TAMPA — Last weekend's 89th East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg showcased the skills of the country's best college football athletes.
But the nationally televised and popular event among most football fans served an even greater purpose.
Proceeds from its ticket sales benefit the Shriners Hospitals for Children nationwide, including Shriners Hospital for Children –Tampa, that specializes in treating youngsters with orthopedic and neuromuscular conditions.
As an added bonus, patients of the Tampa facility, their parents and area Shrine members and families were treated to a hospital visit by the more than 100 of its all-star players in advance of the matchup.
“It is always a challenge to get the players loaded onto the buses as we leave for the hospital. But once they meet these kids it's even harder to get them back on the bus to leave,” Harold Richardson, executive director of the East-West Shrine Game said in a statement.
Fourteen-year-old Shriners International Ambassador Hunter Woodhall from Syracuse, Utah, who travels throughout the country as the organization's poster child, also was on hand.
Born with a bone defect in both legs, doctors told Hunter's parents he would likely be wheelchair-bound his entire life. Unwilling to accept that probability, they opted to have his legs amputated when he was 11 months old and at 15 months he was fitted with his first pair of prostheses.
“In a way they gave me my life, because I came from a sports family and I like playing a lot of sports,” said Hunter, whose favorites include track and field, water skiing and football.
He said he enjoys going to Shriners hospitals and telling kids not to let their disabilities rob them of living life to its fullest.
Shriners Hospital patient Coltyn Montgomery, 7, along with his mother, Lashai Montgomery of Yulee, were also among a crowd of more 300 people gathered at the Tampa hospital to welcome and interact with the players.
“It's our third year in a row we've done this and Coltyn loves it. Last year he did the dougie dance with one of the players,” said his mom, noting that her son has a rare genetic disorder known as McCune-Albright syndrome, which affects his bones that makes walking difficult without the use of crutches.
One of the first players this year to greet Coltyn and shake his hand was Andrew Jackson, a Western Kentucky University linebacker who played on the East Team.
“It's a blessing to be here and I'm honored to be around these kids,” said Jackson, whose hometown is Lakeland. “This experience has impacted me and it has really opened my eyes.”
Texas A&M University's Ben Malena, a running back on the West Team, said it was his first time on the campus of a Shriners hospital and he was humbled by the experience.
“These kids idolize us but it's so nice to be with them. We can learn a lot from them,” said Malena, following his short stint at line dancing with a few of the Shriners patients and several of his fellow players.
Tyler Starr, a West Team linebacker from South Dakota State University, said he relished being in the sunny and mild Tampa Bay area and getting to meet some of the Shriners–Tampa hospital patients.
“This really makes an impact on these kids,” Starr said. “All of them really look forward to this day and it helps them forget about what's going on in their lives.”
Longtime Shriners' patient and Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay athlete Crystal Molina, 15, of Dover, said the visit from the college standouts is something she looks forward to every year.
“It's really fun being here and spending time with the players,” said Crystal, a victim of spina bifida, a birth defect in which the vertebrae do not properly form around the spinal cord.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.