Army sergeant lost leg in Afghanistan, now works with Jaguars
By MATT SOERGEL | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: December 14, 2018
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Sean Karpf remembers everything about the moments after his left Army boot stepped on the pressure plate of a buried bomb in rural Afghanistan: the smoke, the taste of chemicals in his mouth and the sound of fellow soldiers calling his name, barely heard through the ringing in his ears.
He remembers trying to climb out of the bomb crater. And he remembers the pain.
Moments later, as he was strapped to a litter, Taliban fighters on a nearby roof fired machine-gun rounds at the men and the helicopter trying to rescue him. Helpless as he was, he was still calling out orders to his men as the bullets pinged around them.
It was June 15, 2012, and he was 27 years old, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
More than six years later, on a cool December afternoon on the Jacksonville Jaguars practice field, he tracks a long kick by Josh Lambo, moving back a few steps, planting his prosthetic leg in the turf, and cradles the ball in his arms. He tosses it back toward the kicker, who lines up for another attempt.
Karpf, who grew up a Jaguars fan, is now a strength and conditioning associate with the team, another step on a journey that's taken him from Kandahar province to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, from the Wounded Warriors Project to an internship with the Jaguars. And this year, to a full-time job with the team.
After Afghanistan, during a lengthy recovery involving 20 surgeries, his left leg was amputated below the knee. Karpf now gets around just fine with a choice of several prosthetic legs, including a blade-like one on which he recently ran eight miles.
He's 33, a graduate of Orange Park High School and a fan of the new local NFL team: He had a trading card of Steve Beuerlein, the starting quarterback for the first Jaguars game ever.
The charge of working for his hometown team has not left him: "I know I'm here full time," he said, "but it's still one of those things: I don't believe I'm here."
Karpf first came to the Jaguars in 2014 as an intern through the Wounded Warrior Project. He eventually found a home with the strength and conditioning department, and stayed there two years.
His military experience impressed Tom Coughlin, the former coach who now heads football operations. Coughlin made a point of occasionally coming up and taking with Karpf, even when the trainer was just an intern.
Karpf laughed: "Other interns and even the strength staff are like, 'Why are you talking to Coach Coughlin?' 'Well, he's coming up talking to me!' "
In January, he was cleaning out his locker after the heartbreaking playoff loss to New England. The season, and his internship, were over.
As he was saying goodbyes, general manager Dave Caldwell suggested he go see Coughlin, then followed him into the boss's office.
Coughlin looked up at Karpf. "We're thinking about bringing you on," he said. "Do you think you'll help make this team a better team?"
Just like that, he had a job with his hometown team, and he called his wife, Brandy, and told her the news.
In a recent ESPN video about Karpf and the Jaguars, Coughlin explained why he offered him a job.
"I thought this would be a heck of a guy to hire ... because of what he brings to the table," he said. "And also for our players to maybe get to know a young man who had made those kind of sacrifices for his country."
The players have noticed.
"Not sure there is anyone on this earth that I'm more proud to call a friend," Lambo tweeted as he linked to the ESPN video.
One game a year, NFL players can choose to wear custom cleats as part of the "My Cleats My Cause" program. Linebacker Telvin Smith was thinking of Karpf when he put on cleats honoring the military and the Wounded Warrior Project.
"A lot of people take personal issues and stuff. But at the end of the day, I chose one that I see every day and that really impacts me," Smith said.
Karpf was four months into his second deployment in Afghanistan when he was injured. He'd previously spent a year there, beginning in 2009. During his recovery he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder; he would get angry over small things, was impatient with family.
"I knew something was wrong. I definitely wasn't the same person I was before I got injured," he said.
He's in a better place now, working with the team, earning a bachelors in kinesiology at Jacksonville University and starting an online master's program.
None of that was his plan, however: As a young man, Karpf set a goal to join the Army, and he would still be soldier, he said, if he hadn't been injured. In fact, he signed up for another six years the month before he was hurt.
"To me there's no other job, no other thing you can do in where, where you can be so close with the people around you," he said. "Once you fight alongside somebody, that bond can never be replaced or duplicated, to me."
There's some of that feeling, he says, on the Jaguars. "Being in the military you feel like you're part of a team, working together. This is the next-best thing, it feels like -- working for success, trying to win games."
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