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Most days after football practice, senior Preston Woods ventures out to the bleachers of Ettinger Field, tucked into the hill right behind South St. Paul High School. Situated in a natural bowl with the home-team bleachers built directly into the hillside, the 80-plus year-old football field is soaked in tradition and history, an anomaly in modern high school sports.
Woods just sits and takes it all in. This is home to the 6-foot-2½, 295-pound two-way lineman, the place he loves the most in this salt-of-the-earth community along the Mississippi River.
“After practice, I go and sit on the bleachers and stare out at the field,” Woods said. “Ever since I was little, we talked about playing here. We call it the ‘Pit of Pain’. I think it’s the unique field in the state. I feel blessed to be able to play here.”
With immense upper-body strength — he bench presses nearly 400 pounds — powerful legs and matchless determination, Woods has become one of the most coveted defensive line prospects in Minnesota. Most Big Ten teams have come calling. So have notables such as Stanford, Florida State, Arkansas and Missouri.
Woods isn’t in any hurry to plan his future. He’s too busy enjoying the present.
Big and fierce on the field, yet quick to smile and always willing to lend a hand off it, Woods is an ideal representative of South St. Paul. He loves it there and those around him love his presence.
“He’s like a giant teddy bear because he’s always so kind and so friendly. But when he hits the field, he becomes a different person aggression-wise,” said Victor Boomgaarden, longtime friend and fellow linemate. “Everyone knows who he is, even people who don’t play football. He’s a symbol of our team.”
Unlike many of his peers, Woods didn’t grow up in the community. He has attended South St. Paul schools since he was 6 years old but lived several miles away in St. Paul, just off University Avenue, until seventh grade. He credits that upbringing for his appreciation of everything he has now.
“There was bad crime and things like that,” Woods said. “It toughened me. It was a tough place.”
When his family moved to South St. Paul, Woods knew immediately that this was the place he belonged.
“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “Everyone in this community is great. We all help each other out, work with the little kids, stuff like that. We all have each others’ backs.”
In his final prep season, Woods has expanded his role on the team, taking a greater interest in the goings-on off the field. He knows that winning a state championship and achieving a lifelong dream can only happen if the Packers pull together.
“My [International Baccalaureate History] teacher Conrad Anderson said, ‘Don’t be a statistic.’ That stuck in my head. I care about my teammates to death. I’m always telling them to make the right choices. I want us all to be there when we reach our goal.”
This season’s biggest game to date is Friday night when South St. Paul, 3-0 and ranked No. 2 in Class 4A, plays host to Classic Suburban Conference rival Mahtomedi on Friday.
The Zephyrs, a traditional power, are also 3-0. There will still be half of the regular season to play after this game, yet there’s a sense that the winner will control the conference race.
It’s also the game that Woods looks forward to more than any other. In 2012 South St. Paul earned a tough road victory at Mahtomedi. Woods knows the Zephyrs will be coming in with revenge on their minds.
“Playing Mahtomedi is my favorite game to play,” he said. “It’s always close. You can’t take a play off. If you do, it could shift the whole game. I don’t even consider it a game. I consider it a war.”
Quarterback Bill Brandecker led the Packers to the victory last year. Having a player like Woods leading the way, he said. is a comforting feeling.
“It really gives you a lot of confidence to run behind him,” Brandecker said.
“He’s the kind of guy you like having on your side.”