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Football returns in Nebraska with high school all-star game

Photo: Shrine Bowl of Nebraska

KEARNEY, Neb. (BVM) — There remains an air of uncertainty for all sports around the United States due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But for at least one day in Nebraska, football was back.

The 62nd annual Nebraska Shrine Bowl was played Saturday, July 11 in front of a crowd of 2,475 fans at Ron and Carol Cope Stadium on the campus of the University of Nebraska – Kearney. The high school all-star game which included 90 players from around the state was the first organized football game to be played in the U.S. since the pandemic forced sports to be shut down in mid-March.

“Back in April and May I thought there was no chance that this game would happen, but I’m really glad it did,” said Omaha Central head coach Jay Landstrom, one of the coaches for the South team, which prevailed 30-6 over the North. “We talked with the players leading up to the game that we’re the first group to be back and there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us. The players bought in and they didn’t want to let down the football communities. We took it seriously, but it was fun and we did feel kind of important to be that first game back and we wanted to make sure we did things the right way.”

Players weren’t tested for the coronavirus during the week-long camp leading up to the game, but their temperatures were checked twice daily and they self-quarantined for about a week prior to arriving in Kearney. About 60% of the stadium’s seating capacity was blocked off for the event, including all aisle seats to help create more social distancing, while most fans in attendance wore masks and no one was allowed on the field after the game.

“I think we took all the necessary precautions that we needed to,” Landstrom said. “Nobody has felt sick and hopefully nothing pops up now that we’re all gone, but I think it was about as safe and well done as we could’ve hoped.”

The Shrine Bowl was originally scheduled for June 6 before the board of directors decided in April to postpone the game to July 11. The board’s executive director, Dave MacDonald, said that decision was made because the number of COVID-19 cases in Nebraska weren’t trending in the direction they needed to in order to feel confident that they would be able hold the event in June. MacDonald admitted that while he still had his doubts, he remained optimistic that an extra month would be enough time to allow the game to take place.

“From the get-go,” MacDonald said, “the biggest thing for myself and the board of directors was if we’re going to play a game, we’ve got to do it safely for the players and coaches, the volunteers and ultimately any of the spectators that would come watch on gameday if we were able to get to that point.”

MacDonald and his team did their due diligence, working with athletic trainers and physicians with decades of expertise to devise a plan for how to pull off the event. They then made their presentation to the health department, which signed off on the plan. The last hurdle was the governor’s office, which lifted the restriction on contact sports at the start of July.

“We went into it knowing that we weren’t the experts,” MacDonald said, “and we were going to rely on some people that had real expertise in the field to help us navigate and put the plan together.”

Even though all the safety protocols needed to play the game were met, 19 players who dropped out of the game had to be replaced, and rosters were expanded from 38 to 45 in order to provide depth. One of the last seven players added to the rosters, Omaha South graduate Alan Mendoza, ended up being named the game’s MVP after making three field goals — including a 51-yarder in the third quarter — and three PATs. Mendoza is headed to Bellevue University, an NAIA school, to play soccer.

“We called him up and said ‘Hey, you wanna kick in the Shrine Bowl?’ and he was like ‘Sure, I don’t have anything else going on’ and he came in and did a great job,” Landstrom said.

Overall, the Shrine Bowl seemed like a success at the time, especially given the uncertain future of sports for the remainder of the year. If nothing else, it gave football players and fans a glimmer of hope for the fall.

“We wanted to make sure we did this right because I think we really could’ve stepped back from football and maybe sports in general if something bad happened,” Landstrom said. “Hopefully the powers that be will say, ‘Hey, we had a game, it was successful, it was safe,’ and that will allow football to take place this fall because there is some doubt, and this was kind of a step in the right direction.”

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