All-star experience

The game itself didn’t go quite the way he wanted it to, but almost everything else Tyson Ratzlaff experienced during his Shrine Bowl experience was definitely all-star quality.

Ratzlaff’s West squad failed to take advantage of a couple of scoring opportunities late in the game to fall to the East team, 21-13, at the Moore Bowl on the campus of Topeka’s Washburn University.

“It was very competitive,” said the Hillsboro High School standout. “Everybody was wanting to win really bad.”

Ratzlaff did what he could for his team, playing defensive back the entire game and several plays at wide receiver.

But he didn’t get many opportunities to contribute. When he played defense, the East squad ran the ball up the middle much of the game and threw only five passes. Still, Ratzlaff was credited with at least two solo tackles.

On offense, Ratzlaff was to platoon at wide receiver, but the West had so few possessions in a ball-control, keep-it-on-the-ground strategy that the Trojan standout spent most of the time watching from the sideline. West quarterbacks threw the ball only seven times, and never in his direction.

“I thought I was going to play a lot more,” he said. “The first half we rotated every series, but our offense only had the ball like three series in the first half. In the second half, (the coach) just decided to go with the other receivers.”

Cheering Ratzlaff on along the sideline was his high school coach, Dustin McEwen, who was chosen to participate as a member of the West team’s coaching staff.

“It was great having him there,” Ratzlaff said. “I got to hang out with him a lot, and we went to church together on Sunday. I think it helped me a lot to feel comfortable with him there because I could always ask him questions if I had any.”

In terms of time and energy, the game was only a small part of the Shrine Bowl experience.

Ratzlaff and his West teammates reported for practice July 20 at Fort Hays State University. That afternoon and evening, the athletes went through a series of tests to give coaches an idea of their speed and abilities.

The following morning, the West team was bused to Emporia, where they joined their East counterparts for a barbecue.

Early the following morning, both teams were bused to Kansas City, where they caught a plane to St. Louis. They first visited the famous St. Louis Arch, then spent most of the afternoon at the Shriner’s hospital for children.

“It was a big deal,” Ratzlaff said of the visit. “You definitely understand why you’re playing the game when you see those kids.”

The Shriners treat children for burns and other debilitating injuries without charge. The Shrine Bowl is one way the organization raises the money necessary to keep the hospitals in operation.

“You don’t really understand it until you get there and see them,” Ratzlaff said. “It brings you down to earth.”

After the hospital visit, the teams flew back to Kansas City, shared one last meal together, then headed for their respective camps for a strenuous week of game preparation.

Ratzlaff’s team practiced three times a day, with little more than an hour of free time each day.

“I didn’t think it was going to be as tough as it was,” Ratzlaff admitted. “I thought we’d have a little more free time, but that didn’t happen.”

For Ratzlaff, one of the best memories he’ll take from his Shrine Bowl experience will be the relationships he formed with his teammates.

“You make great friendships with most of the guys there,” he said. “Everybody got along great. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see these guys later, maybe playing against them or whatever.”

Ratzlaff will continue his football career this fall at Tabor College.

This year’s Shrine Bowl continued a recent HHS tradition. Last summer, Chad Duerksen became the first Trojan selected for the honor. McEwen himself was a Shrine Bowl quarterback following his senior year at Norton High School.

The teams were selected by mail ballots submitted by nearly 50 sports media professionals.

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