Army All-American Bowl – The best high school football players
As the players step from the tunnel into the glaring light, they squint, briefly allowing their eyes to adjust.
Once they are able, they slowly look around, taking in the sights; the screaming fans, the jumping, yelling cheerleaders, and the jumbled mass of steel overhead that is the stadium’s dome.
This is the 2015 Army All-American Bowl.
The Army All-American Bowl is an annual event that brings the nation’s top high school football players and band members together to showcase their skills.
Upon arrival, the football players are split into two teams – East and West – though the band members come together as a single unit.
Every participant shares a desire to win, but every one of them also has at least one more thing in common – the experience.
"Most people just watch the game on TV, but there’s so much more to it than that," said Army Reserve Drill Sergeant of the Year and Army Bowl Soldier Mentor Christopher Croslin.
Adding, "These kids come here as high school students but they leave as something more; mentors. After this, young kids from all over will look up to these guys and they will have to carry themselves with respect and professionalism."
All of the Army Bowl participants gather in San Antonio, Texas, many with their families, one week prior to game day held in the Alamo Dome.
"This is a great opportunity for these kids," said Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin.
Adding, "These guys are used to being the biggest and the best on the field, but now they are surrounded by players on their own level. This is how they get better. How they get prepared for college."
Even with their incredible skill and poise, however, the participants don’t do it all alone.
On the first day, participants are introduced to a handpicked group of dedicated, disciplined and professional Soldier Mentors, whose words and actions display each of the seven Army Values: loyalty, discipline, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
"Our respect for the Army has only grown," said John Gustin, father of West team linebacker Porter Gustin. "It is inspiring to see their dedication and professionalism."
Soldier Mentors acted as guides and role models to the young athletes and band members throughout their Army Bowl experience.
Wherever the participants went, whatever they did – whether it was practices, skills competitions, or seminars – Soldier Mentors were working, learning, and playing along with them every step of the way.
"My favorite part was getting hands on with everyone and really getting to see their personalities," Croslin said.
Adding, "You just don’t get to see that at dinners and seminars. Once I was able to get in there with them, and really get to know them, it was cool because I got to see that football really does breed the values that we, as soldiers in the Army, seek out."
Much of the wisdom imparted by the Soldier Mentors was intentional; such as the importance of the Army Values and how important it is to be a good role model for those who look up to you.
Soldier Mentors lead by example.
"I was able to see for myself just how important training really is," said Derrius Guice, West team wide receiver and the 2015 Army Bowl MVP.
He added, "Being able to do something over and over, exactly the same way, is an important skill, and it’s something everybody in the Army can do."
The Army All-American Bowl is the nation’s premier high school football event.
It makes it possible for the most extraordinary players and band members from across the country to be recognized and awarded for their achievements on a national scale.
It also gives the participants a chance to showcase their exceptional skills against other players of their own caliber.
This prepares them for what they will experience in the next phase of their careers – college.
"I just hope the Army keeps doing this for these kids," said Coach Greg Davis, Ennis High School, Ennis, Texas.
"I never knew that the Army cared so much about football and about these kids. This is an honor, it’s humbling and it’s a huge boost for these kids."
The Army All-American Bowl is also a unique opportunity for those involved to see the individual soldiers of the Army from a new perspective. This game and the events surrounding it provide one-on-one contact, experience and conversation with soldiers that is unrivaled.
"I came here expecting to find big, strong, mean Army guys just trying to recruit me," said All-American Band alto sax player PJ Scott.
"What I found, though, were great, caring, just beautiful people who came here to help. They showed us the true meaning of respect and honor," he noted.