The man behind the Honor Bowl is on the phone, passionate, driven and ready to make his point clear. Mark Soto insists he is not a promoter. But if he were, he’d be a pretty good one.
The Honor Bowl is Soto’s baby, and for the first time it is coming to the Bay Area.
Five high school football games this August over two days, all at St. Francis High in Mountain View.
Reigning state champions Serra and St. Francis will be there. So will defending North Coast Section Division I champion Liberty. Archbishop Mitty, Oak Grove and Gilroy are scheduled to play, too.
“Basically what we do is we bring together students, coaches and communities to help fundraise for military veterans,” Soto said. “We’re a non-profit. None of us are paid on staff. None of us on the board are paid. We all have other jobs. A hundred percent of the money that we raise goes back to continue the cause and do things for military veterans.”
Soto grew up in the Bay Area, graduated in 1980 from Fremont High in Sunnyvale and spent 18 years coaching football at various levels.
He was on the staff at Del Oro High in Loomis when he came up with the idea to create and build an event to honor and raise money for military veterans.
Soto did not serve in the military himself, but his two sons have, inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I’ll never forget it, 9/11 had just happened and my boys coming home literally being in tears,” Soto said. “They were a freshman and sophomore at the time. They said, ‘Dad, we’re going to join the military.’ I thought, ‘You’re a freshman and sophomore. That’s going to change.’
“They played high school football for me while I was at Granite Bay. Up comes their senior year, and I am starting to get calls from recruiters. ‘We just heard from your son. We’d like to come talk to you about your son joining the Army.’ What? Are you kidding me? There is no way my boys are going to join.'”
The boys joined, and Soto said his family has never been the same.
“It changed our lives,” he said. “There is truth in the saying that when a military kid joins, the family joins, too. Iraq happened. Afghanistan happened. It bonded us. We saw a lot of friends come home changed, and a lot of friends lose their lives. That’s why I saw I am not a promoter. I am a football coach and dad that had an idea that has led to this.”
The Honor Bowl started less than a decade ago in the Sacramento region. It later expanded to the San Diego area, where the event has attracted some of the nation’s top programs since it made its debut in 2013 and will continue this season for a sixth consecutive year.
The San Diego Union-Tribune became a presenting sponsor after John Lynch Sr., then an executive at the newspaper and father of 49ers general manager John Lynch, reached out to Soto.
“He retired, and we kept in touch,” Soto said. “When John Lynch Jr. became the general manager of the 49ers, John Lynch Sr. called me and said, ‘Hey, I have an idea.’ He put me in touch with his son. His son just went, ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing and how can the 49ers be a part of this?'”
The 49ers are now the event’s presenting sponsor.
“They basically have said whatever is ours is yours,” Soto said. “Whatever you need to grow this thing, we have it, use it.”
One thing the Honor Bowl does not use is an NFL stadium.
“When we got on board with the Niners, we thought, ‘Let’s bring this to Levi’s Stadium. Levi’s Stadium, in all its greatness, is amazing,'” Soto said. “But here is my one problem with it, just like in San Diego. They wanted us to go to Qualcomm. We don’t bring 50,000 people. We bring 5,000, 6,000 people.
“My one concern with Levi’s was the fact I don’t want the stadium to look empty. As much as the kids are going to love the experience, I don’t like the experience of an empty stadium. We like the experience of a Friday Night Lights game, where the stadium is packed, as much as it can be, and that energy of Friday Night Lights.”
The Honor Bowl at St. Francis will be held Aug. 24-25, a Friday and Saturday.
On Aug. 24, Oak Grove will play Del Oro at 4 p.m., followed by St. Francis against Notre Dame-Sherman Oaks at 7:30.
On Aug. 25, Mitty will play Oakdale at noon, followed by Liberty and Gilroy at 4 p.m. and Serra-San Mateo and Serra-Gardena at 7:30.
There will be LED video boards in the end zones and a military-themed opening ceremony.
“I can tell you right now the fans are in awe of what we do,” Soto said. “We get gold star families involved, families that have lost their kids. We do a heartwarming tribute to them. We use the video screens to really make that special. We go into the locker rooms with military commanders and leaders. We do talks before the athletes go on the field.
“There isn’t a coach, team, community that leave that event that don’t know about the greatness of our military and what they do to keep us free.”
Soto aims to keep the event in the Bay Area beyond this season.