Pressing on after duty calls

(Photo: Julio Cortez, Houston Chronicle) Nathan Potts returned to coach football after leaving the game to serve in the military

After 9/11, Nathan Potts interrupted his coaching career to join the Army. Now, injuries suffered in Iraq can’t keep the Shepherd assistant off the field

By Jenny Dial at the Houston Chronicle

SHEPHERD — When his players complain about practice, Nathan Potts tells them about his 365 straight days of Army training.

When they complain about the heat, the Shepherd middle school and high school football coach tells them about sitting outside in Baghdad when the thermometer read 130 degrees in the shade.

When one of them is injured and thinks his playing days are over, Potts simply looks down at his prosthetic leg — the one that replaced the leg he once used to kick field goals and extra points. It’s what helps Potts stand on a football field, something he doubted he would do again.

Potts was on track to become a head football coach when he dropped everything to join the U.S. Army. Now, with a new outlook and some life-changing injuries, he is back on the field.

Potts, a decorated veteran, was coaching at Fort Worth Dunbar under current Shepherd football coach Bob Jones on Sept. 11, 2001. That day struck a chord in Potts.

“I had always thought about joining the Army,” said Potts, whose father and grandfather were in the service. “But I went to college to play football, then went on to coach and it just never seemed to be the right time.”

After Sept. 11, he knew the time had come. He finished the year at Dunbar and enlisted. At 28, he was one of the oldest soldiers in basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.

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During his training, Potts became a medic. He went to Baghdad on Dec. 29, 2004. Almost a year later on Dec. 14, 2005 — two weeks before he was to return to the States — Potts and his group were patrolling “Route Irish” in Baghdad, the deadliest highway in the world at the time. The soldiers’ vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. No one was injured, but they searched the area on foot after the small explosion.

Potts, a sergeant, was leading a line of soldiers near what looked like a cement flower bed. A secondary explosive device inside the cement box went off when Potts was about five feet from it. In the explosion, he suffered a traumatic brain injury, lost flesh from his right leg, broke his left hip, lost skin from his right arm, broke the middle finger on his right hand and lost a tooth.

“At the time, I was most upset about my tooth,” he said. “Adrenaline kicked in and I didn’t really feel a lot of pain. I felt my hip, and I wanted water because there was dirt and blood in my mouth.”

The long road back

The other soldiers acted fast, and within 30 minutes, Potts was in a U.S. Military hospital in Baghdad. He was put into a medically induced coma and underwent several surgeries.

He doesn’t remember anything until Christmas.

“I woke up and I was alive,” he said. “I knew I could have died, but they took good care of me and got me help quick.”

Potts was moved to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and put on temporary retirement because of his brain injury. He already had his middle finger amputated and several surgeries on his arm and hip. Doctors were still trying to save his right leg, which only had two functioning arteries remaining. When one of those failed, the decision was left to Potts whether to try to keep his leg. He had it removed Jan. 17, 2006.

Potts remained at Walter Reed until November before he moved to a rural area in southeastern Oklahoma with his wife Ginger and two kids, Brocke and Brooke.

“When we moved back, I went back to school at East Central University for my masters thinking I would go on and get an administrative job at a school somewhere,” Potts said. “I missed coaching football and wanted to go back to that, but I really didn’t know if I could.”

So Potts decided to return to football. He searched for jobs in Oklahoma and north Texas without luck.

“No one said they didn’t want me because of my injuries, but I felt like that was a big drawback,” he said.

Jones told Potts he could come to Shepherd, located about 50 northeast of Houston, and be in charge of the middle school football program and help out with the high school team. Even though it was farther from his home in Oklahoma, Potts moved July 15. His family came a month later.

Potts’ move was a struggle at first. He said he had been the kind of coach who showed his team what to do. Now he has to explain more since he is limited physically. But because of his time in the Army, he is more organized and disciplined in his coaching strategies.

“Everything needs to be done right, the locker room needs to be organized and clean,” he said. “Perfect practice makes perfect so we are repetitive and do things the right way.”

Jones said Potts came back to coaching with a new sense of maturity.

“He was mature before, at Dunbar, but I see more patience in him,” Jones said. “I think his experiences have made him a better coach.”

Potts still has his jersey hanging in his office from his playing days at Northeastern (Okla.) State where, as a kicker, he helped his team win an NAIA national championship in 1994. He also has his Purple Heart and Bronze Star certificates in the office. He is happy to talk about any of those experiences with his players.

“He told us how he lost his leg,” eighth grader Stephen Kolek said. “It’s inspiring that he has been through so much and he is out here coaching us. We can learn a lot from him.”

No more war for him

Potts is happy to teach it. Some things are tough for him now. He can’t stand to be around fireworks and says he will never watch a war movie or play a war-inspired video game. He has to remove his prosthetic leg a couple of times a day. And he has to watch his son learn how to play football without running around with him. Those things are hard, but Potts would do it all over again.

“I learned a lot, saw some things and gained some perspective over there,” he said. “I feel very lucky to live here, and I have a big appreciation for all the people who make big sacrifices so we can live this way in this country. It’s special that our kids can go to school and play football. Some places you can’t even do that.”

The players, who have only been around Potts for a month, say they have already learned a lot from the coach.

“He is really cool because he doesn’t act like he is missing a leg or that he has been hurt. He is a really good coach to us,” eighth grader Trevor Collins said. “But we know that he went to Iraq and he is a hero, too.”

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