News: Marine Recalls Top-Tier Soccer Career
By Marine Corps Sgt. Jeremy Ross
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. - Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jose Pena, a warehouse chief with 2nd Maintenance Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group here, has been playing soccer at the highest levels for the Corps almost since the day he enlisted nearly 13 years ago.
Originally from the eastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, Pena and his family moved to McAllen, Texas, when he was six. Even at that early age he had begun forming a bond with the ball.
"My uncle was watching the world cup in 1986," Pena recalled. "I remember seeing [former Argentina men's national team great] Maradona. The amazing things he could do with a soccer ball ... I always wanted to be that guy."
After moving to Texas it didn't take long for Pena to start playing in local youth leagues. He found that he had the talent and desire to compete with older players.
"Let's say I was 8 years old," Pena recalled. "I was playing with kids who were 11. When I was 11, I was playing against 14 year olds.
"Apparently they saw something in me, back then," he added.
Pena played throughout his teens. After he graduated from high school the ball bounced in a different direction; a friend and teammate convinced him to see a Marine Corps recruiter.
"He was like, 'Hey man, I talked to the recruiter and he said [the Marine Corps] will get you in good shape and they'll even let you play soccer,'" Pena recalled.
Pena joined the Marines, and soon after he reported to his first duty station at Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he began his military soccer career.
High-level soccer in the Marine Corps is a tiered system. The lower levels consist of intramural and unit teams. Once a year squads representing large commands from the West Coast, East Coast and Pacific get together to play regional championship tournaments.
The best military players from these competitions play for regional teams. Selected players among this group are invited to attend the annual All-Marine Soccer Camp, where they'll have a chance to earn a spot on an ultra-elite, 18-player roster, a group known as, "The Few and the Proud." This is the squad that represents the Marine Corps against the other services at the annual Armed Forces Soccer Championships.
The level of play and skill at this level is comparable to that found on some of the nation's best university and college soccer teams, Pena said. And, many of these more experienced players, he recalled, served as great role models.
"That was a great way to get my career started," Pena explained. "Right away, I had these great Marines showing me the right way to do things. Soccer led me to that."
Pena has played central midfielder for most of his military soccer career. A central midfielder is responsible for dictating the pace of the game, jump-starting his or her team's offense, and disrupting the opposing squad.
Pena's participation in high-level military soccer has made him exceptionally fit; a useful trait for any Marine. Now, at age 31, Pena said he often finds younger Marines looking up to him for his athletic abilities.
"You come back [from soccer camp] and you're a good role model," he said. "Your Marines look at you and say, 'I want to be able to keep up with him.'"
Pena was a member of the All-Marine team that represented the Corps at the 2009 Armed Forces Soccer Championship at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. That tournament, he said, proved to be his finale as an active top-tier military player.
Today, Pena plays on intramural and club teams in the Camp Lejeune area. His time on the All-Marine soccer circuit, he said, is finished.
"It's time to let the younger players have their 'go,'" Pena explained. "I don't want to be the 'old guy' taking a spot from one of the younger guys."