STARKVILLE, Miss.-- He grew up loving football and pretending to be San Francisco Forty-Niners wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Little did John W. Van Horn III realize he would one day intercept quarterback Kurt Warner, Super Bowl XXXIV champion, and play on the same team with National Football League Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen.
Van Horn, one of just 28 participants in the TOSTITOS Homecoming Party Bowl, played under the leadership of legendary football coach Bobby Bowden and against coach Urban Meyer, whose Ohio State Buckeyes went undefeated during the 2012 season. TOSTITOS, in conjunction with U.S. veteran-supporting organizations Got Your 6 and Pat Tillman Foundation, sponsored the December game, which was featured as part of the halftime festivities at the TOSTITOS Fiesta Bowl.
Van Horn, a veteran U.S. Air Force senior airman and Tillman Military Scholar at Mississippi State University, was initially told he was visiting California to play a flag football game for charity.
"Pat Tillman Scholarship students learn leadership through the Tillman Military Scholars Leadership summits and are heavily engaged in community service," said Ronnie White, assistant director for MSU's Center for America's Veterans. "The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship also assists these students with financial support which allows them the opportunity to complete their college education debt free."
Pat Tillman Foundation program director Hunter I. Riley invited Van Horn to play, perhaps because the senior from Silver Spring, Md., had been a walk-on punter for MSU but was sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot during the 2012-2013 season, Van Horn explained.
However, on the second day of his California trip, he received the surprise of his life.
"They actually told us that we lost the soccer field where we'd been playing, and they had to scramble around to get another. Then, they take us to this local college," Van Horn said. "They got us back on the bus after the walk-throughs and took us a couple hundred yards. We could see the TOSTITOS tunnel you run out of.
"Then we walk into the locker room, and everybody's locker is decked out. We all just freaked out. People were jumping around; it was just an amazing experience."
Then, coaches Bowden and Meyer walked in, soon followed by NFL greats Warner and Allen at Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, Calif., southwest of Los Angeles. Once the teams -- Liberty and Freedom -- were on the playing field, actor Owen Wilson ran up, ready to play and support both veteran teams, Van Horn said.
"Everything was in the moment; we were living in the present. It was so surreal," he said. "It was almost hard to act like me because I didn't know that atmosphere. All this stuff was put on for us, and it was an absolutely amazing experience -- hanging out with Marcus Allen and talking pregame stuff, besides trash-talking on Kurt Warner -- it was all in good fun."
Van Horn said he grew up watching Allen and Warner play, and not only did Van Horn catch a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion, he actually had a diving interception on Kurt Warner.
"I didn't feel like a punter," Van Horn said.
He said he formed family-like relationships with all the veterans who participated in the game, and it's a pattern he's noticed since before he became part of the Tillman Military Scholar family -- it began when he joined the geosciences department at MSU to study professional meteorology and climatology.
Even though he has a better than B-average in his college coursework, Van Horn was initially declared "academically ineligible" when he tried to walk on to the football team. However, geosciences associate professors Mike Brown and Grady Dixon did everything possible to get the mistake corrected, Van Horn explained.
"Dr. Brown and Dr. Dixon got on the computer and said, 'We're not taking no for an answer.' It was a mistake in one of the forms, since I'd transferred. They had to move my classes around," Van Horn said. "Those guys are just one of a kind, and I'm so fortunate to have come here. These professors and this military group at the university -- they're so supportive."
The Tillman Military Scholar program at MSU has become family for Van Horn, too.
White said MSU and the Center for America's Veterans relies on a "whatever-it-takes" attitude to ensure that veterans and service members, as well as their dependents and survivors, transition to college life smoothly and successfully to obtain their college degrees.
"Mississippi State is, from what I've experienced, very involved with student veterans. The Tillman Military Scholarship is a huge exclamation point on that involvement," Van Horn agreed.