In an era marked by competition among national high school all-star football games to land the top talent, sponsors and television deals, the Big 33 Football Classic is, in some ways, a throwback to a simpler time. With a history that dwarfs the recent startups, the event’s organizers remain committed and top players continue to show up in Central Pennsylvania for a week each year, in spite of the challenges of holding it in the summer.
Maryland is in the game for the first time since 1992. It will field a roster of 33 position players and a kicker; 21 have local ties, including Dorsey, who will join a distinguished list of all-time participants that includes Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino.
All 47 Super Bowls have included at least one alumnus of the game, long a showcase for the next crop of college-bound players coming from talent-rich Pennsylvania.
Maryland steps in as the challenger this year, replacing Ohio to kick off a five-year contract in a nationally televised event with a mission that stretches beyond the field.
“Those [national] games those kids fly in for three days of practice and are right out on the field,” said Dave Trimbur, the executive director of the Big 33 scholarship foundation. “They have tryouts starting when they’re freshmen. Our game is about the experience as well as the football.”
Back in the game
Jacquille Veii, a recent graduate of the Avalon School in Rockville, arrived here Sunday unsure exactly what to expect.
For the University of Maryland-bound cornerback, state pride and the chance for an early taste of college competition were the game’s main selling points.
When Maryland agreed to join the game in October, high school coaches around the area did their best to explain the game’s importance. Before tryouts in February, they passed around the link to a television feature via e-mail in an effort to drum up interest.
“We’ve got to condition these kids’ minds on how big it is,” said Reggie White, a former NFL defensive lineman from Baltimore who played in the 1988 game and is an assistant this week. “It’s been gone for 20 years, so these guys don’t know about it. . . . This was the game.”
The game once served as a tuneup for fall camp, played in late July until 2006 when a change in NCAA rules allowed incoming freshmen to begin attending classes via scholarship earlier in the summer.
Because the game takes place after graduation, it does not count against the two all-star game limit imposed by the NCAA on high school seniors, and does not need to directly compete with the Under Armour All-America game and others for talent.
Even so, several top-flight recruits were noticeably absent from the Maryland tryout process because of anticipated conflicts with their college schedules. Quince Orchard’s Marcus Newby (Nebraska) and Gilman’s Henry Poggi (Michigan) and Micah Kiser (Virginia) were among those originally included on the roster who had to drop out late.
The five future University of Maryland players in the game will report to College Park on Sunday and begin summer classes the next day, a reality for nearly half of the players in Saturday’s game.
Terrapins Coach Randy Edsall, a Pennsylvania native, said he encouraged his incoming players to try out for the team, well aware of the game’s prestige and larger mission. The coach’s sister, Diane Winter, opened her home to players as a host for nearly 20 years.
“I’m fired up for those kids,” Edsall said. “I just want them to stay healthy. That’s the big thing.”
A lasting experience
Each day began with an 8 a.m. team meeting followed by at least two practices. The other pre-planned activities included a trip to Hershey Park, a youth football camp and time spent getting to know a special needs buddy, a staple of the game since 1985. The schedule takes on the feel of a college bowl trip, but the host family arrangement assures each player gets a unique experience.
Reservoir linebacker James Simms (Towson) appreciated daily soaks in his host family’s hot tub, while Northwestern safety John Johnson (Boston College) was won over by a refrigerator packed with Gatorade and a dinner at a local wing restaurant. Dorsey even attended a baseball game at a local middle school on Tuesday night to cheer on his host brother.
After those marathon days, Veii began to look forward to low-key nights with his host family.
“It’s like I’m at home,” Veii said. “Just having a nice family dinner, a family conversation, and then we go watch a little TV. It’s actually really nice.”
The players met their buddies for the first time on Wednesday afternoon, beginning a memorable part of the week.
Matt Byrne, a former Damascus quarterback and current volunteer assistant, recalls swelling with pride when he was introduced prior to the 1991 game standing on the Hersheypark Stadium field alongside Diana, a wheelchair bound youngster with cerebral palsy. Byrne, 40, led Maryland to a 17-9 win in that game, one of the state’s two victories in eight appearances.
“You can’t turn back the clock and recapture that type of experience,” Byrne said. “I’m not sure [the current players] will appreciate how much it means right now.”
This year’s group included 19-year-old Harry Spilker of nearby Camp Hill, Pa. Born with Down syndrome, Spilker participates in Special Olympics and enjoys riding horses. He is back for his sixth year in the program and keeps up with past players through Facebook.
After sharing a dinner of rectangular pizza and watermelon slices in the Lower Dauphin High School cafeteria with Wise defensive end Myles Humphrey, Spilker proudly showed off photos on his father’s smart phone to his new friend.
Later, Atholton quarterback Luke Casey alternately tossed a white foam football with and fended off tackles from his buddy, Jacob. After just a few minutes together, Jacob had begun using sign language to tell his father to go away, so he could play alone with the Rhode Island-bound signal-caller.
“They look up to us like heroes,” said Quince Orchard defensive lineman Andrew Ankrah, who was paired with a family of four young children.
Nearly 10 hours after Wednesday began for the Maryland team, Coach Dave Mencarini and his assistants stood on a hill above the practice field and proudly watched the players with their buddies, a few snapping photos with their phones. There was a reason the Quince Orchard coach gave up a chunk of his summer vacation, too.
“Football can change someone’s life,” Mencarini said earlier in the day. “The Big 33 just does an awesome job of providing these kids those opportunitites. . . . The football’s going to come and go, but those experiences won’t.”