Every two weeks, the Southern Conference will feature a student-athlete from around the league in a series called the SoCon Spotlight. This will be an opportunity to see what student-athletes are doing while they are not in the classroom or competing in their sport. The question and answer session focuses on student-athletes that serve as outstanding conference representatives through their community service efforts.
This SoCon Spotlight features Appalachian State's Chris Aiken, a junior from Austin, Texas. Chris arrived at Appalachian State after playing two years of college football at Blinn College, a junior college in Texas. Prior to attending Blinn, Chris spent five years in the U.S. Army and served two tours in Iraq. Chris is the third Iraq war veteran to join the Mountaineer football program after military service, and at age 26, he is the oldest player on the Appalachian State team.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I am 26 [years old]. Out of high school I enrolled in the military. I came from a single parent home, and my mom raised four of us. When I finished high school, I was not 18 [years old] yet, and [my mom] told me that when I turned 18, I had to make a choice on whether I was going to college or getting a job or whatever. That is when it seemed like everyone was joining the Army and the commercials looked interesting, so I joined the Army was a Military Police for five years. I was deployed to Iraq twice. I got out and started school again. I found out that I was good at football and ended up at Appalachian State.
9/11 happened during your senior year of high school, did that have any impact on your decision to join the Army?
It did and it did not. About three to four months after [9/11], I found out that a relative of mine died in the 9/11 attacks. At the time you are watching, it just seems surreal and when I saw the video of the planes, that's when I thought that everybody needs to do their part, so joining the military was doing my part.
Tell us about your experience over in Iraq.
The first time I deployed, I was 19 [years old]. We were on missions in and out of Iraq, and we did a lot of customs. It was not too bad the first time I went. All I remember are good times, actually. Living conditions were not good, but I was not in immediate danger. Then when I turned 21, I deployed again, and we were in Samarra. At the time, that was the third worst city in Iraq, and that had the leading death rate of soldiers dying from IEDs (improvised explosive devices). That is when it hit me that I was in Iraq; everyday is either them or us. When we went on our missions, it was real serious: putting our gear on, sleeping next to your weapon, always on fire setting, a round [of bullets] always chambered, getting shot at on a daily basis, getting bombed. I remember times when we were getting shot at and people's radio would break, so for about five minutes, we would think that person was dead. We would have no clue until we would find out that just the radio was broken. They would shoot up a cloud of dust, and all you would hear was "run," and everyone would just run. At the end, that is when you would count and just realized that you are blessed that everyone is there.
Has your time in Iraq forced you to grow up faster and how has it helped you mature as a player and as a person?
It definitely has. I knew that when we deployed that it was serious, but when you get over there, you realize how serious it is. At 18 and 19 and having to go over there, I have no choice but to speak differently and act differently at certain times. You learn to appreciate the little things, and when you appreciate the little things, you take advantage of the big things. That helped me grow up, be more responsible and try to look after friends and family more and certain people in need. You just look at little things you are blessed with that other people aren't blessed with.
When you teammates found out that you served in Iraq, did they view you different or have a new level of respect?
A couple of players were shocked. I got here in January and I think [teammate] CoCo Hillary found out this semester that I deployed, and he was like, "Man, for real? I don't even know you anymore." He didn't believe me. The players do have a lot of respect for me, and I have a lot of respect for them. They treat me like any other player. They still tease me and joke.
Has serving in Iraq changed the meaning of "team" since high school and has it helped you become a better teammate?
In the locker room, we use "brother-in-arms." I told them about situations when I was in Iraq and I spent my birthdays over there. When you got to war, that is your brother- or sister-in-arms, so I let them know every time I step out on the football field, I consider them my brother-in-arms. They could come to me for anything, whether it is help with a play or a certain situation at home. A teammate may be what other schools see what a quarterback to a running back or a quarterback to a defensive tackle, but I consider App State football players my brothers.
Coming out of high school, you were not even considering playing football in college, what made you make that decision to come back after serving in Iraq and play college football?
When I was in high school, I was probably a 5'8" or 5'9" short and chubby little boy, and [a future in] football was not going to happen. We actually had a winning record for the first time in my high school in quite a few years, and when recruiters came, I was overlooked. I think a NAIA school was talking to me, but I didn't even know what that was at the time. So I just said it was time for the military and to do something different.
While I was in Iraq, all we would do was lift weights and run around in 130 to 140 degree weather. We would lift weights to relieve stress, and I guess I hit a growth spurt out of nowhere because my dad is 6'5" and my mom is 6'0." I know I was able to look at my mom in her eyes until I came home from Iraq the second time and she was looking up at me. The size (6'1" 310 pounds) and the strength just came.
One day, they were trying to get me re-enlist by offering me $60,000 tax-free for five years, and I knew if I re-enlisted, I was going to have to deploy again. After the second time, I was tired of deploying, so I said my prayers before I went to bed that night and asked God for guidance. When I woke up, there was an article that my lieutenant had put next to my bed that talked about two veterans that went to play football at Florida State after the military. I considered that my sign to go play football.
You initially enrolled at a junior college in Texas, what made you come to Appalachian State?
My freshman year of junior college, we won the conference. My sophomore year, we won the national championship. When you win the highest achievement or championship you can win at that level, you get used to the success. When I picking my school, I was looking at schools that win and I was looking at schools where I could help and would feel most comfortable. It was looking like I was going to go Division II because I did not want to go to a big school, a Division I (FBS) school, and just get lost or have a 6-5 season and not be able to go to a [good] bowl game. And then out of nowhere, [former] Coach [John] Wiley from Appalachian State called me. I will never forget, he was said, "I am Coach Wiley from Appalachian State, do you know about our school?" I was like, "I definitely know about the school." I knew they beat Michigan, and my cousin did some research and told me they had won the SoCon so many years in a row and won the national championship three years in a row. As soon as I got off the phone with Coach Wiley, I knew that is where I was supposed to be. I could help do my part along the way, get a nice ring in the process, and keep the winning tradition.
How has the adjustment been getting used to the cold weather in Boone?
Some people like to call me a teddy bear. I don't mind the cold. It does take some getting used to because I can't sleep with the window open. I was here last semester and saw the snow storms. At first when the snow was falling a little bit, I thought it was nice. But when the snow kept coming and you couldn't drive without swerving, that is when I was a little nervous the weather. There are some adjustments getting used to it.
You say you have been called a teddy bear, what are some other nicknames you have been called?
Most female friends might call me a teddy bear. Some of the players call me "Big Brother." The weightlifting coach and some of the other players call me "Big Texas." We did the ESPN All-Access, and ever since then since I was teasing Coach [Dale] Jones, he has called me "Tubby."
What is your best experience about playing in the Southern Conference?
The atmosphere. When I was in junior college, we probably had a couple thousand people come to the games, and when we were in the national championship, it was probably around 12,000 [people] in the stands. When I walked out here for the first home game, I was just like, "Wow!" I was the last player to come out of the tunnel. The smell of the fireworks, the band playing and fans screaming [was all a new experience for me]. When we came out of the tunnel and heard the roar of the crowd, I was blown away. The gameday atmosphere [is the best part of the Southern Conference].