Freedom Bowl Classic struggles to fill out rosters

All-Star football game looking to attract more players

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

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The Freedom Bowl Classic, an all-star high school football game that has been a summer standard since 2002, wants to come up with a different way to attract players.

The event, featuring recent high school graduates from Southwest Washington, has had seen some difficulty getting in touch with would-be all-stars, of getting the athletes to commit to the contest.

This year's game — scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kiggins Bowl — had a rough start to the week when about a dozen players showed up Monday for the West team's first meeting.

By Monday night, players and coaches worked the phones to get the word out, and the West team had roughly 25 at practice by mid-week. The game will be played.

Still, it was not the ideal situation. Each team invited more than 30 players to participate when the rosters were released in June.

John Griffin, director of football operations for the Freedom Bowl, said he welcomes any new ideas. He said he might push to end the West vs. East format. Perhaps get 50 to 60 players to commit, no matter where they are from, then having a committee draft each all-star team, putting half the talent on a "National" team, the other half to an "American" team.

That would, in theory, balance the power. There have been some years when one team had all the experienced quarterbacks, while the other team was asking someone to line up behind center for the first time in years.

Griffin said it has never been about a lack of interest from athletes. Just life gets in the way a month after high school graduation.

Organizing an all-star football game is a lot more difficult than similar high school all-star games for basketball and baseball. Those sports usually have their events days or weeks after their seasons. Those athletes already are in basketball or baseball shape. Those contests could be considered glorified pick-up games, as well.

For football, the all-star game comes six, seven months after the last meaningful contest has been played in the fall. Athletes must commit to a week of practice. The sport demands more than a "just show up on gameday" attitude.

Recent graduates have jobs and/or are preparing for college.

Jordan Berni of Skyview already played in the all-state all-star game this summer, taking home MVP honors. He was not planning on playing in the Freedom Bowl due to a job. He got a call on Monday night, then worked out the week with his supervisor.

"It's fun being out here again, just being out on the field," Berni said Wednesday at practice.

Grant Vargo of Skyview also initially said no thanks, only to change his mind Monday. Like Berni, he had a conflict with his work schedule.

"You get one more chance to play football, you don't want to turn it down," Vargo said.

Freedom Bowl organizers understand all the challenges, and they say they are willing to step up their efforts to ensure a quality event.

Jack Hathaway, Heritage's coach and the coach of the East squad this year, said he wants every school in Southwest Washington to promote the Freedom Bowl as a destination, the prize for finishing a high school football career.

"I think we have to hash out how we actually do this. We have to do a little bit better," Hathaway said.

He envisions a day when he can announce his school's Freedom Bowl honorees at his end-of-season banquet in November or December.

"At the end of the banquet, we say, 'You're also Clark County All-Star,' " Hathaway said.

If each side can get 40 to 50 players to say yes in December, for example, then if 10 or so players have to opt out by the summer, there are still plenty of athletes preparing to play.

"I like the idea of a committee picking right after the season," Griffin said. "We want to make it an honor for the kids to do it."

The West team this year invited players from Fort Vancouver, Woodland, La Center, Kelso and Mark Morris but as of Wednesday, there were no players from those schools at practice.

"Whatever we can do to save it, I'm in," said Battle Ground coach Larry Peck, who is coaching the West this season.

He also wants to make a big deal for any senior to be selected to the Freedom Bowl. Make it special, something the athletes want to be a part of, Peck said.

After all, the money raised from this game goes to Shriners charities. Each year, the players from each team visit patients in the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland.

"It was an awesome experience," said Skyview's Anthony Chamberlain of this year's visit. He met children from Alaska, Idaho and Mexico, and they all were thrilled to see the football players.

No one asked Chamberlain to win one for the children, but there was one girl who told the players that she likes soccer better than football.

"If we win, she'll like football better than soccer," Chamberlain said. "That's a good thing."

The players and coaches have learned through the years that this is not just another all-star game. The Freedom Bowl is worth making changes to in order to provide for its future, to support the children in need.

"It's our duty to play in their honor," Peck said.