IEDs, but anyone partially exposed to the elements - such as the turret gunner on top of the vehicle - is more at risk. Skinner was in the gun when his truck was hit in Afghanistan.
"I remember waking up in the back of the truck and my platoon commander was over top of me, and I could tell he was screaming and yelling my name," Skinner said. "But it was real muffled."
Skinner faded in and out of consciousness as a medevac arrived to take him to Camp Bastion, a British base with a hospital for coalition forces.
"I thought I was in Germany," Skinner recalled. "I was afraid to look at my extremities. I didn't know what was wrong with me."
Skinner was diagnosed with a concussion, broken nose, broken hand and a ruptured ear drum that caused some hearing loss in his left ear. He was awarded the Purple Heart, and even with his injuries, Skinner can be considered lucky.
"If that blast that hit my truck would have gone off on a Humvee," he said, "it probably would have killed everyone in it."
Skinner underwent six months of rehab, as the ruptured ear drum disrupted his equilibrium so much that he needed balance and vestibular therapy. Headaches lingered for months afterward, but he made a full recovery while on active duty and went back into service.
The adjustment to home life after being discharged is often the most difficult challenge members of the military face. Skinner spent time at the home base in Camp Lejune as an instructor, but it still didn't feel right until he was back in Pennsylvania.
"They put you out there and they tell you that you're 100 percent 'go' 24/7. If you get complacent, that's when something happens," he said. "I really didn't feel right until I got home and moved back to Pittsburgh.
On May 1, 2011, Skinner was discharged from the Marine Corps after four years of service. It was the same day U.S. Navy SEALs captured and killed Osama bin Laden.
"It was cool, because even though I had nothing to do with that, my two deployments may have played some part in it," Skinner said.
Skinner checked out multiple schools but decided to enroll at Robert Morris. He credited retired Brigadier General Daniel Rota, the school's director of veterans education and training services, as well as Heather Jericho, the school's certifying official, for their help and guidance.
"They helped me out with everything," Skinner said. "I probably wouldn't have picked Robert Morris if it wasn't for the veterans program."
Throughout his service, he thought of playing football again. But his return to the field would have to wait.
"My head wasn't in the game when I first got back. I was still having problems sleeping right at night, eating right," Skinner said. "I originally wanted to walk on my first year here, but my girlfriend got pregnant at the time so it wasn't a good time."
In the aftermath of his discharge from the Marines, Skinner needed an outlet. He tried boxing to get his competitive fix, but it wasn't enough.
"I just needed something," Skinner said. "I don't know if it's how I am as a person, or if it's the Marine in me, but I just needed to compete. I needed to stay sharp."
With his daughter older and his weight up, Skinner approached the coaching staff about walking on.
"It took a little bit for him to get back," Farison said. "Spring was good for him, and now he's out there competing. I think it's been a good thing for him. The military has that family feel in the trenches with your brothers, and he probably kind of missed it a bit. We're able to kind of provide that a bit for him here."
Skinner took classes online while he was enlisted and is technically a senior. But he has a year left on the G.I. Bill and might pursue an MBA program next year. If he does, he hopes to play another season.
His teammates are now his brothers, especially his fellow linebackers. Recent graduates Brad Banas and Sanchez Faugue helped him get stronger in the offseason - he's now up to around 200 pounds after being down to 170 upon leaving the Marines. He and Cook have developed a close friendship, and the middle linebacker has helped Skinner adjust to the complex playbook. His hope is that maybe - just maybe - he can contribute in some way as the old man on a conference title contender.
"I love these guys. They make me feel like I'm 18 years old again," he said. "Honestly, this is the closest I've got to a brotherhood since being a Marine. This is one of the best choices I've ever made in my life."
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.