COLUMBUS JUNCTION, Iowa – Ask anybody at Columbus Community High School about Abel Mena and they’ll all tell you the same thing: he’s a natural leader in everything he does. And he does a lot.
The senior is the starting quarterback for the football team, an integral part of the baseball and basketball teams, a state-qualifying track athlete, as well as a trumpet player in the Columbus marching band.
“I don’t know what else I can say about the kid,” Columbus football coach Scott Symmonds said, “except that I wish I had a son like him.”
The outgoing senior with the infectious personality has turned himself into the face of Columbus High School.
“Everybody sees him,” Symmonds said. “Kids see the choices and decisions he’s making, the way he’s carrying himself, as well as the way he responds to other people. It’s all infectious.”
He never misses workouts, he’s always receptive to criticism or advice, and he never gives anything less than his best. His will to succeed can be traced back to one question his parents consistently ask: why not go farther?
“Each day we have eight periods, and we have 44 minutes in each period so why not make the best of it?” Mena said. “Every day I wake up and I’m like ‘what am I going to do to make myself better?’ That’s in everything; class, football, in the hallway.
“Coaches preach that all it takes is one person and the team will follow, and that goes in every environment.”
Even though he’s currently the unquestioned leader both emotionally and statistically on the football field, he didn’t pick up the sport until seventh grade. All it took was a little convincing from Scott Dengler, the current junior high football coach and high school track coach after he saw Mena running routes at the local pool.
“I was always scared to play football because on TV everybody hits each other and everybody gets hurt,” Mena recalled.
Certainly, Mena was undoubtedly behind others who had been playing the sport for much longer despite his natural athletic gifts. That is until he underwent a transformation in the weight room.
“If I could show you a before and after photo you would swear you were looking at a Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa type of picture,” Symmonds said. “Abel built that body. He took the gifts he was given and said ‘that’s not enough, I want more.’”
However, Mena actually doesn’t like weight training one bit. So how was he able to stick to such a regimen that has turned him into the top athlete at Columbus High School?
“I want to go in there and get the most benefit for myself,” Mena said. “Why would I go there and waste an hour? Why not make the most of it. That’s the concept I apply to everything.”
It’s no surprise to any coach or teacher in Columbus that the hard work has paid off for Mena, especially on the football field this fall. Despite playing quarterback for the first time in his life he’s excelled, throwing for 386 yards, rushing for 759 yards, and accounting for 12 of the Wildcats' 13 touchdowns.
But what he does for the Wildcats in the locker room and on the practice field is just as important.
“He’s been a very good leader this year on the field and in the locker room,” assistant football coach and head basketball coach Dave Lekwa said. “He’s done that every year I’ve been around him. As a coach you can’t ask for much more than that.”
Despite the Wildcats' 2-5 record, coaches insist that Mena’s mentality hasn’t wavered. He continues to be upbeat, leads by example and has been an extension of his coaches on the field.
The same can be said for Mena in the marching band, too. He serves on the student leadership team, which helps new students acclimate and feel more comfortable. Columbus band director Charles Mausser chose Mena because of his uncanny ability to build relationships with other students.
“He’s someone I give tough assignments to and I put a lot of responsibility on him because he can handle it,” Mausser said. “We work on building a culture and helping people feel comfortable within the program.”
One thing Mena is very adamant about is his love for the community in Columbus, where he’s grown up his entire life. He works at the local grocery store Sundays from 7 a.m. to noon as a cashier and loves every second of it. He lifeguards at the community pool in the summers, and serves as an official for youth football games on Sundays.
“I feel like it’s me reaching the kids who see us on the football field on Fridays,” Mena said. “I get the enjoyment of seeing them on the field on Sundays. I love that.”
He also helps with the ambulance service on Columbus Day, a local holiday in Columbus on Oct. 14 that features activities downtown. He’s been riding along with the ambulance on that day for years, but since he just celebrated his 18th birthday and is CPR certified he will be able to drive the ambulance for the first time.
However, this will be Mena’s last go-around for all of those things, as he’s heading to Iowa State to study engineering when he graduates high school in May.
“Like anybody that has that kind of impact they empower the people after them through how they carry themselves,” Mausser said. “Certainly he’ll be missed but because of whom he is and what he chooses to be the traditions can continue to go forward.”
Symmonds knows that Mena, along with all the other seniors, will be greatly missed both on and off the field next season. But even though Mena will be 159 miles away in Ames, his impact will still be felt by the next generation of athletes in awe of the senior each Friday night.
“Abel is a giant to them and he’s out here doing all the things they want to do when they get big,” Symmonds said. “What more can you ask of a kid, he’s living the life any high school kid should dream of having.”