New Trenches Await

Donnie Woods
Donnie Woods's decision to leave school a year early is respected by both his coach and parents, but not necessarily met with agreement. (Gail Burton - AP)
By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

Maryland offensive lineman Donnie Woods is healthy, recovered from a head injury that required him to be airlifted from the playing field earlier this season. He remains on track to graduate with a criminal justice degree thanks to a full-ride scholarship earned with his aptitude for a game he started playing at age 7. He smiles easily under a mop of scruffy dark hair and has a face that looks as if it hasn't seen a razor since spring camp.

And unlike where he's going, nobody will yell at him for it.

It's one of the perks that comes with the relatively comfortable existence of a Division I-A college football player. His father calls it the "preferred lifestyle."

But sometime next year, Woods will leave that life behind, and his duty to provide protection will grow far beyond keeping his quarterback off the turf.

Woods is trading in X's and O's for MREs and will skip his final season of eligibility to serve in the U.S. Army.

"It was an easy decision for me," said Woods, who plans to attend Officer Candidate School after graduating from Maryland. "I know what I stand for, I know what this country stands for. I'm willing to sacrifice to fight for this country, to do what I think is right. That's what I feel and I feel strongly about it."

Woods said he will miss the thrill of college football, and he knows his heart will be heavy when he walks off the field for the final time at the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl. But at age 22, Woods said he wants to serve before it is too late. The military experience also will help him in his long-term goal of joining either the FBI or CIA.

"Ever since I was a child, even in my teens, I always wanted to serve my country," Woods said. "I've always found something interesting and intriguing about the military. I feel like this is a perfect time to do this in my life."

Several players have returned from military service to play major college football, but it is unclear how many have left to fight before their eligibility ran out. The Department of Defense doesn't keep track of such cases.

Earlier this year, Ray Nickell of Yorktown, Va., watched his son Ryan, a linebacker at Division I-AA William & Mary, leave before his final year of eligibility to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter jet pilot in the Air Force.

"I'm sure it's happened before," said Ray Nickell, who retired after 24 years in the Army. "But we really weren't familiar with a lot of kids who have done it."

Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen, who remembers clearly the tear gas and draft lotteries of the Vietnam War era, said he had never heard of a player leaving early for service.

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