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Saturday, May 20, 2006

In the neutral zone

Jayhawks' McCoy transitions back to civilian life

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It's human nature. You meet a soldier back from Iraq and you want to ask him what it was like. You want him to share the horror stories, weigh in with his views on whether the war is justified, break it all down as if it were a football game, with a score and a storyline filled with stars and goats.

You want to ask all that, but if you have an ounce of sensitivity in you, you just can't bring yourself to do so.

Army reservist John McCoy, back from a deployment of longer than one year in Iraq, is a student-athlete again for Kansas University after missing two seasons. A football player he is. A political football he is not. He said he does not wish to talk anymore about his time "over there," because he said he does not want to give conversation fodder to anyone with an agenda.

To talk with him for a half-hour is to sense his reluctance to talk about the experience runs deeper than that, yet it's difficult to talk around it because it's part of who he is.

McCoy never used the words war and Iraq. Instead, he usually said "over there."

"A lot of people thank me for my service, but they should be thanking the people who are over there now," he said. "Anytime you go on any type of deployment, it's hard on everybody: family, friends, the individual himself. ... I have friends over there right now. Actually, I have quite a few friends who are there. I keep in touch with them, respond in timely fashion, try to help them get through it."

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KU defensive lineman John McCoy lines up during an open practice. McCoy returned from a tour of duty in Iraq late last fall and will compete for a starting job on the Jayhawks' front four.

He prefers to talk about football.

McCoy played his junior year at 250 pounds. He's added 10 pounds of solid muscle and will compete to be in the mix at defensive end for KU, a team in need of someone to emerge as a quarterback-harrasser to replace Charlton Keith. McCoy played in 12 games and had 11 tackles during the 2003 season.

"I guess you could say I've matured overall," he said of the effect his deployment had on him. "I can't say I enjoyed it. I really didn't enjoy it. It's something I had to do. I'm back. I'm glad everything's going well for me right now. I enjoy this a lot more. I'm here. I'll make the best out of it."

McCoy re-enrolled at Kansas in time for the just-completed semester, spent a great deal of time in the weight room, and participated in spring football practice.

"I think he really gave a great effort in the spring, but he's a little rusty," KU coach Mark Mangino said. "He should sharpen up in August and he'll be somebody we can count on making plays."

The rust, McCoy said, showed itself in situations when he found himself thinking where he should be reacting. His knowledge of proper technique and of plays needed to be revived. He's not all the way back yet, but he said he expects to be by the end of August practices. He said he will return to class June 6 for summer school and get in his work at the Anderson Family Strength Center. His contract with the military still has "a couple of years left on it."

For now, he'll spend a few weeks visiting his daughter in the hi-desert of California and go to Ohio to see his parents, sister and brother. Upon his late autumn return from Iraq, McCoy visited his daughter and then his parents. Then he went on a well-deserved vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for two weeks of rest and relaxation.

"As soon as I got there, I slept for a whole day, for 27 hours, actually," he said. "I woke up, went and checked the time and thought it was the same day. It wasn't. It was the next day."

McCoy enjoyed two weeks of snorkeling, scuba-diving, relaxing and sleeping in.

He was back in the classroom and the weight room at KU in January.

"You have to keep building off one day to the next, adapting back into everything," he said. "A lot of guys who come back home from a deployment just have their jobs to come back to or some of them might be starting school or some might be going back to their families. I came back, I had to get ready for school, football, seeing my daughter. Every day is another step. Every single day is new. There's not one day that's the same as the next for me ever."

And with each day, he said, the adjustment goes more smoothly.

"It's gotten a lot better," he said of school. "It was difficult at first, kind of like football, school was a lot like that. You go from not being in the classroom setting to all the sudden being in the classroom setting at the college level. It takes time. It's really structured. The staff here in the office is really supportive, really helpful. You've got everything here that you need. If you don't succeed, it's basically on you."

How well the defense succeeds depends in part on how much McCoy and others vying for spots on the front seven can improve.

"From what I heard, a lot of people are overlooking the defensive line because of the people we have to replace and the four linebackers who had a major role in the defense who left, and a few veterans from the defensive line left," he said. "When people start seeing us play in a game, they'll see there's not that big of a setback. Everyone out there is capable or they wouldn't be here. Everybody on the defensive line is big, physical, quick. Everybody's getting off the ball so well it's almost like we know the snap count. The technique has improved a lot since the start of spring. The linebackers are doing fine. They might be young as far as playing time, but they know the plays. They're athletic. They're strong. They're fast, and they have the attitude to go with it too."

It's only natural to wonder about a defense that started eight seniors a year ago. McCoy has an answer for that.

"You can't put the emphasis on we lost this and we lost this," he said. "We have what we have now, and it's pretty good."

He's saying to appreciate what you have. During his time away from football, McCoy learned the value of that message.

"A lot of people don't realize how much you have until it's taken from you," he said. "When you step on the other side of the tracks, you're seeing what everyone else and yourself is going through and you know what the people over there are going through and their struggles, and you realize, "Hey, I was just a Division I athlete a month ago. Now I'm a full-time soldier. There's nothing else right now. Right now I'm this and this is what I have to be. When you realize what you have and you come back to this atmosphere and you see everything you have right now, the luxuries and everything that we have being a student-athlete, or just being a student, it's a good feeling. The worries are a lot less."

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