Oakland native James Williford was honored at Saturday’s 12th annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.

The 2001 Messalonskee High School graduate, who was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot during the second of his three deployments, was recognized as a Soldier Hero at the yearly football classic that showcases premiere high school senior football stars.

When Williford stepped onto the field Saturday, he was partnered with Germone Hopper, a wide receiver from Charlotte, N.C., who has committed to attend Clemson University in South Carolina.

Williford didn’t participate in sports at Messalonskee; he said joining the Army gave him a chance to excel.

The Army, he said, has afforded him an education, training, travel, benefits and a great retirement plan.

“The Army has provided endless opportunities for me,” he said. “You truly get out what you put into it. If you work hard and push yourself you’ll get back those returns.”

When he was deployed in 2006-07 to Iraq, Williford’s mission included traveling in a specially designed vehicle to find roadside bombs.

One day his unit came under fire and Williford fell as he ran for cover he fell. “I thought I had tripped,” he said.

When he made it to safety, Williford said his back hurt. After a medic’s examination, Williford said he learned an AK-47 round had clipped his lower right back.

“It just hit skin, fat and muscle,” he said. “It was a lucky wound … if I’d have been turned one way or another.”

After that tour, Williford said his third and final trip involved working with Afghan police, the Afghan army and border police to gather intelligence about those who ruled villages in Afghanistan.

“The success of my team was not rated by the amount of bad guys we got, it was in the vast amount of intelligence we left for the next group,” Williford said.

Williford didn’t always dream of joining the Army.

His father, Richard, and his mother, Kathleen Kahler, both served in the Air Force, and Williford said it was assumed he would do the same.

The summer after his high school junior year, Williford’s father, Richard dropped him at a recruiting office.

The Air Force recruiter was late for the appointment.

So when an Army recruiter in the same building invited Williford in for a chat and a doughnut, he accepted the offer.

In those days, Williford said the doughnut was a draw — he carried about 212 pounds on his 5-foot, 10-inch frame.

“I was a big eater and didn’t exercise,” he said.

Williford said he was struck by what the recruiter had to say and the opportunities the Army would provide and he signed up.

A recruiter helped Williford develop healthier eating habits and by the time he graduated basic training, Williford had shed 38 pounds.

He went on to graduate from the Basic Airborne Course, also known as Army Jump School, in Fort Benning, Ga., and serve in Alaska before his three deployments.

These days, Williford is a sophomore history major and economics minor at the University of Southern Maine.

He said after his third deployment he thought about leaving the Army, but opted to become a cadet in the university’s Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. When he graduates in May 2014, Williford, who has three children with his wife, Shannon, will be commissioned as an Army second lieutenant.

His goal as a commissioned officer will be to influence everyone in his unit to become better and work harder, he said.

Beth Staples — 861-9252

[email protected]