Wristen: Shrine Bowl keeps focus on the kids
Emporia Chills settled in on Emporia State University's Welch Stadium and the crowd stood paralyzed, frozen in the moment.
With 20 seconds left, the wildest finish in the 35-year history of the Shrine Bowl was unfolding before their eyes.
They'd watched the West All-Stars take the lead on a flea-flicker on the final play of the third quarter. They'd witnessed the East turn a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions into touchdowns and a 28-21 lead.
Now, with 20 seconds to go, this was it. The West converted on fourth down twice on the final drive and pulled within a point when Andale's Ethan Ungles hauled in a 17-yard touchdown reception from Cole Cherryholmes (Remington).
The Shrine Bowl doesn't play overtime. Only the 2001 contest had ended in a tie, and 2008 wouldn't be the second. The West was lined up to go for two and the win.
Both sidelines screamed. Coaches barked orders. Fans simply watched it all unfold as Cherryholmes took the snap and lofted a high pass to the back right corner of the end zone. A well-covered Mykael Thompson (Dodge City) stretched and hauled in the over-the-shoulder catch.
West 29, East 28.
To call such a loss heartbreaking would be totally accurate in most cases, but not on this night.
Swede Johnson had a smile on his face as he walked through the post-game handshake line before meeting up with family members. The former Basehor-Linwood High School standout quickly put the game's emotional ending into perspective.
He talked about having fun during the nine-day stay on the ESU campus, about friendships made with other players and the excitement of throwing a few blocks that led to touchdowns. But there was more to it than football.
There was the flight to St. Louis to tour the St. Louis Rams training facility, and then the life-changing visit to the Shriners Hospital For Children.
It was at the hospital where the game took on its true meaning. The Shrine Bowl is a fundraiser for the hospital, and the game has raised more than $2 million during the past 35 years. The visit gave Johnson and the other players a chance to meet some of the youths that their game would benefit.
"The one girl I remember the most : her name was Mia," Johnson recalled. "She was a little girl and she had a halo on. She was a little shy when all the football players came in, but as she started warming up to us she was having a ball. It was just heartwarming to see all of the kids in there having fun because they don't always get to do that. And they were having fun and signing our shirts and our papers."
Those signatures served as motivation for the players throughout the next week of practice, and their memory was fresh on Johnson's mind even in the closing seconds of the game.
In the end, everybody won. The crowd received a thoroughly entertaining show, the players made a difference in the lives of others and the hospital will receive more money to provide care for children.
"I think that was the best part of this game, knowing all the money that we helped raise," Johnson said. "There's not that many times that you get to change the world, and I think that kind of helped out a lot."