Apr. 11—High school football players who get to strap on the pads one last time as seniors and take part in the Iowa Shrine All-Star Football Classic quickly learn that the experience goes well beyond the action on the field.
There will be football played, sure.
But before the 49th annual all-star game kicks off at 4 p.m. inside the UNI-Dome on July 24, the coaches, managers, football players, cheerleaders and dance team members will have the experience of a lifetime.
"The kids don't realize it yet, but we know what's coming for them," Baxter football coach Rob Luther said. "It's about servant leadership and giving back. We'll spend a lot of time with the kids up there and by the time they leave, they'll realize it's not quite as much about football and a lot about giving back."
Luther will be the head coach of the South squad this summer. He was supposed to coach the team last year but COVID-19 forced the cancelation of last year's event.
Luther is back with his same staff intact. He was an assistant coach in 2003 when future Cyclone stars Todd Blythe and Bret Meyer played in the game.
Luther and some members of his team recently had a banquet in Altoona to officially welcome players and their families to the Iowa Shrine Bowl experience.
One of those players is PCM's Sage Burns, who will be part of Luther's offense as a running back.
"It's pretty cool. It's a small list of guys every year," Burns said. "Not everyone can say they played in it. I'm excited about the week."
Burns rushed for 850 yards and 16 touchdowns this past season for a PCM squad which went 10-1 and reached the state semifinals for the second time in three seasons. Burns averaged 8 yards per carry.
In 2019, Burns played quarterback and had 619 passing yards and five TDs and rushed for 779 yards and 17 scores.
"Before I met him, you just know that PCM has a strong program with Coach Bonnett," Luther said. "But when I watched him at the Dome, he runs downhill. He's a physical runner.
"I had another coach on staff who was lobbying for Sage from Day 1. He loves that kid. We have had run-ins with the Burns name for years, too, dating back to the CMB days. We know the family well."
When Luther was an assistant coach in 2003, the event was 10 or 11 days long and the game was played at Iowa State.
It has since been moved to the UNI-Dome and is now a week-long event that includes a pizza party, a movie night, a day at the Lost Island Water Park, a hog roast, a mini camp with the Shriner Hospital kids and a game-day parade.
Luther's staff includes Ryan Pezzetti of Ankeny Centennial, James Harris of Washington, Matt Kovacevich of Centerville, Nate Mechaelsen of Underwood and Derek Wharton of Martensdale-St. Marys.
Harris will be Luther's defensive coordinator. He also recently took the head coaching position at Iowa City Liberty.
Luther will go head-to-head with Linn-Mar's Paul James, who retired after this last football season and will be coaching in his final game as the North head coach.
The series between the North and South all-stars is currently tied at 23-23-1.
"We will be competitive on game day. We want to tip that tie in our favor," Luther said. "Once the juices get flowing, we are all going to want to win."
Other notable players on the South squad include Pella Christian's Luke Mulder, Williamsburg's Levi Weldon, Meskwaki Settlement School's Taurice Grant, Montezuma's Cole Watts, Grinnell's Dodge Sauser and West Marshall's Luke Pinnick.
Luther's Baxter football team plays at the 8-man level. The South team will have four eight-man players on it this summer. Unfortunately, the Bolts will not be represented on the field. Cole Damman was supposed to play in the canceled game last year.
"Disappointed for the kids that didn't get to play last year," Luther said. "The entire staff is back and we are anxious to do it all again for the experience. It's been a long two years to get to this game in July, but it's for a great cause.
"It will be great to have a Jasper County kid in the game with Sage though. It's awesome to see the leadership of these kids and it will be awesome to get to spend a week with them."
The Iowa Shrine Bowl has raised around $2.8 million in support of The Shriner's Hospital for Children programs.
"I am most excited about the mini camp. Seeing the smiles on the kids' faces will be pretty cool," Burns said. "It will be cool to play in the dome again. And this time playing with guys from Dowling and Valley.
"Ever since that last game, I have wanted to play football one more time. It's pretty exciting to be able to do that."
Contact Troy Hyde at firstname.lastname@example.org