Former Hawk star interrupted college football career to fight for country following 9/11 attacks
On Dec. 10, 2007, a close-range gunfight between United States Army Rangers and Iraqi insurgents erupted on the roof of an Iraq safe house. During the fierce exchange of bullets, a U.S. Army Ranger was shot above the left eye.
No one who knows Marcus Mencotti well was surprised to learn -- as blood from the head wound poured down his face -- he kept fighting until medical assistance arrived approximately 30 minutes later.
Pity the poor 6-foot-2, 260-pound centers who had to line up against Farmington Hills Harrison's 5-foot-7, 160-pound nose guard during the Hawks' 2000 football season.
Despite their 100-pound advantage, the mammoth offensive linemen rarely stood a chance against Mencotti, a tenacious, quick and fearless disruptor.
"I was a DB (defensive back) until I goofed around in practice one day and they stuck me at nose guard," Mencotti recalled, 22 years later. "I never left."
The undersized warrior not only held his own in the trenches, he earned Division 3 All-State honors for the state champion Hawks, who pummeled East Lansing, 42-0, in that season's title game.
Mencotti committed to play college football at Wayne State University, where he was shifted back to defensive back.
On Sept. 11, 2001, as he was driving to a job at the Oakland County International Airport in Waterford, Mencotti learned of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
"As soon as I learned the details of the attacks, I knew in the back of my mind I'd end up joining the military," he revealed. "I was thinking, 'Send me wherever you need me. I'm ready."
In 2003, as the Iraq War heated up, Mencotti learned from Wayne State teammate Chris Smilo that the U.S. Army was actively recruiting for its Special Forces units. A short time later, the duo drove to a U.S. Army Recruitment Office on Jefferson Ave. in downtown Detroit and took a series of tests.
Mencotti scored well and enlisted to fight for his country, interrupting his relatively comfortable life as a college student and football player.
"My grandfather served in World War II and my uncle served in Vietnam," Mencotti explained. "I was raised in a patriotic family and I've always been patriotic. A lot of the friends I grew up with nicknamed me 'Soldier Slim'."
Mencotti's decision was met initially with mixed emotions from his family.
"My dad supported me right away, but my mom was a little hesitant at first," Mencotti said. "We had a football combine before I enlisted and my numbers were really good. One of the coaches called my mom and asked her if she could talk me out of enlisting.
"Ultimately, she ended up supporting my decision; she was just worried about my safety in the beginning."
Mencotti was sent to Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks for basic training. He graduated a U.S. Army Ranger -- widely regarded as the best-trained soldiers in the world -- and was deployed to Afghanistan in spring of 2004.
Mencotti said his experience playing football for Harrison served him well overseas.
"I liked all my coaches, but assistant coach and defensive coordinator (Bob) Sutter influenced me the most," Mencotti said. "I don't think there was one player who went to Harrison that doesn't love that man. He was like a second father to a lot of the guys. He was an instiller of 'do the right thing'. It wasn't just about football for him, it was about building men."
In his fourth tour of duty, Mencotti -- a U.S. Army Ranger sniper at the time -- snuck onto a safe house roof on that December night in 2007. He said an explosion to create a breach in a nearby building alerted insurgents, leading to the gunfight.
"I was lucky it was a 9-millimeter bullet because it didn't penetrate all the way through," he said.
Mencotti was transported to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he stayed for an approximate one-month recovery.
Mencotti was later awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for Valor -- two of the highest awards presented by the United States military.
Following his injury, he trained future Rangers until he was mandated to retire from the military in 2009.
Mencotti later contracted for the Department of Defense. One of his team members was Mark "Oz" Geist, a member of the Annex Security Team that fought the Battle of Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012 -- an act of bravery that was depicted in the 2016 movie "13 Hours".
Mencotti currently resides in Commerce with his wife Abbey, daughter and three sons.
His two oldest sons, aged 12 and 9, play youth league football.
"They're all in on football," he said, smiling.
The apples have not fallen far from the tree in the Mencotti family.
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