Football is arguably the most popular spectator sport in America, but it has not thrived without challenges.
Concussion concerns have prompted those who organize the sport at all levels to elevate safety to the top of the priority list.
In Maine there’s a numbers crunch, with an aging population meaning fewer kids are around to play the sport — a fact now in evidence at the high school level, where varsity eight-player football will be introduced for the first time this fall.
Yet the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic has persevered as a summertime staple for three decades, with recently graduated standouts from the previous season gathering to play what for most of them will be their final organized football game.
The 30th annual edition of the Lobster Bowl is set for 4 p.m. Saturday at Thornton Academy in Saco, and to at least one of the game’s veteran organizers, its staying power comes as no surprise.
“I did believe it would work because we always made it a fun event, a fun time, and we’ve always been able to work together,” said Rick Hersom of Gardiner, a member of the Lobster Bowl’s board of directors since 1996.
“It’s been a success because everyone’s wanted to make it a success.”
That formula for the Lobster Bowl’s stability not only has featured the foundational work of the state’s Shriners, but the passion of the high school football community uniting to help build a football game from scratch each July that not only attracts thousands of fans from across the state but benefits the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
“It’s been a pleasure to do this as many times as I have, it’s a tough habit to break,” said Bill County of Lewiston, who estimates he has coached in half of the previous 29 Lobster Bowls and is this year’s West head coach.
“First of all, the foundation of the event is built on charity and working for kids who are less fortunate, and when you have that strong a foundation from there you just keep building. I see it every year. This game seems to be getting better and better as time goes on.”
The Lobster Bowl has raised an estimated $750,000 from net proceeds for the Shriners Hospitals over the years.
“Honestly, the ability to play one last football game is just amazing, but that’s not what it’s all about,” said recent Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft graduate Hyatt Smith, an East wide receiver. “It’s all about raising the money to help out the kids. It’s all about that cause and everybody knows it, and I think it’s just awesome to be part of it.”
Nearly 150 players and cheerleaders sacrifice a week of their final summer before heading off to college or work to participate in the annual contest, and it’s truly a case of pay-to-play as each participant is challenged to raise funds for the cause.
The teams combined to raise nearly $120,000 in advance of this year’s contest with T.J. Kuespert, a defensive end from Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, as the East’s leading fundraiser with approximately $5,500.
“Just knowing the cause and what the money goes to, I just wanted to give back and do everything I could within my power,” he said.
There’s also a social element within the game and particularly during a week of pre-game practices held in recent years at Foxcroft Academy.
Players who once were rivals are now teammates, and coaches from different schools unite to share philosophies and devise winning game plans.
“The amount of fun, the amount of collegiality, hanging out with coaches and learning from them and them learning from you, it’s a tremendous week,” County said.
Of course, there is a game and a scoreboard — the West holds a 19-10 lead in the series, though the East has won four of the last six contests. But in any conversation with any participant in any Lobster Bowl over the years, the subject inevitably reverts not to the game, but to the cause.
“What the Shriners do is absolutely amazing, and I feel like everybody here has the same mindset of helping someone regardless of who it is, and it just brings everybody together,” Smith said.
“It’s such a good feeling knowing that we’re going to help kids.”