Las Vegas • After the four teams involved in the Barry Sollenberger Classic get back together at the respective facilities this week, the first game of the 2014 football season will forever be in the record books.
The collection of messages sent Thursday to the players on Mountain Pointe, Brophy, Sparks (Nev.) Reed and host Bishop Gorman at the team banquet should last just as long.
It started with the fact that all of the eight-seat round tables at Gorman’s banquet hall were color-coded with pieces of papers representing each team, meaning the players were forced to interact — even if it was just passing the dinner rolls — with their peers and coaches from the three other teams.
It wasn’t about being a team on this night; it was about the mutual respect it takes to put on a helmet.
“I’ve never seen anything like this and it’s a great idea to have these young men interact instead of mad-dogging each,” Brophy coach Scooter Molander. “It’s more than just a game. It’s a learning experience and I think it’s a great idea.
“I really enjoyed talking to the players from Gorman and Reed. It sends a great message.”
It didn’t end there.
AIA executive director Harold Slemmer talked to the players about the man whom the event was named after all these years.
Sollenberger was an Arizona high school sports historian who died in 2005 and has left a void in high school sports in the state. He had a passion and never wavered in his vision to promote high school sports as much as possible.
Slemmer relayed a story about how Sollenberger took him to the small town of McNary in northeast Arizona, close to Greer, to check out the dilapidated area that used to be the location of McNary High, which closed in 1980.
“After he showed me where the football field was, he took to me this community cemetery that was overgrown and let go,” Slemmer remembered. “Barry got down and moved away the leaves and debris to find the names of guys who played football and enlisted after they graduated. They went to Vietnam and never came back.
“Here we were in this old cemetery that looked like no one cared for in years and Barry knew everything about these families. He never forgot about them or anyone he came across.”
The highlight came when former NFL player Dale Hellestrae, who played at Saguaro High in the late 1970s, took the microphone.
He talked about an interaction he recently received from someone he went to Saguaro with and how the message thanked him for standing up for him. Apparently Hellestrae stepped in and stood up for the former classmate when he was being picked on long before there were stop bullying campaigns.
Hellestrae said he didn’t remember the incident, but the fact that it left such an impression on the other person that he felt the need to reach out 35 years last hit home.
So he issued a challenge to every player in the room that he hoped they took serious.
He implored these athletes, who are usually are in the upper echelon of the high school community, to seek out someone in their school that looks to be an outcast or awkward or even scared to interact with others. Hellestrae asked them to do whatever they can to make that individual’s day.
“Get out of your comfort zone and talk to them, put your arm around them and make them feel good about themselves,” he said. “You will never realize until years later how such a small gesture can change a person. There are kids who are scared to come to school because they are being ridiculed or just don’t feel comfortable.
“You can change that. All it takes is for you to say hello. I hope you take my challenge seriously because the impact of simple gesture cannot truly be measured.”
The impact of the two games played this weekend won’t be known right away, but for anyone who attended the banquet, it was clear the action on the field took a backseat to the messages sent in the banquet room.
“It’s a great event and there were some great messages,” Pride coach Norris Vaughan said. “I only hope it really hit home with our players.”
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.