For Jake Velloza, it was always all about the team.
A three-sport athlete at Tomales High School in Marin County, Velloza -- a star running back -- pestered his football coaches to allow his teammates to carry the ball as well.
“He was always going to bat for his friends,” said Leon Feliciano, his high school football coach.
And when Velloza, an Army specialist, contemplated whether to reenlist earlier this year, he ultimately decided to do so, believing he had made a commitment to his fellow soldiers.
“He kept saying, ‘Those guys are my brothers,’ ” said Jay Borodic, Velloza’s best friend since eighth grade. “He wanted to reenlist -- those were his new teammates; those were his new brothers.”
Velloza, 22, was one of two soldiers killed May 2 at a combat outpost in Hammam Alil, Iraq, north of Baghdad. The attack, which also injured three other American soldiers, apparently was carried out by two gunmen later identified as Iraqi soldiers. Velloza, who joined the Army in 2006, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood, Texas.
Growing up in Inverness along the beautiful and remote Marin County coast, Velloza was usually either tinkering with something mechanical, playing sports or plotting how to “go over the hill,” as he and Borodic referred to larger communities such as Petaluma.
“We called other places ‘civilization,’ ” Borodic said, laughing. “We’d bum rides however we could. We’d go into San Francisco . . . if we got lucky.”
Living among dairy farms and little else, Velloza yearned to explore.
Having welded and cobbled together a handmade mini-bike in the high school’s metal shop as a 15-year-old, he proceeded to motor around, taking in the sights of Point Reyes National Seashore. A police officer spotted the underage driver and followed Velloza to Borodic’s house, where he ran in and mock-pleaded, “Hide me!”
Velloza’s athletic prowess was identified early. Feliciano said he began to hear about a speedy eighth-grader who was winning multiple events at local track meets. To be on the safe side, Feliciano said, he called the family to inquire which high school Velloza planned to attend, knowing that Jake’s father, Bob Velloza, had participated in football and baseball at Tomales High.
It was in eighth grade that Velloza and Borodic -- running back and quarterback, respectively -- met for the first time and bonded over their mutual misery: Velloza was idled with a broken ankle in a skateboarding accident, and Borodic was sidelined with a broken arm while playing football.
“Jake and I were involved with sports -- nonstop,” Borodic said. “We were either playing sports or hanging out at each other’s house.”
In high school, Velloza played football and baseball and ran track, sometimes consecutively. He was famous in the community for once competing in a school track meet in the morning, winning several events, then starring in a baseball game in the afternoon. He pitched a no-hitter and hit a home run.
Friends said Velloza always knew he would enter the military, but Borodic said his old friend wasn’t sure about reenlisting for a second tour of Iraq.
“He was hesitant,” Borodic said, “But I think the economy convinced him to go back. Plus, he always spoke so highly of the people he worked with. That was important too.”
Velloza recently became engaged to Danielle Erwin. That came as a surprise to some friends at home, who hadn’t yet met his fiancee. Borodic said he was watching the mailbox for the engagement announcement when he got the news of his friend’s death.
Feliciano said the high school’s team met recently and voted to dedicate the next season to Velloza. Players plan to honor Velloza by wearing a decal bearing his number, 31, on their helmets, the coach said.
In addition to his fiancee, Velloza is survived by his parents, Bob and Susan Velloza; and his grandparents, Dick and May Velloza.