SAN ANTONIO - It takes a lot to impress the players at the U.S. Army All-American bowl. You know the deal: These best-of-the-best high school athletes are confident they can outperform anyone on an athletic field.
But when they took the field Wednesday for the Skills Challenge and sized up the competition, they all had to take pause in amazement. Three disabled army veterans had joined the event.
Sergeant Jen Lee, Staff Sergeant Nathan Reed and Specialist Johnny Nguyen - all of whom lost parts of their legs while serving in Iraq - showed the players a thing or two about persistence and dedication.
It wasn't lost on the players.
"It's a real humbling experience knowing they're over there fighting for us and we're here playing right now," Texas commit Traylon Shead said. "Some of them are losing limbs, and still have the heart to come out here and do what they're doing and competing with us. It's a real humbling experience just to know that God blessed me with talent, to wake up every morning to play the game of football.
Shead says that regardless of any disability, the soldiers impressed him and his teammates with their performances in the drills.
"They did real good," Shead said. "They did better than me on the ropes. I couldn't even get all my steps in; I jumped through and went through too fast."
Being out there meant a lot to the soldiers, too.
"Obviously, this being presented by the Army, it shows everybody what we're doing and we can be fighting overseas - but we can be back in the real world, having fun, playing sports, and be out here," Lee said.
Reed, who had a portion of his right leg amputated after a car bomb exploded in Baghdad on Memorial Day of 2006, said competing with these college stars of tomorrow "means a lot" to him.
"To see these young guys with their abilities being recognized on such a huge stage and of course being supported by the Army, it kind of gives us a chance to give back to those guys," he said.
Nguyen, who said he lost his leg from a bomb projectile while serving in Sadr City, Iraq, said competing was a challenge, but one he'll remember.
"It was different, it was a little bit of a struggle for me of course with the amputation and all," Nguyen said. "I am out here with the big boys and I guess in my mind I hung with them.
"It's a good feeling."
That was, after all, the whole point.
West head coach Jim Streety of San Antonio (Texas) Madison has been involved with the game for all of its ten years in his hometown. He said moments like this help the players take away something other than football.
"I know one thing, we're going to be talking about that today and tomorrow about those guys having appreciation," Streety said. "I think a lot of these guys really don't ever give that a lot of thought. Quite frankly, that's probably somewhat normal. But this is a good eye-opener for them."