CONWAY It's just past 9:30 p.m. Tuesday as Mark Singleton greets a visitor outside the crisp, white one-story house on the west side of town that he and his wife moved into about a month and a half ago.
Their 9-month-old boxer Achilles darts to the porch to welcome the company as well, and inside, the home is neatly decorated to complete the idyllic Rockwellian portrait the young couple has created.
Mark and Hollie met in high school, about eight years ago , and have been married for almost three. She works for an orthodontist in downtown Conway and he ... well, more about that in a minute.
"It's a big step up from our little one-bedroom, one-bath apartment," Singleton says proudly, leading his guest through a couple of rooms.
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He digs through the closet in the extra bedroom to pull out a big black box that serves as the only tangible remnants of a past life.
"This hasn't changed," he says, opening the case packed with his U.S. Marine Corps camouflage and envelopes strewn about from the letters he and Hollie exchanged while he was away. "It's still got the mailing [label].
It's still got where it went through customs at JFK."
Singleton served two tours of active duty as part of a four-year enlistment, the second a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan, but he doesn't find much need these days to look at the belongings he had shipped home. Because his story is not just about what he's done, but what he'strying to do.
The soon-to-be 25-year-old former corporal is now the wide-eyed rookie walk-on with the Coastal Carolina University football team looking to scratch an itch that never quite went away these last several years.
As one of just two players still left on the roster from the 100 or so who came out for the Chanticleers' open tryouts in February, well, so far sogood.
"I think it's a great story," CCU assistant coach Dyran Peake says. "It speaks to what kind of young man he is to go serve our country and do that for us and we're very thankful for that, and then it speaks to the passion that people have for football.
"He's a grown man, married and he wants to come back and do what he can on the football field. And he's actually going to help us."
That's the plan, at least.
Inside their home Tuesday night, Hollie leans back on the couch and smiles when asked how that initial discussion went when her husband told her he was going to try playing college football.
"There was no talk," she says laughing. "I knew he wanted to do it so he went out for it. That wasn't a family discussion. ... I know this is whathe's always wanted to do, so I can't tell him no because he wouldn't tell me no."
So for now , the traditional family life they've built is on hold.
Hollie jokes with friends that she doesn't have a husband this month because these moments together at the house are so limited. F or that matter, it'sapproaching 10 p.m., which is close to bedtime these days. He has mandatory breakfast check-in with the Chants at 6:30 the next morning and two-a-day practices that will keep him on campus until well into the evening.
But she couldn't be happier with how this has all turned out.
After all, if everything goes as planned, she'll get to buy a new wardrobe for football Saturdays, she jokes. He, well, he'll get to realize a dream he left behind as an undersized senior at Conway High School in what must seem like ages ago.
"I think over the past five years I've been blessed, I've been fortunate," Singleton had said a few days earlier after practice. "I made it home from two tours safely and I've got everything I needed. And I guess, you know, as with anything, it just takes an opportunity.
"That's all I could ever ask for and I was provided with an opportunity here at Coastal Carolina University and I'm proud to be a Chanticleer at this point right now."
A different path
Although the Singleton home lacks any adornments highlighting his military service, he has plenty displaying his other pursuit.
Showing off his unfinished home office, he points to his old Conway football helmet, a picture of him making a big interception against Carolina Forest and a Coastal Carolina flag he's had since high school that used to hang over his bed.
But football wasn't much of an option when he graduated from Conway in 2006. At least, not then.
"Football was always my first love," he says. "Unfortunately,as a senior in high school I wasn't athletically gifted. Not in regards to talent, but in regards to size. I was 5-foot-6, 135 pounds soaking wet so obviously I didn't get a lot of looks."
He went to Francis Marion University for academics, but after a year he was bored with school and feeling a lack of discipline in his life. His father had served 28 years in the Marine Corps before settling the family in Conway, and so that's the path he chose next.
Stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, his first seven-month tour took him through Israel, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. T hen it was Afghanistan.
