By Tim HippsJanuary 14, 2010
SAN ANTONIO (Jan. 14, 2009) -- The East All-Stars lost the 2010 U.S. Army All-American Bowl football game Jan. 9, but won the Soldier Heroes-Players Challenge at Sunset Station's Lone Star Pavilion two days earlier.
The icebreaking event featured Soldiers and high school all-star football players teaming up for an East versus West competition of sit-ups and pushups against the clock, followed by a food-eating relay race in which hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken wings were wolfed down.
The sponsor of the game, U.S. Army Accessions Command, selected the 100 Soldiers based on duty achievement while deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.
They were buddied up with each player as part of the Army's awareness and outreach associated with the game. The dynamic duos later were introduced to America before the bowl game, which was nationally televised by NBC.
Capt. Monita Johnson, a Bronze Star recipient from the 84th Training Division, Fort McCoy, Wis., paired up with East All-Star punter Will Hagerup of Whitefish Bay (Wis.) High School. They met before the Soldier Heroes-Players Challenge and later ate dinner together.
"She is very, very charismatic," Hagerup said of Johnson. "We had a great time meeting each other. I have utmost respect for her."
Hagerup, who averaged 46 yards on three punts during the football game, also competed for the East in the eating contest. Two small chicken wings, however, were just enough to whet the 6-foot-4, 215-pound athlete's appetite.
"Easy," said Hagerup, who will next play for the University of Michigan.
"They were two little tiny things. I'm really hungry. I was hoping for an extra eating competition.
"It was a lot of fun to be competitive with the guys in a non-football environment," Hagerup added. "It was a good time."
Likewise, Johnson said she enjoyed every minute of mentoring a young football star.
"I learned that his grandfather served in the Army and retired as a colonel," said Johnson, who served in Iraq from 2006-2007. "He asked what I did in the Army, and I told him that I was an instructor. He asked how many years I had in, and I told him I had 22 years in. And he wanted to know where I was stationed. ... We had a good conversation."
Johnson was glad for the opportunity to serve as an Army ambassador.
"I get to show the Army in a positive light for the youth because a lot of things are going on right now with the war," she said. "I should talk about all the benefits of being in the military and show them who we are, what we are, and why we do what we do.
"I believe this (game) will promote how we support our young Americans.
This shows that we're there for them and rooting for them, and in return, if this should be something they decide to do, then they'll have a positive aspect about it instead of all the negative publicity sometimes seen about the military."
Since the Army All-American Bowl is one of two national high school all-star games, players of this caliber have a choice to make. West All-Star quarterback Jake Heaps of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., didn't take any time to decide to come to San Antonio, where he was paired with Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Sutczak of Fort Riley, Kan.
"I did have a choice, but I don't really think there is a choice," said Heaps, who will attend Brigham Young University. "This Army game is so special. To have the opportunity to meet the Soldiers, to hear their stories and what they do, gives you such an appreciation for how they defend our lives and freedom every day."
East All-Star linebacker Nick Forbes of Johnson High School in Frederick, Md., was honored to meet his Soldier-Hero, Staff Sgt. Adam Ellsworth of the 200th Military Police Command, U.S. Army Reserve.
"It was a humbling experience playing with these athletes and meeting the Soldiers," Forbes said. "I really got to know my Soldier. It was a unique experience."
Johnson, a native of Detroit, considered both squads winners - on and off the field.
"I'm ready to watch the football game, and I'm rooting for the East and I'm rooting for the West, because I think everybody's a winner," she said.