After 10-Plus Years, Honor Bowl Creators Reflect On The Origins And Evolution Of Event That Brings High School Football And Military Appreciation Together •
Sometimes, out of great suffering and loss can come great hope and reward.
The War in Afghanistan that began in 2001 as Operation Enduring Freedom resulted in significant pain and loss of life felt all around the world. Mark Soto, a high school football coach in the Sacramento region when 9/11 and the subsequent war shook the world, would eventually see the pain first-hand. He’d see the suffering, and loss of life brought on by the war.
Soto’s sons Joshua and Benjamin enlisted in the armed forces, and Coach Soto became familiar with the anguish and tragedy of war. Joshua was a member of the U.S. Marines’ 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5, nicknamed Dark Horse) that suffered the highest casualty rate since the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict.
Of the many serious injuries and deaths suffered by the Dark Horse battalion in Afghanistan, several hit close to home for Coach Soto, including Pfc. Victor Dew who was killed in action on October 13, 2010. Dew, from Soto’s hometown of Granite Bay, would be eulogized by Soto at his parent’s request.
That suffering and loss had a profound effect on soldiers like Soto’s sons, as well as on Coach Soto and the communities from which the wounded and fallen hailed.
The darkness would yield hope and reward in the form of The Honor Bowl — envisioned and developed by Soto with help from friends near and far. In 2010, The Battle at the Capital football showcase needed a new home and Del Oro-Loomis head coach Casey Taylor was approached about hosting the event. Taylor, whose family has World War II and Vietnam veterans, approached Soto with the thought of using the football showcase as a platform for highlighting local and regional military.
“I felt like the showcase needed more than just games,” said Taylor, who is now in his second year coaching at Oak Ridge High in El Dorado Hills. “I was inspired by Mark and his boys and their story, and my Dad was in Vietnam and my grandpa at Pearl Harbor.”
“I thought, ‘What if we got some military involvement?’ and, when I asked Mark, he went nuts.”
Soto’s involvement and passion began the evolution of the Battle at the Capital becoming The Battle for Veterans, and then The Honor Bowl.
“(Taylor) had no idea as to what I was going to do in regards to the vision that I had,” Soto said of the Honor Bowl’s humble beginnings. “I think he figured that we would just have an Honor Guard or maybe a special Star Spangled Banner.”
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2022 marks 13 years since Soto became involved on the football showcase that has truly lived up to its tag line of “It’s more than just a football game.” In all, The Honor Bowl has showcased more than 200 teams from 11 different states. This year will be the tenth season games will be played in both Northern and Southern California. The matchups feature seven games over two weekends and include teams from California, Nevada, Arizona, Orego, and Colorado.
The Southern California Honor Bowl kicks off Labor Day Weekend in San Diego with a pair of games under the Friday night lights and a Saturday tripleheader. All games will be played at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego.
The Northern California Honor Bowl includes two games on September 9, naturally at Oak Ridge. Taylor will become the first to coach three different schools in The Honor Bowl. After years of participating as the Del Oro head coach, Taylor will team up again with Soto and lead his alma mater into action.
Taylor is among the coaches with the most appearances in The Honor Bowl. Six teams (Cathedral Catholic; Serra-Gardena; Centennial-Corona; Oaks Christian-Westlake Village; Clayton Valley-Concord; and Del Oro) have played in five or more Honor Bowl games and helped develop the showcase into a highly-anticipated event every year.
“If there is one thing, besides our drive, that has made The Honor Bowl a success, it has been the coaches,” Soto said. “The coaches and the relationships that we have built with them have been gold. They just love the event.”
Building The Honor Bowl
Early in the process of building The Honor Bowl, Soto and partners Rick Sutter (Director of Operations) and Patty Schumacher (Gold Star Mom and military liaison) created The Honor Group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit. The organization’s mission is to “educate students, coaches and community about patriotism while raising money for injured, ill and wounded veterans.”
And the group began to add all of the components that have built The Honor Bowl into a premiere high school football and military appreciation showcase. Honor Bowl features have included an on-site military exposition; pre-game motivational talks for every team featuring current military personnel, wounded veterans, chaplains, Gold Star family members, and Coach Soto. Proceedings also include spectacular tunnel entrances for each football program; military aircraft flyovers; game balls delivered by paratroopers; on-field presentation of accessible equipment and service dogs for wounded veterans; recognition of local veterans and first responders; unfurling of massive flags covering the field for the national anthem; and special recognition ceremonies for soldiers killed in action.
The building of The Battle Cross — a time honored military memorial often done on battlefields to symbolize the honor, service and sacrifice of soldiers killed in action — has become one of the most powerful portions of Honor Bowl programs through the years. The Honor Group normally includes family members of fallen soldiers to build the Battle Cross at midfield during halftime of the feature games at the annual Northern California and Southern California events.
Last year, just weeks after 13 American service members were killed at the Kabul Airport during the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, Soto and his team decided to add an extra element of honor to The Battle Cross ceremony. Prior to the construction of The Battle Cross, the names and images of all 13 soldiers killed were displayed on the entrance tunnel video boards for players and spectators to repeat the name of every one of the 13 fallen soldiers.
“And then, right after that, we had a bugle player come out and play Taps,” Soto recalled while trying to control his emotions.
Football and the games can evoke plenty of emotion, but The Honor Bowl takes things up a notch, regularly bringing joy, sadness, respect, honor and appreciation onto the field and through the stadium when chin straps are not fastened and play is stopped.
