Born into the military in Texas and raised in Kentucky - for Brian Decker, service was in his blood.
“My grandfather served in the military in the Korean War and my dad served in the military in Vietnam. There was a tradition of service in our family,” he said. “I think the military was always something that I thought about in the back of my mind.”
But it wasn’t something he considered until his other options ran out.
“I was a late bloomer,” he said. “I didn’t do well in school. I grew up in a very rural area where school and education weren’t really pushed. I probably read and wrote at an elementary level when I graduated high school.”
College was a stretch, but it seemed like the next step - so he took it.
“Everybody else went to college, so I wanted to go to college - but I didn’t score well enough on the ACT and I didn’t have the GPA. I ended up going to a community college. I think if you don’t know what you want to do in life, it’s really hard to align your activities in support of that. I went to school for a year and a half and didn’t do well.”
Suddenly, the military felt like his only option.
“I just needed a change,” he said. “Once I got there, in a very short amount of time, I realized I had made a great decision because the military is the ultimate meritocracy - they don’t care where you come from, they don’t care what your socioeconomic status is, where you went to school - they’re just really concerned about your ability to assimilate and work hard.”
For Decker, that wasn’t difficult.
“It was probably the first thing in my life that anyone ever told me I was good at. It’s hard to develop a passion for something until you’ve enjoyed some success. I really liked the structure. I liked the fact that it was about working hard. If you worked hard and did the right things, you could advance.”
And he did - working his way up to Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. Special Forces, he did two tours of duty in Iraq.
“I was 32 years old the first time I went. My wife, Karen, was six or seven months pregnant with Emma and Taylor. I would say the most difficult part of it was just walking out the door. You have a scheduled date on which you’re going to leave and you have to consider you’ll never come back,” he said. “You write a letter that’s hidden somewhere and people know where it’s at - so if something were to happen to you, you get to say goodbye.”
What he learned is that the person who goes never comes back.
“That person doesn’t exist anymore. The question is, are you going to become a better version of yourself or a worse version? And sometimes, you’re worse before you’re better.”
As grueling as it was personally - professionally, it was everything he dreamed of.
“I was in charge of a special forces team. I was getting an opportunity to lead some of the most highly trained, qualified, some of the greatest Americans that I’ve ever met - to lead them and be responsible for them in combat,” he said. “We did great things, had a huge impact in the area where we were - nobody got hurt, nobody got killed, you bring them all back - that’s mission success.”
After graduating from Eastern Kentucky and getting his master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School, Decker continued to serve - overseeing the talent acquisition strategy for future Green Berets.
“There was an existing program in place, but we did a lot to make it better. Assessment and selection for special forces is a lot like the NFL Draft and the Combine - it’s a 24-day job interview. And the job interview is not to join special forces, it’s just to go to the training - which is anywhere from a year and a half to two years long,” he said. “Any selection process - just like the draft - you want to be accurate in your projections. We were doing ok, but I thought we could do better.”
During his three years as Commander of Special Forces Assessment and Selection, the program saw success - so much so that other organizations - military, business, and even sports teams wanted to hear about it.
What they realized was that by focusing solely on performance, they were missing on the person. Decker consulted with professional organizations of every major sport and eventually, the Cleveland Browns brought him in to be part of their player selection process.
“It was the perfect opportunity because even though I love sports, my passion is selecting and developing people for high performing teams - whether that be special forces or football. The only people that are really willing to put the resources behind selection are with sports teams because you can’t overcome a poor selection process.”
As it turns out, the characteristics that make someone a good team member are the same - whether it’s on the battlefield or the football field.
“I would go a step farther and say that when you talk about the elite level of the military or any sport or most business organizations - if you take the sports specific requirements away and look at the mindset of the person - they’re more alike than different.”
Along the way, Chris Ballard reached out to Decker and the two developed a relationship. When the Colts brought Ballard in as general manager, he brought Decker in to help with player selection and development. And it was a perfect fit.
“Brian is an important asset to our team and the entire Colts organization. The skills, judgement and leadership he gained and refined in the military assist every day in the development of our culture and team,” Ballard said. “As grateful as we are to have Brian’s talents in our building, we’re just as thankful for his past and ongoing service to our country, which is one of the greatest personal sacrifices an individual can make. We’re fortunate and truly honored to have him as a member of our team.”
And Decker is honored to serve.
“This is a great family, this is a great team, it’s in a great part of the country with Midwest values, and this is a team of character. It’s a great locker room - and that’s something we’re trying to build here. We really believe that you can do this with great people. We believe that great people are better players.”
It takes a great person to recognize greatness in others. And Decker has established himself as such. He continues to serve and give back by investing in veterans like himself and shining a spotlight on nontraditional ways to bring people in from the military and have them contribute in a valuable way.
“There are some really bright people - hardworking people, driven people, people who want to do things the right way if you give them an opportunity,” he said. “A lot of that is on the soldier to articulate their value proposition. But also, I think the private sector needs to be a bit more open in its hiring practices.”
It was a nontraditional path that led Brian Decker to the NFL.
He found a home with the Colts.
He attributes much of his success to the military leaders he has worked with and for along the way - names like Naylor, Thomas, Sacolick, Reis, and Wilson to name a few.
Now, he’s paying it forward by helping players develop tools they’ll use for life - much like he did with his soldiers.
“Players will respect you if you’re genuine, sincere, and they know you can make them better,” he said. “Leadership and character matter. It increases your value as a player because you have this ability to make everybody around you better.”
And that’s what he does every day.
“Where football is very similar to the military is that shared sense of purpose. We’re all a part of something that’s greater than ourselves. I think every one of us who works here wants to be able to know that in some way, form, or fashion, we’re having an impact.”
From a late bloomer to a leader of men, the military made Brian Decker the man he is today. After 22 years of service, no matter where he goes - in his heart, he’s always a soldier.
“People always ask, ‘Were you a Green Beret?’ You always will be. I’ll never not be a soldier.”
For his service past and present, all he’s done and all he continues to do - the Indianapolis Colts are proud to nominate Brian Decker for the NFL’s Salute to Service award.