When you size up Tom Hruby’s chances of securing a spot on the Northwestern football team, it would be fair to say the odds are stacked against him.
He’s a junior trying to walk on as a defensive end — meaning he is competing against scholarship athletes aggressively pursued by the university. He’s 32, has a wife, three kids and a full-time job.
That’s the perfect scenario for Hruby because that’s how he makes his living.
Hruby is an active Navy SEAL.
“I don’t feel like where I’m at today is some outstanding or amazing thing,” Hruby told the Sun-Times. “It’s just more of a challenging route … the way I kind of think about finding and accepting and trying to take on these challenges that most people would probably say are impossible, one, or very unlikely or just plain dumb.”
Dumb? No way. Impossible? Not if you know Hruby. Very unlikely? That’s the case for any walk-on trying to make a Big Ten football team.
Keep in mind Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald was 32 during his first season as head coach in 2006 — that’s after a full playing career at NU, a stint with the Dallas Cowboys as a linebacker and stops as an assistant with Maryland, Colorado, Idaho and Northwestern.
Fitzgerald marvels at Hruby’s drive.
“I know I couldn’t do it,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a man’s man.
“He was relentless, absolutely relentless, like you would suspect from a SEAL.”
Hruby is trying to balance the rigors of playing Big Ten football, staying on top of his demanding studies at NU and fulfilling his obligation as an active Navy SEAL. His typical day this summer started with strength training in Evanston at 6 a.m. and runs until his last class finished at 8:30 p.m.
His job now with the Navy means being a SEAL instructor at Great Lakes Naval Station. He saved up all of his leave so he can participate in the Wildcats’ three-week training camp this month.
Hruby became a SEAL in late 2006, one of 32 people to graduate from his BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) class, most famously known for its “hell week,” a 5 ½-day stretch in which trainees run close to 200 miles and average about four hours of sleep, according to the Naval Special Warfare website.
He joined SEAL Team 1, based in Coronado, California. He served as a breacher, an expert in explosives and forced entry — trained to not so subtly knock on the front doors of bad guys around the world.
Divulging that he operated in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the rest of his life as a SEAL is classified, even to those closest to Hruby.
“One day you’re blowing things up, the next day I’m fast-roping out of a helicopter, the next day I’m parachuting at 20,000 feet,” Hruby said. “It’s inherently dangerous. When you start, you’re like, ‘God, I could die any minute. Any one of these things today can kill me if I don’t do it right.’ ”
The general comparison between life as a SEAL and as a Wildcats football player are inappropriate. Both have the same stated goal of winning, but parallels end there.
If Hruby and Northwestern win enough this season, they’ll earn a chance to play in a bowl game. Win enough as a SEAL, you earn the chance to go home. Hruby knows those who have lost.
Several of his friends — BUD/S classmates, guys from the teams and platoons — have been killed.
“That’s the path you took as a soldier, as a warrior,” Hruby said. “You just learn to come to terms with that’s what’s going to happen.”
Hruby is often asked why he would join a football team of players at least a decade his junior. Football isn’t necessary to earning a Northwestern degree. After undertaking the most fearsome military training, why add the pain of 6 a.m. lifting sessions?
Because Hruby still has more to prove to himself, which is a head-scratcher to most. Only a few who understand — his wife, Jen, and his SEAL Team chief David Goggins among them.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, it’s just what’s the next challenge?” Goggins said. “Without a challenge in front of guys like Tom, what’s the point of living?
“That first six months [of SEAL training], they want to see what you’re made of. Tom has always had that character in him.”
Hruby always eyed military and college football careers, though a couple misguided teenage years nearly derailed both.
He dealt with the emotional hardship of constantly moving around the Chicago area during his grade-school years as his father, an alcoholic, was always in between jobs. His parents divorced, he finally settled in Crown Point, Indiana, and attended Andrean High School in Merrillville all four years.
Academically, Hruby excelled his first two years of high school. But the emotions of his childhood caught up to him by his junior year, the only positive memory from the latter half of high school the fact that he played every single snap for his football team his senior year.
“I just kind of started falling apart as a person, as a kid,” Hruby said. “I didn’t pay attention to school, started drinking, started doing the wrong kind of stuff and it showed.”
As Hruby entered his 20s, two influences came into his life: training for the SEAL qualification standards and Jen. He married Jen on a weekend off during SEAL training.
They have three children together: 4-year-old Troy, 3-year-old Ethan and 7-month-old Dean.
At 31, Hruby needed to commit himself to four-hour study days to prepare for the SAT, having always sought a Northwestern degree as a Chicago-area kid.
He was fortunate to avoid battlefield injuries — a rare claim among SEALs. That allowed Hruby to train at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park to prepare for football.
Time wasn’t his only sacrifice though.
Hruby and Jen, who is pursuing a degree in psychology at Purdue Calumet, sold their house in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and most everything else they could. The entire family moved back to Crown Point to live with Hruby’s mom, Kathy.
To meet all his time commitments this summer, Hruby spent weeknights sleeping on a couch in Northwestern’s locker room because the round trip between Crown Point and Evanston is too long.
He now has a dorm room at Northwestern, reserving the weekends for his family.
But that still leaves Jen, who would be without Hruby about 280 days a year when he was deployed or advancing his training, to take care of their three boys during the week.
“Our family really likes to challenge each other, and it’s important to us to aspire to our dreams because I don’t think that you can truly be happy unless you go after those dreams that you think are unattainable,” Jen said.
After getting into Northwestern last summer, Hruby was ruled ineligible last season by the NCAA because he didn’t get credit for some junior college classes he had previously taken. Though he is a junior this season, he has three years of eligibility remaining.
This season, Hruby hopes for consistent playing time on special teams. If he does take the field this season, it will be less about that moment than what it took to get there.
His lessons learned as a SEAL will get him through his next goal.
“What’s the next step? How do we get out of here? And you’ve just got to stick to those thoughts, stick to what’s important, stick to what you know and just kind of have an attitude,” he said. “We all have an attitude of we’re always going to survive. There’s almost nothing that can beat us.”