The most recent football season may be long over, but three seniors from Cody and another from Meeteetse took the field for one last time Saturday, to raise money for charity and showcase their abilities against Wyoming’s best in the 2019 Shrine Bowl.
“The whole experience was amazing,” Jackson Morris said.
The annual game pits the best recently graduated high school seniors in Wyoming in every class from six-man to 4A against one another in a North vs. South match up held in Casper. The North won this year’s game 29-19, for the seventh win in a row.
Morris, Brayden Polley and Nathan Whalen represented Cody in the game, while Kirwin Johnson was the lone Meeteetse player on the field; all for the North. Meeteetse coach Matt Jensen also served as an assistant coach on the North side.
As rewarding as it may have felt to get the win, it was only a slice of the week’s overall importance and purpose.
“It was really neat to be able to do a lot of stuff with the charity,” Whalen said. “It gave me a whole new perspective and opened my eyes to everything those kids go through.”
Prior to the game, the players made a trip to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Salt Lake City to interact with the same children their game would be raising money for. Since started in 1974, the Shrine Bowl has raised nearly $750,000 for Shriners Hospital.
“They still have happiness in life because of what the hospital has given them,” Morris said.
He brought a mini football and Jenga set for the children.
For Polley, who will be a pre-medical student at Sheridan College in the fall, seeing the youths brighten up from their visit was a highlight.
“They really appreciated it,” he said.
Although the players mostly spent time with the Shriners children in groups of around five, Polley said it was one child in particular that took his heart, a wheelchair-bound boy named Nathan, who suffers from deficient bone density.
“He was pretty cool to talk to just because of how happy he was,” Polley said. “Just being able to play baseball in a wheelchair.”
After the hospital visit, the players and coaches returned to Casper to prepare for the game. Although it is merely an all-star game played strictly for bragging rights, both teams took it seriously, engaging in twice-daily practices over the course of the week, not unlike the grueling, two-a-day practices that mark the start of each fall football season.
“We were serious about why we were there and had to get to work, but were also there to have fun too,” Jensen said.
Polley said his team’s preparation was a huge factor in their win.
“We definitely had a lot more practice,” he said.
On game day, the players walked in the Shrine Bowl parade through downtown Casper, before hitting the gridiron at Natrona County High School.
Whalen said he noticed an uptick in the level of play as soon as he stepped onto the field, a far cry from a typical varsity match up.
“You can tell it’s definitely higher than a normal football game,” he said. “Everybody was faster. Everyone out there was able to make plays.”
Polley made two solo tackles and two assisted tackles at linebacker, playing most of the game.
Whalen, a late-entry participant to the Bowl as an alternate when another player dropped out, more than proved he belonged, earning six tackles and breaking up two passes from the cornerback position.
“I was really happy about the fact that I was not only able to play, but also able to do pretty well,” he said.
Morris started the game at center, holding his own against linemen from larger 4A schools, but Johnson was truly a “David” among goliaths, coming from a six-man football background.
With his team clinging onto a fragile 22-19 lead late into the 4th quarter, Johnson was able to make a crucial third down pass deflection that brought on a South fourth down and subsequent punt.
“Kirwin played amazing,” Jensen said. “I couldn’t be more proud of that kid.”
Johnson is no stranger to adversity, twice breaking his leg in high school.
“It was a huge learning experience for me coming from Meeteetse ... but knowing that I could compete with the kids from bigger schools was well worth it,” Johnson said. “The week was one I will never forget, especially knowing that what I did helped kids at the hospital.”
For all four players it will likely be their last game, as none plan to play college football. Additionally, Jensen recently accepted an opportunity to become principal of Riverside Middle School in Basin and will not be pursuing coaching.
For Whalen, he wouldn’t have wanted it to end any other way, aside from maybe a state championship.
“It felt a lot better than 33-0 (Cody’s lost to Star Valley in state semifinals),” he said with a laugh. “It was a really good way to end playing football.”