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.
"I admire him for his patriotism and what he wants to do," Friedgen said. "I don't necessarily agree with his decision, but I respect his decision. If that's what he wants to do, then that's what he wants to do."
Woods kept the decision to himself for weeks, refusing to tell even his family, best friends or teammates on the Maryland football team.
Woods slouched in a classroom chair last spring weighed down by the secret battle raging in his mind: to tell or not to tell. His parents said he had grown noticeably restless, and though they didn't know exactly what bothered their son, they had some idea.
After a while, Woods couldn't keep his secret anymore. The reaction to the news, he said, was to be expected.
"Nobody really truly understands what I'm doing," Woods said.
Members of Woods's family say that former NFL player Pat Tillman's story inspired the decision. Tillman turned down a lucrative free agent contract in 2002 to join the U.S. Army Rangers. He died in a hail of friendly fire while in Afghanistan in 2004.
But Woods played down a comparison between himself and Tillman.
"It was a motivation for me, kind of," Woods said. "His sacrifice was far more greater than I could dream of. He had millions and millions of dollars, he had a family."
Woods's family members say they support the decision, though they are nervous. Don and Donna Woods have been military parents before. Sean, Donnie's older brother, served two tours in Iraq. Brian Woods, another of Donnie's older brothers, said the experience wasn't pleasant the first time around.
"I don't think there was a night his parents slept well," Brian said. "That made it uneasy. I don't think they're looking forward to the notion of going through the same."
Don Woods served in the military during the Vietnam War, though he never saw combat. As the war raged, Woods struggled to finish classes at Troy State University before his deferment expired. Instead of waiting to be drafted, he joined a Navy reserve unit, which allowed him to finish school.
Then, as he does now, Don Woods said he is conflicted about war and worries for his son's safety. He is conscious of the reports of civil war in Iraq.
"I have another son who is putting his life on the line for something," Woods said. "I have great respect for military, but I feel we've made poor decisions on how we've used them there lately. It's a poor time to get in, to get caught in the middle of something like this."
Despite their fear, members of Woods's family stand behind the call.
"I totally support his decision to come out of playing football," Donna Woods said. "He's a free thinker. He seems to feel a lot happier now."
Still, when he heads home this week to Florida, where he will play in the final football game of his life, his parents will try again to gently dissuade him from joining.
His folks, however, know quite well the challenge of changing their son's mind.
When it came time for Woods to choose a school, his mother pulled out a map and drew a circle, with Dade City in the center. Her priority was keep her son close, and scholarship offers came from places within the circle. But Donnie took so well to Maryland's recruiting visit, he turned aside the other offers.
"Maryland was not in that circle," his father said.
Neither is Iraq or Afghanistan.
But while his loved ones worry about war, Woods remains at peace with his choice.
"It doesn't scare me," he said. "Yeah, I'm a little worried about it and the situation I could get myself into. But it doesn't bother me that much. To know what I'm doing this for outweighs the scariness."