City Lights: Meeting halfway on life's gridiron

Mark Magana never played football in high school. In fact, he didn't play sports at all as a child, except for a little T-ball and track and a few games of soccer. He got most of his exercise when he joined the Army right after high school.

Derrick Woods has a cousin who served in Iraq, but the 18-year-old has no plans to join the military. Instead, he has his sights on joining the NFL.

Under most circumstances, the Afghanistan veteran and the Inglewood High School wide receiver might never have crossed paths at all. But Saturday in San Antonio, the two met halfway.

Magana and Woods stood together at the 50-yard line of the Alamodome during the pregame ceremony of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an annual high school football all-star game sponsored by the Army. Magana, a Huntington Beach resident, was nominated to serve as a mentor for one of the players, and he and Woods were paired together for the week leading up to the game.

War may not be a game, and football may not have a casualty list, but the two have several key things in common, which both Magana and Woods realized as they had dinner together, shared stories of football practice and mortar attacks, took a riverboat ride and met with Woods' family.

First, from Magana: "He already knows about playing together as a team. He knows about personal courage. He knows about loyalty, a lot of those same qualities. It's kind of like being part of a military squad. Eleven players or 11 soldiers, and everybody depending on everybody to do their job."

And in the words of Woods: "First of all, we work hard every day of our lives. Their training is as hard as our training. The Army teaches you how to be a man and so does football. That's what our coaches tell us."

The All-American Bowl, now in its 12th year, pits the finest high school football players in the West against the best in the East. Saturday, the West overcame the East 24-12. Still, the game is about more than the final score.

The Army nominates decorated soldiers and has them mentor players about what it means to work hard for a cause greater than themselves. Magana, who works as a public affairs specialist for the Army in Costa Mesa, got the nod late last year after his commanding officers chose him for his service in Afghanistan.

The Purple Heart recipient had never coached or mentored high school students before, and he expected to get questions about whether combat was similar to their favorite video games. Instead, Woods and other players asked him thoughtful questions and he found it easy to establish a rapport.

With the All-American Bowl past, Magana's and Woods' paths may split drastically. The latter plans to attend the University of Oklahoma in the fall; the former expects to be deployed at least a couple more times before he retires.

But if both succeed in their fields, it may be for the same reasons.

"The values you learn in high school playing on a team are going to carry you for life," Magana said.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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