"We were stationed in one of the hotter zones in Marja, so we were exposed to about 25 firefights throughout my seven months," he says. "That's nowhere in comparison to some of the other units, but definitely a life-changing experience, and we had our fair share of close calls.
Unfortunately we did have two amputees in my platoon, but both are alive and well today and doing good things.
"So no regrets. Absolutely none."
He and Hollie kept in regular contact by mail and, when possible, email."I saved every letter that she wrote. She saved every letter that I wrote," Singleton says.
It was also while he was in Afghanistan that he began thinking seriously about a return to football. He emailed 65 or so college programs around the country from the Division III ranks to Division I and got a few responses, including one from Coastal.
"There was six of us that are absolutely as close as you can get and we all kind of made the decision that if one of us stayed we'd all stay; if one of us got out we'd all get out," Singleton says. "And unfortunately there's political influence as with everything else and we decided thatour best [plan] was to get out and get our education to better succeed later in life."
He doesn't expound on that statement, nor is he asked, because while he says he's fine taking military questions from his new teammates, he avoids Besides, Conway was home and he had followed the Coastal Carolina football program somewhat in the past, so after separating honorably from theMarines in April 2011, he decided to enroll at the university the following fall and reacclimate himself to studying before thinking any further about football.
He then received an email to his student account announcing the open football tryouts in February and said to himself, "This is my shot. Let'sdo it."
"We knew from the meeting with [CCU head coach Joe Moglia] prior to the walk-on tryouts that they were only looking for about 25 guys and that was strictly for the spring; it wasn't a guarantee for the fall," Singleton recalls. "... The odds weren't for me, but at the time they were kind of stacked against everybody."
Strong impression Peake, the Chants' defensive backs coach, was the first to get a look at Singleton at those open tryouts, and although he didn't know the player's background at the time, he knew there was something that set the 5-foot-10, 165-pound safety apart from the other walk-ons.
"After the tryout, I learned that Mark had been in the military, and I went `That's fitting,' " Peake says. "Because everything I instructed those guys to do, he was the guy that did it right. He was the guy that paid attention to the detail of it, and I was like `Who is this guy?"'
The Chants saw enough to invite Singleton to spring practice -- one of about 25 players from that tryout to get an invitation -- but there were no guarantees beyond that.
He started to move up the depth chart, though, earning a role on special teams while also competing at free safety. In the annual spring game, he seized his moment with an interception. When it came time to make cuts for the 95-man fall camp roster, he slipped through as one of just two players from that February walk-on tryout still with the dream in sight.
Singleton hasn't been formally told he's made the regular-season roster yet, but the fact that he's getting first-team reps with several of the special teams units is a telling sign.
`We're hoping that he is definitely a special teams guy, and competition promotes improvement," Peake says. "There's opportunity for everybody, and if he continues to improve within the competition that we have, he'll play."
Said Moglia: "It's a terrific story. Anytime you have somebody who's actually had some sort of real sacrifice, real commitment to the well being of our country, you have to take your hat off to that. We have a lot of respect and admiration to that, and hopefully that carries over into kind of maturity and attitude as far as the team goes."
It's a story most of his teammates know well by now to varying degrees. Singleton gets asked a lot of "the usual questions that you would expect"and he says he'd do the same if the roles were reversed.
"Granted the new freshmen that have come in or the new recruits or signees, they know but they don't know the full spectrum of it -- which many don't. And to a certain extent I'd like to keep it that way," he says. "There's obviously certain things you see or share with other individuals that you keep between you and them, but I'm more than willing to discuss it with guys who are seriously interested, and if it provides an opportunity for mentorship or something along those lines then more power to it."
Mostly, though, he's trying to be known as a football player these days.
No matter where he sits on the depth chart, he says he'd be lying to say he doesn't have hopes of competing for the starting free safety job. According to the CCU athletics compliance office, he still has four years of eligibility with which to get there. Meanwhile, he says he's focused on making the most of his opportunities -- while making sure all that time away from home proves worthwhile.
One day at a time.
"I'm just here trying to make a name for myself," he says. "I'm the grandfather of the team. I'll be 25 in October, so we're hoping that I can keep running with these young guys."