In His Book “Honor Coach,” Mark Soto Shares How Passion and Patriotism Helped Birth The National High School Football Showcase •
Mark Soto has never been short on enthusiasm and passion for what he loves and believes in. And his first-ever foray into the world of book writing shows how his greatest passions came together to produce The Honor Bowl — now considered one of the best high school football showcases in America.
But, much like the inspiration for the creation of the Honor Group nonprofit and Honor Bowl, the journey to finishing the book was long and challenging.
“I wrote journals throughout my sons’ deployments and kept articles knowing that someday I wanted to write a book,” Mark Soto said. “It would have been done earlier, but my son (Joshua Soto) was helping with the book and details. It took him back in a terrible way.
“That sidelined me for a year on the project. I didn’t want to do that to him and other Marines.”
Joshua Soto was a member of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5 Marines). Its deployment in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, is America’s single deadliest of the Afghanistan conflict to date. Supporting Operation Enduring Freedom between September 2010 and April 2011, twenty five battalion members died in combat. More than 200 suffered wounds, many losing limbs.
Honor Coach: The Story of Family, Perseverance and Patriotism starts back before both of Mark Soto’s sons were deployed. It begins at a time when family and high school football were the primary passions for Soto. He first coached in Granite Bay’s freshman and junior varsity programs with his younger son Benjamin playing for him at each level.
For both Joshua and Ben, though, the military became an interest that blossomed into a full passion. The events of September 11, 2001, affected both boys — ages 14 and 13 at the time — and lit a fire in them to serve their country.
Josh’s interest in the military came to fruition at the age of 18. He considered joining the Army before choosing the Marines. He moved to Camp Pendleton with new wife Alisha and began his training. Ben followed, joining the Army several months later.
So, Mark Soto and his wife, Teresa, had their two sons readying for combat in a war far away. Meanwhile, their oldest, a daughter named Dani, had left the nest years earlier to be out on her own.
The book introduces the family as well as the ups and downs endured during Joshua and Ben’s deployments. From jobs changing to finances shrinking when the housing bubble burst and greatly affected Mark Soto’s loan officer business hard, Mark and Teresa tried their best to overcome their hardships while also worrying about their sons’ well-being a world away.
Mark Soto began to immerse himself into following, chronicling and sharing the experiences of American troops in the Middle East. For obvious reasons, he held a particular focus on the 3/5 Marines Blackhorse Battalion. He reached out to other families with loved ones in the 3/5 Marines. They built a network through old fashioned communication and the establishment of a Facebook page, “The Boys of 3/5”.
The bonds with military families were strengthened as the fighting got more intense for the 3/5 Marines. Even more so when some of the new acquaintances became Gold Star Families — families of soldiers killed in action
The book details the uncertainty and pain of learning each time a 3/5 Marine was killed or severely injured. If and when details emerged, it was hard to know exactly what or how it happened. Regardless, every battalion family knew lives would change forever. Changed for the victims, families and surviving soldiers remaining in Afghanistan to fight another day.
As the military network grew, Mark Soto grew closer to more military families and learned more soldier stories. Ben Soto returned home in 2008 after a 15-month deployment. He shared about his fellow soldiers who were killed, and how he had to drive his fallen friends back to Baghdad for processing of the bodies. Mark Soto began to form a desire to do more.
Out of coaching for a few years, Soto attended a 2010 coaching clinic in Reno. The trip resulted in a meeting and follow-up lunch with Casey Taylor. Taylor was the Del Oro-Loomis varsity football coach at the time. He invited Soto onto the Golden Eagles’ coaching staff and helped get the ball rolling for the Honor Bowl.
Taylor and Del Oro were set to host the 2010 Battle at the Capital, a regional showcase by a Reno promoter. Taylor and Mark Soto approached the promoter about adding a color guard and military presence to commemorate the anniversary of 9/11.
Supported by Taylor and Del Oro Principal Dan Gayaldo, Soto organized all the added fanfare for the 2010 event. However, Soto quickly realized he had much bigger aspirations for the showcase. He got the promoter to agree to donate a small portion of the proceeds to The Wounded Warrior Project. However, he couldn’t prove the promoter ever made the donation.
So, Soto decided he wanted to take the reins of the showcase. He aimed to build it into a true military tribute. It would serve as both an appreciation of veterans, and an educational event for as many football programs and high schools he could reach.
Honor Coach walks readers through the eventual transition from the Reno promoter, establishment of The Honor Group 501c3 nonprofit, and evolution from the Battle at the Capital to The Honor Bowl.
Soto’s book includes stories he discovered between high-powered football programs and the military — including former players killed in action. He also details the Honor Bowl’s growth from regional football event to national showcase. Mark Soto got buy-in and support from the Sac-Joaquin Section and the California Interscholastic Federation. Local schools Del Oro and Granite Bay also helped kick off the Honor Bowl, Honor Group, and Honor Tour (veterans and wounded soldiers visiting high school assemblies to educate students).
Through the years, big-time programs from up and down the state have participated in The Honor Bowl. Nationally-recognized programs have shown interest as well. ESPN planned to televise two of the 2020 Honor Bowl matchups. One was a showdown between California powerhouse Centennial-Corona (a longtime Honor Bowl participant) and Maryland stalwart St. Frances Academy-Baltimore. However, COVID-19 forced the event’s cancellation. Undeterred, Soto promises the 2021 event will boast “the biggest lineup we’ve ever had.”
The two-weekend event will feature games in San Diego and San Jose. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 will highlight the program.
“We had to take the year off, but we are very excited about the 9/11 anniversary, the Moto talks (inspirational pregame pep talks to all participating teams), a visit to Camp Pendleton, and a stellar lineup,” Coach Soto said after calling off the 2020 event. “We have schools lined up from across the nation. We’re ready to share the true meaning of the event again.”