Long after most of the East team had gone back to the locker room to celebrate their win at the Kansas Shrine Bowl, players dressed in green remained.
During the game, Campus’ Federico Harvey was high-fiving Derby’s Brody Kooser. After it, Goddard’s Blake Sullivan was hugging Carroll’s Braden Howell. And Valley Center’s Dalton Cross talked about how special it was to get to know Dalton Kuhn from Class 2A Smith Center and Carlos Emanuel from 8-Man Division II Hanover.
“You start thinking, ‘These small-school kids, they’re not gonna do anything. Why don’t we just get all 5A and 6A?’ ” Cross said. “No. That’s where the football begins right there. You talk about 8-man, 1A, 2A, that’s where that stuff is real.”
The Shrine Bowl brought strangers from as close as Heights to Northwest and as far as Goodland to Clay Center, and it turned them into friends.
The players spent more than a week together practicing, visiting kids in the hospital and staying up to play ping pong. They split time between Salina and Pittsburg all for a game they ended up losing 21-14 to the players from Eastern Kansas. Although they all wanted to win, that didn’t seem to matter too much.
The group had gone from silence in the locker room on the first day of practice to a cool appreciation of one another by Saturday night at Carnie Smith Stadium.
“I love this,” Andale defensive end Grant Fairchild said. “This is honestly the best week of my life. I met some friends that I will never forget. I could give you every name of everybody on that team, and I love them all. I could go on forever about these friendships I hope I never lose.”
The game looked like a bunch of strangers getting together for a pickup game, because it was. Goddard’s Scott Vang, Northwest’s Steve Martin and Carroll’s Dusty Trail helped make up the West coaching staff and put their players in positions to succeed.
Linebackers Josh Seabolt, of Cimarron, and Jhet Burkhart, of Buhler, combined for 23 total tackles, and Scott City’s Jarrett Jurgens ran behind a behemoth of an offensive line for 54 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, no one was talking about stats. They were talking about the kids and the friends they had made.
“I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world,” Kooser said. “Meeting the kids from the hospital, I won’t forget that.”
The Shrine Bowl puts a heavy focus on players’ annual visitation to the Shriners Hospitals for Kids, and though the athletes are warned how impactful talking with the kids can be, seemingly none left without a deeper understanding.
Howell said it was the one moment he will remember most.
“You just don’t realize how grateful and blessed you are until you go through something like that,” he said. “And I think we all realize that.”
Mulvane’s Jayden Price couldn’t play in the Shrine Bowl because of a torn meniscus he suffered during offseason workouts at North Dakota State, but he said knowing he wasn’t going to play allowed him to step back and take in every moment.
“Obviously I wanted to play, but seeing it from a different side, you just see that it’s more about the kids,” Price said. “I couldn’t really worry about that football game, so that really let me focus on what this was really about.”
Even for Vang, tasked with designing the West team, the Shrine Bowl served as an eye-opening experience.
At the Players Appreciation Banquet on Friday night, Vang talked in front of hundreds. He talked about the hospital visitation and the camaraderie among the players. But he told Parker Bruce’s story.
Bruce lost his father to a pulmonary embolism when he was 6. His dad was one of his assistants’ mentor and another of his assistants’ roommate. Vang said going through the Shrine Bowl made him realize how intertwined the world can be.
“It’s just a really cool experience,” Vang said. “It gets a little long sometimes, but it has been a great experience with a lot of great young men.”