Donnie Woods was sitting through a class -- one so nondescript he can't remember what it was -- more than a year ago when he had an epiphany.
The grounded, straight-talking Maryland offensive lineman was mentally lobbing ideas about his future. Football wouldn't last forever. Heck, there were no guarantees it would last beyond college.
So regardless of his state of mind -- and Woods can't quite recall what it was, either -- the left guard realized he could simultaneously sate both his long-term career plans and his patriotic streak by exploring a stint in the military, perhaps in the army.
"When I made the decision, I was so excited," Woods said. "It was like this spark, this fire was inside of me. I was like 'I don't know if I can wait two years to do that.' "
The yearning is so strong, Woods will give up his final year of football eligibility. Instead of returning to the Terrapins for a fifth season -- usually hailed by coaches as the best of a lineman's career -- Woods plans to complete his criminology and criminal justice degree this summer.
It means Maryland's Dec. 29 meeting with Purdue in the Champs Sports Bowl will be the redshirt junior's final game. And while football has been a significant part of Woods' life, he is eager to embark on something with greater personal meaning.
"Just serving my country is something I always wanted to do," said Woods, whose brother Sean already has served two tours in Iraq. "Kind of with the injuries and everything adding up, I felt like this was the best time for me to come out right now. I'm going to get my degree. It'll be the best time in my life to do something like that."
Up and down
Woods' career already had endured some twists when he arrived a semester early at Maryland in 2003. He was a highly sought-after prospect out of high school, but offers from Oklahoma and Tennessee were rescinded after he tore an ACL his senior season.
Other schools stuck with him, including Florida State, before he eventually chose Maryland.
"You learn real quick, especially when you get hurt like I did, that it's a business," Woods said. "I still feel strongly about that. You go from having phone calls every night and people sending you private jets to take you on official visits to one or two phone calls a night and everybody saying they can't take you anymore."
Woods subsequently validated the Terps' commitment. He was the team's top-rated offensive lineman a year ago even as he played with a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
The injury eventually forced him to undergo surgery and miss spring practice, making his ability to thrive while playing through pain even more impressive. He has made 21 career starts, including 10 this year and 10 in 2005.
"He's a very passionate person," said guard Garrick Clig, one of Woods' closest friends. "If I could put one word into Donnie Woods, it would be tough. He's been someone that's overcome a lot of things, also. He's not really the ideal type of player that they wanted, but then again he came in and started how many games the last two and a half years?"
Woods ranked second among Maryland's regular linemen this season, though it was a tumultuous year. Despite his strong play, Woods gradually yielded playing time to Jaimie Thomas, taking about two-thirds of the snaps Oct. 21 against N.C. State before alternating series with the sophomore the next two weeks.
He was enjoying a strong game Nov. 11 against Miami before receiving another injury scare. Early in the third quarter Woods suffered a concussion and a neck injury and was airlifted to a Baltimore hospital.
It was the latest in a career-long string of ailments -- torn hamstrings, concussions and other injuries common for an offensive lineman. He already had told Clig and fullback Tim Cesa he wasn't planning on returning for a fifth season, and now he had more reason to step away to pursue his military dreams.
"The main thing I was worried about is making sure I'm going to clear the physical exam," said Woods, who missed the next game and was in for only three plays for the Terps' season finale. "I'm probably one injury away from them saying 'No, I don't think so.' I'm playing it a little bit safe and coming out when I think it's right."
"Something I believe in"
Woods' decision might seem a bit unusual for a guy who could enjoy the perks of playing college football for another year. Then again, Woods isn't exactly typical.
Wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey realized that during a September game against Florida International. The Terps had run a basic play and it seemed to be wrapping up quickly, but Woods made it memorable.
"It was a big pile and being a receiver I'm just watching what's going on," Heyward-Bey said. "I see him fly in there -- boom -- and just hit somebody and he looks at me and starts laughing. I'm thinking 'He's crazy.' "
He also knows what he wants. Woods, who hung up an American flag in his locker this season around the September 11 anniversary and kept it there, has a sound plan in place. He knows he'll need to trim between 60 and 70 pounds from his 6-foot-3, 289-pound frame, and hopes to begin officer training late next summer.
Woods hopes to eventually parlay his military experience into a job with a federal law enforcement agency. If the physical exam prevents him from pursuing the military, Woods said he might try to join the Montgomery County police.
Any of those options will lead to far different weekends than those Woods will pass up next year. But since he doesn't harbor any NFL aspirations ("I don't even want to give it a tryout," he said. "I can see a couple years ago maybe, but not right now."), Woods figures those days would have quickly dissipated anyway.
"I'm probably going to sit down next fall and watch college football games on TV and, yeah, I'll miss it a little bit," Woods said. "Even if I played the last year and didn't do the whole NFL thing and it's a year later and watching college football, I'm going to still miss it. I feel like I'm going to miss it regardless of whether it's next year or 10 years [from now]."
Not everyone is excited about Woods' decision. He admits his parents -- his mother Donna, in particular -- have fretted some, an understandable reaction from someone who already has endured a deployment for one of her 10 children.
She's not alone. Coach Ralph Friedgen, who learned of Woods' choice within the last month, bemoaned Woods' willingness to pass up what could be a fine fifth season.
He also is wary of Woods' welfare, especially after visiting Eric Workman -- a state trooper who helps with Friedgen's gameday security detail and was shot in the line of duty last week in Baltimore County -- in the hospital.
"Going to see Eric and those guys, I don't know how much fun it is to have a bullet in you," Friedgen said. "I worry about that, I really do. I admire him for his patriotism and what he wants to do. I don't necessarily agree with his decision. I respect his decision."
Woods understands the concerns, though he is also certain his family supports his choice even if they don't entirely agree with it. He realizes the seriousness of the decision, but also the value that can come from it.
"It is a little bit more dangerous than Saturdays, but it's just something I believe in and it's something I feel is right," Woods said. "You kind of get over that scared element. It doesn't really rattle me as much as it may some other people. I'm probably 10 times more excited than I am remotely scared about it."