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Michigan linebacker Noah Furbush pursuing fighter jet career, not NFL

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines during first-half action against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.

KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS

By ANDREW KAHN | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: September 13, 2018

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Michigan had just beaten Air Force last September, and Noah Furbush raced from the U-M sideline to the middle of the field. He was looking for somebody, anybody to talk to about his major, aerospace engineering, or his dream of flying a fighter jet.

In a sea of competitors offering good wishes after a hard-fought game, Furbush was unable to make a significant connection with a cadet. But he did find a trading partner to acquire a now-treasured memento. He swapped football gloves with an Air Force player. Furbush hopes to one day don more practical military gear.

Furbush's path to Michigan was unique -- he grew up in Kenton, Ohio, as an Ohio State fan among a few Buckeye family members -- and his five years at Michigan have been no different. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said this week he thinks of Furbush as a future NFL player.

"I certainly have a passion for football," Furbush said Wednesday, "but my dream and my goal has always been to be a pilot in the military."

Recruited by then-head coach Brady Hoke, Furbush came to Michigan in 2014 with his sights on engineering. Nobody told him he had to apply, but after a year in the College of Literature, Science, and Arts he began working towards a degree in aerospace engineering. On Tuesday he reflected on that first semester, calling it a "punch in the mouth." Balancing football and books required lifestyle changes. Pointing to his phone, he said, "You've got this four-inch thing in your pocket at all times trying to draw your attention away from what's important." With courses on propulsion, structures, and aerodynamics, there was little time for phone, TV, or videogames.

Furbush redshirted his first season with the Wolverines and saw steady playing time the next three years on special teams and defense, while earning All-Big Ten academic honors. Early last season, he moved into the starting lineup at linebacker, and returned this year as a grad student. Taking "higher education" to heart, he is getting his master's in space engineering, the first recipient of the National Football Foundation's Bo Schembechler Scholarship. Simultaneously tackling ball carriers and projects with partners at NASA and Boeing, Furbush wants to use his education to defend the country.

Furbush's mom was an Air Force nurse for several years before he was born. His dad's father served in the Army. Many fans admire players like Furbush in their maize and blue jerseys and winged helmets. Said Furbush: "I see those fatigues -- they just look sharp to me. I see people in uniform and I look up to them and the sacrifices they make for this country, all the amazing things they get to do and get to be a part of."

As a youngster he'd draw aircrafts -- jets, bombers, helicopters -- in a notebook while riding the school bus. "I was obsessed with Star Wars," he said. "I wanted to be Han Solo flying the Millennium Falcon."

He earned his pilot's license in the summer of 2016. Furbush flies a Cessna 172, a four-seat, single-engine, propeller plane. His longest solo flight took him across Michigan to Benton Harbor, then down to South Bend, Indiana, where he surprised his girlfriend, then a student at St. Mary's College. "I met her for dinner, then came back to Ann Arbor," Furbush said, as if describing a typical date night. She is now a graduate student at U-M.

Furbush aims to fly a more sophisticated aircraft in the future. He has applied to join the United States Marine Corps, and cites the Joint Striker Fighter F-35, with its $40,000 augmented reality helmet, as a particularly incredible jet.

But, Furbush said, "I'm really open to anything. I just want to get up there."

Harbaugh is helping. "If you earn his respect, he'll do anything for you," Furbush said of his coach since his sophomore year. Furbush said Harbaugh has helped him better realize his goals and how to pursue them. He wrote a letter of recommendation for Furbush's military application.

"He likes to protect people," Harbaugh said.

Furbush's high school football coach, Mike Mauk, said one of Furbush's classmates at Kenton had cerebral palsy. The young man loved football, and Furbush made him feel as important as any player on the team. "I know some people can turn it on and off," Mauk said. "He was like that all the time."

Furbush played wide receiver for Mauk as a sophomore until he got "so big and athletic" that Mauk requested he move to linebacker. Furbush accepted without hesitation, dominating his conference while never missing a workout.

He now stands 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds, his blonde hair poking out from the back of his helmet as he flies around the field. He intercepted a pass on Saturday against Western Michigan, the second of his career.

"He's got all the attributes of size and speed," Harbaugh said. "He's real smart. He's got everything you want as a football player. ... I've always thought of Noah Furbush as a guy who could be an NFL player."

And yet Furbush is answering a different call. Asked whether he'd feel the same way if by the end of this season he was touted as an early-round NFL draft pick, he said, "I know where I want to go. I want to join the military. I know that's uncommon for most people, but it's always been something I've wanted to do."

The next step with his military application is a standard medical review plus more paperwork and, potentially, a trip to Pensacola, Florida for training.

"One of the biggest shocks I had through this whole process is just how difficult it is to join the military and serve your country," Furbush said. Anyone who thinks the armed forces are simply looking for willing participants is mistaken. "They're really trying to pick the best of the best. They're looking for a specific type of person."

Time will tell if Furbush will be among, as the saying goes, "the few, the proud." His accomplishments on and off the field would seem to bode well for his candidacy.

Furbush was asked if he reflects on his achievements.

"It's nice to look at what I've done, but I have so much ahead of me," Furbush said. "I'm only 22 years old. I don't really want to spend time looking back on what I've done. I want to keep moving forward."

And upward.

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