Cape Coral (Fla.) Island Coast running back Mario Pender was awarded his U.S. Army All-American Game jersey on Thursday morning during a ceremony at his school. The 6-foot, 185-pound running back said the entire event, which was for both him and his teammate, safety Jordan Diggs, was a special moment commemorating their success in the high school ranks.
"It was a wonderful experience," Pender said. "It felt like a blessing for me."
For Pender, making his way onto the East Team roster for the annual game played in San Antonio, Texas draws comparisons to a former prospect from his area - North Fort Myers (Fla.) running back Noel Devine who was a part of the 2007 U.S. Army All-American Game. Pender says he uses Devine's high school career and success as a measuring stick of sorts for where he stands at this stage in his football career.
"I remember when Noel Devine was in the game," Pender said. "He is from this area. I have been following in his footsteps so far and he played in this game as well. For me to play in it as well, it really means a lot. It means that I am accomplishing a lot right now. It means that in some ways I am compared to him and he was such a big deal down here."
Pender, a four-star running back according to Rivals.com, nearly derailed himself from this moment earlier in his high school career. As a sophomore, Pender was forced to attend an alternative school due to behavioral issues. He was able to return to Island Coast as a junior and immediately found comfort on the football field. As a junior, he rushed for 2,261 yards and 31 touchdowns on 163 carries. As a senior, he has already rushed for more than 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns on less than 100 carries. That success on the field led to Thursday's event, but his maturation off of the field also allowed for him to earn the distinguished honor of playing in the nation's top all-star football event.
"It means a lot to me," Pender said. "I think it shows that I matured. I learned and grew up from that situation and focused on what was important to me. I feel like it shows I have my head on right and that my future is the most important thing to me."
When Pender arrives in San Antonio, he is hoping to show that his numbers are legitimate and that he can bust off big touchdown runs to the outside or bang out a few yards inside against some of the nation's top defenders.
"I feel like it is about proving something a little bit more than anything," Pender said.
It is also likely that while in San Antonio, Pender will be receiving some attention from teammates and opponents with regards to his recruitment. The South Florida back is a Florida State commitment but has recently taken official visits to West Virginia and Tennessee. He explained his decision to take official visits to schools other than the one he has pledged his services to.
"I am definitely committed to Florida State but I wanted to take visits to learn more about other schools and to see some things," Pender said. "I am looking to see what kind of interest these schools give me. I am looking to see what they have to offer."
While the Volunteers, Mountaineers, and others will try to get Pender to switch, from his comments it seems unlikely he plays for anyone but the Seminoles.
"It was my dream school from Day 1," Pender said of Florida State. "I always grew up liking the Seminoles. They also have the right pro-style offense that fits me. I like the lifestyle at Florida State. That is what made me decide so early on."
Whether or not he rethinks his commitment, his recruitment and high school career will both conclude during that first week in January in San Antonio. Pender is an early enrollee and is expected to immediately begin classes at his future school after he wraps up the U.S. Army All-American Game. His decision to enroll early is one that Pender believes will pay off in a big way, allowing him to get a session of spring football under his belt as a true freshman.
"I feel like it is a big benefit to me," Pender said. "I feel comfortable doing it."
Pender and the East team take on the West in the 12th annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. The game will be nationally televised on NBC.