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Before Dave Kleiner shipped out to Iraq, athletic officials at Northwestern College in Roseville invited students to see him off at a campus gathering. Many of them had cheered for him on Saturdays. When he left, they were given small American flags to remember him by, along with a request to pray for his safety.
Kleiner had become a standout defensive end for the Eagles, even though he didn't play football in high school. He entered uncharted territory again in 2009 as a member of Minnesota's Army National Guard, part of the 34th Military Police Company assigned to provide security at the U.S. base in Basra.
"I've seen a lot of war movies, and that's as close as I'm ever going to get to it," Eagles coach Kirk Talley said. "He was over there where you could get shot or blown up at any step. You try not to worry, but we couldn't help but be concerned about him."
This fall, Kleiner, 24, has returned to his place on Northwestern's defensive line. Things are not exactly as they were: Three men who served with him in Iraq were killed in a rocket attack, about 200 meters from where he stood guard at a gate. And the Eagles, who have won five Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championships since 2001, are 1-6 heading into Saturday's game against Westminster College.
The leadership skills Kleiner honed in Iraq have helped him guide his team through challenging times. The perspective he gained has reminded him how precious these autumn Saturdays are, in what is likely to be his final season.
"That first year of football, I didn't know what I was doing," said Kleiner, of Lakeville. "But it was just fun to play, and the guys on the team are all great guys. It's still fun, even though we're struggling this season.
"After coming back, things don't bother me as much as they used to. I always have a positive outlook."
Kleiner is one of five Northwestern players who have served in the military, along with defensive linemen David Discher and Joey Scott, running back Noah Hadro and defensive back Gabe Rounds. An all-conference selection in 2008, he is third on the team with 46 tackles this season and leads the defense with eight tackles for loss and two sacks.
He's also one of several Eagles who did not play football in high school. Talley said that as a Christian college, Northwestern draws many students who were home-schooled or attended small schools that don't field teams, and many are motivated to serve their country.
Kleiner played other sports at Bloomington's Bethany Academy and attended college in Iowa for a year before enlisting. After he completed boot camp, his younger brother Kevin urged him to come to Northwestern and join him on the football team. Kevin played on the offensive line, while Dave's strength and hard-nosed demeanor landed him a place on the defensive line. Their spirited competition in practice helped Dave learn the game quickly, and he soon joined his brother as a starter.
He was able to juggle his Guard obligation of one weekend a month with school, football and baseball, which he played in the spring. As a military policeman, Kleiner helped guard buildings in downtown St. Paul during the 2008 Republican National Convention and helped out during flooding in southeastern Minnesota.
Later that year, he was told he would be heading to Iraq.
"I was shocked," said Kevin, now the defensive line coach for the Eagles. "I figured in the National Guard, there wasn't much chance of him being called up. We definitely worried about him, but we just had to trust in God that he would be safe."
Kleiner was assigned to on-base security, with the exception of one memorable journey -- when he drove radio host and former Vikings player Mike Morris, who was visiting the troops, in an armored vehicle. His most somber day came on July 16, 2009, when Minnesotans Carlos Wilcox, Daniel Drevnick and James Wertish were killed.
"I knew all three of those guys," said Kleiner, who was in Iraq for 11 months. "They were from different platoons, but I saw them the day before it happened. I worked with Wilcox at the RNC. Drevnick was a motorhead, and we talked about that.
"I had one [rocket] fly right over where I slept. I could hear the little jet engine, and I was holding my breath."
Kleiner returned to Northwestern this fall as a more assertive leader, thanks to his military experience. When one of the Eagles shoved a teammate in a scrimmage, Kleiner ordered him off the field. He has reinforced the team's theme of trusting in each other, as well as the idea that success comes when each person knows and does his specific duties.
Though Kleiner has another year of athletic eligibility remaining, he expects to finish classes this spring. He has one year of active duty left on his Guard contract.
Another Kleiner brother, Ethan, followed Dave into the military police and is stationed in Germany. Dave expects Ethan will be deployed to Afghanistan. He understands he could return to a war zone as well, but he is considering extending his service and perhaps becoming an officer.
For now, he and his football family will treasure each day of their time together.
"There's no doubt we're unbelievably proud of Dave, what he's done for us and for our country and how he lives out his life," Talley said. "It's a privilege to know him."
Rachel Blount • email@example.com