The Honor Group has long strived to emphasize activities outside of football to enrich the experience of the participating football programs. When Oceanside High School was selected to host the 2013 Honor Bowl, Soto acted upon another of his “crazy ideas” that created a standing tradition for the Southern California Honor Bowl experience.
With Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton literally in Oceanside’s backyard, Soto hatched the idea of taking teams and coaches onto the base to get an up-close look at the trials and tribulations of wounded soldiers.
“I decided to reach out to the Commanding Officer at Camp Pendleton and Commander of the Wounded Warrior Battalion, and thought that maybe we could bring the teams onto the base and have them do a tour,” Soto said. “It was just a crazy idea, but next thing I know is we were invited to come into the Wounded Warrior Battalion and meet some of the guys recovering.”
Taylor’s Del Oro team was one of the first teams to experience the tradition experienced by select teams participating in the Southern California Honor Bowl.
“It was awesome,” Taylor said. “It was a great eye-opener for our boys to hear the stories and see how hard these guys were working to get back physically and mentally.”
As far as Soto knows, it was the first time that high school athletes were invited to visit with wounded soldiers and learn about recovery well beyond anything that they had ever experienced in sports.
Those real-life experiences and historic moments have become commonplace at The Honor Bowl.
In 2014, prior to the marquee game featuring host Oceanside and local rival Mission Viejo, the U.S. Marine Color Guard marched to midfield flanked by two wounded veterans in Action Track wheelchairs. Prior to the start of the Star Spangled Banner, the Color Guard cued another wounded veteran sitting in a wheelchair at the 35-yard line. Injured Navy Sailor Jason Geiser (a paraplegic paralyzed from the waist down) stood up and walked to midfield with the assistance of a medical exoskeleton “Soldier Suit” as a hushed crowd watched silently.
“I have never heard a stadium filled with thousands so quiet,” Soto recently said on social media when recounting that night.
The actual football games played have created some magical moments as well. The most memorable Honor Bowl game was a wild 2016 shootout between nationally-ranked opponents IMG Academy-Florida and Centennial-Corona in San Diego. Despite Centennial jumping out to a 14-0 lead, the game became a see-saw battle with potent offenses trading blows.
Centennial broke a 42-42 tie with a touchdown with just 1:06 remaining in the game to take its first lead since the first quarter. But IMG marched downfield and receiver Brian Hightower made a spectacular touchdown catch with just 12 seconds remaining. IMG coach Kevin Wright opted to attempt a two-point conversion, and now-Cleveland Browns backup quarterback Kellen Mond tossed a shovel pass for the deciding score in a wild 50-49 victory.
“IMG coming in from Bradenton, Florida, almost not being able to make it because of a hurricane,” Sutter said. “Flying into Atlanta, asking us if there was any way we could play on Sunday.”
“Centennial and IMG played the most stellar, insanely athletic game. It was just the Super Bowl.”
The players and teams that have been a part of The Honor Bowl have been noteworthy with numerous top recruits gracing the field, including several that would go on to be drafted by NFL teams.
Because nationally-ranked teams like IMG Academy and Centennial believe in the cause and want to play top competition on a worthy stage, Honor Bowl matchups can be challenging for some teams. Taylor’s coaching philosophy has always been to face tough competition to prepare for league play and the postseason. The Honor Bowl has provided his teams with plenty of challenges.
“We want to play good teams, and I think that just about every game we’ve played we have been 14-point dogs,” Taylor said of facing Southern California powerhouses like Westlake, Helix-La Mesa, and Oaks Christian. “Our Honor Bowl record as far as winning games probably isn’t the best, but it got us ready for our league and playoff runs. I feel that it is a big reason that we won 8 (Sac-Joaquin) Section titles.”
What started as a regional football showcase and military exposition quickly grew through the years. The Honor Group expanded to host games in Southern California and grew to attract national football and military attention. The organization’s education and outreach grew along with its voice and footprint.
During the expansion to Southern California, Soto and Sutter established a relationship with the San Diego Union-Tribune and its Vice Chairman and CEO John Lynch, Sr. that gave the event more momentum and recognition in the region. The newspaper and its media partners put a brighter spotlight on The Honor Bowl and the large military presence in and around San Diego.
Lynch would play a role in growth in Northern California as well when his son, John Lynch, Jr. was named General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers. The NFL team has been a presenting sponsor of The Honor Bowl since 2017 and continues to support the organization and its mission.
Soto had no idea that The Honor Bowl would become one of the premiere high school football showcases and military appreciation platforms in the country, nor that the event would be going strong more than a decade later.
“No, I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for people like Rick (Sutter), my wife, the 49ers, I don’t know how we could have brought this thing as far as we have,” Soto said.
The COVID shutdown was the only thing that was able to slow down The Honor Bowl, but even a global pandemic was conquered by The Honor Group’s enthusiasm and determination. The organization is made up of volunteers with deep military connections who have created a network of supporters nationwide.
“None of us are paid,” Soto said “Whatever comes in, goes back. Last year, we donated $45,000 to non-profit charities (benefiting veterans, including wounded soldiers) across America.”
In the end, that is what keeps The Honor Group and The Honor Bowl going.
“Every year we go into this saying ‘How are we going to pull this off?’,” Soto said. “And, at the end of the event, it’s just like ‘We did it!’”
That’s the reward and the hope that rises the people and events above the pain and suffering that birthed The Honor Bowl.