"It’s more than just a game."
It’s a slogan that’s been attached annually to the Kansas Shrine Bowl, which has brought together the state’s top high school football seniors every year since 1974.
The All-Star showdown pits East vs. West and elicits bragging rights for a year for whichever side wins. Not just for the players and their geographic area, but also for the Shrine temples attached to either team.
But while the football game is the headliner for a myriad of parts that comprise the annual event, those behind and involved with it know the real importance attached to the contest. And it’s not reflected on the scoreboard when the clock ticks 0:00.
"It is more than just a game," Kansas Shrine Bowl executive director B.J. Harris said. "The basis of the whole thing was to raise money for Shriners Hospitals for Children. The foundation was not to have a football game and then maybe make some money and send it to the hospital. The foundation was, ‘Let’s make money for the hospital and a football game was a good way to do it.’ "
In 1973, Shriners International issued a decree to its organizations across the country. Each was to conduct a fundraiser where 100% of the proceeds went to the Shriners Hospital for Children.
Instead of independently coming up with fundraisers on their own, the potentates of the five Shrine Temples in Kansas — Arab (Topeka), Abdallah (Overland Park), Mirza (Pittsburg), Midian (Wichita) and Isis (Salina) — got together for a unified effort.
After kicking around ideas, the Kansas Shrine Bowl All-Star game was born.
Even then, however, it’s still always been about far more than football.
For the first 37 years, players from both teams were flown to St. Louis to visit the Shriners Hospital there. The trip allowed the players and coaches to see firsthand the children being served by the hospital and benefiting from the money being raised by the annual game.
Harris, who was a player in the 2000 game, said the trip was life-changing.
"It impacts some people more than others — for me, it changed the trajectory of my life," he said. "But everybody walks away knowing that they’ve experienced something not a lot of people get to do. For a lot of teenagers, it’s maybe one of their first opportunities to do something outside of themselves. It’s not 100% focused on them, what they’re doing or what’s going to help them. It’s more for somebody else.
"When you’re 18 you don’t know what you don’t know. You may walk away not realizing what the impact is, but as you grow older and have more life experience, it’s part of it. It’s another layer of you developing into an adult. It’s certainly not hurtful and it’s another piece that molds you."
As the Shriners Hospital began incorporating more outpatient services and costs for the annual trip to St. Louis increased, the Shrine Bowl staff looked at altering the format.
In 2010, a change was made. Instead of traveling to the St. Louis hospital, the hospital experience was brought to the players.
"I was on the staff the year they made the switch to bring the hospital to the kids, and at the time I thought they wouldn’t get the same experience," said 2020 East head coach Steve Buhler, who is in his fifth stint as a Shrine Bowl coach. "What I found out is the real experience is getting to meet the kids and see what Shrine Hospitals do. That never changes and the effect it has on coaches and players is tremendous. For the players, it gives them a true sense of why they’re playing in the game, being able to use their talent to help someone else benefit from what they do."
The change in format also allowed more participants in the game and accompanying events to be exposed to the experience. Members of the All-Star Cheer Team and the Kansas Masonic All-Star Band — each numbering more than 200 participants — also got to interact with the Shriners patients.
This year will see a different format due to COVID-19 concerns. Instead of in-person interaction with Shriners patients and their families, the athletes and coaches will interact on a Zoom call.
"It will be different, " Harris said, "but hopefully it will still be a meaningful experience for everyone."
Other differences this year include the cancellation of many of the ancillary events that typically occur on Shrine Bowl weekend — the football combine, junior skills challenge, Strong Legs Run 5K and downtown parade. A golf tournament will still occur.
Those cancellations, along with limitations on crowd size for this year’s game, have cut into what Harris had hoped to be one of the Shrine Bowl’s biggest years. Since the game’s inception in 1974, the game and festivities have raised an average of $60,000 per year for the Shriners Hospital, and over the 46-year span has raised more than $3 million overall.
"There have been years where we’ve been the biggest fundraiser, and I fully expected Topeka to be that this year," Harris said. "Knowing what we did with a crowd size in 2013, basically selling out Yager Stadium, knowing the corporate sponsors in the community, I had all hopes and intentions of this being a big year and blowing the top off. Obviously that won’t be the case this year and we’ll have a contribution this year, but it won’t be what I expected."
But Buhler said the fact that the game will still be played this year despite all the challenges that have been overcome is a testament to the importance of the event.
"They’ve gone through a lot to make this game work," he said. "It’s important not because it’s a football game. It’s important because it supports those hospitals and those young people.
"The Shrine Bowl itself is a win-win for everybody. We talk about competition all the time in sports, and when you watch these kids and how competitive they are in embracing their situation and struggles and yet are competitive in finding ways to do everyday things that people say aren’t possible, it’s inspiring. I don’t know how you can’t be moved seeing those young people."
"You can get out of it what you put in," he said. "If you want to stand in the back of the room and observe, that’s OK. For the kids that get in there and get to meet these kids and interact with them, you just never know.
"What’s really neat about Shriner’s Hospital for Children is there are people you probably know in your life who have been served by that hospital system. I’ve got multiple cousins, my wife has family members who have been served either with scoliosis correction, limb extension, orthopedics, whatever. They’ll fix people up who will go on with their lives and live the same type of life as everyone else. They send them back into the world being productive citizens."