For the first time since November, football players in Nebraska were able to don helmets, lace up cleats and hit the field July 11.
“It felt amazing. It’s been too long,” Centennial graduate Davon Brees said. “I felt like a little kid.”
“It was much needed for everyone,” Seward graduate Tyler Lenz said. “It felt good to get a little pop on.”
“It was great to hit,” Seward graduate Jordan Kavulak said. “You always forget how good it is.”
The 62nd annual Shrine Bowl, postponed from its traditional June date, was contested at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. The South got the win 30-6, but it wasn’t so much about wins and losses, the players said.
“After the first snap, a weight was lifted off everyone’s shoulders,” Lenz said. “It was just another game, but for an even better cause.”
Most years, the players get to visit patients in the Shrine Hospitals. Children with disabilities and long-term illnesses use the Shrine facilities. This year, however, that trip couldn’t happen because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Lenz said the players got to see videos about three of the patients and learned their stories.
“We know we made an impact on the children’s lives,” he said.
“I was disappointed not to interact with the kids,” Seward graduate Jordan Kavulak said. “But the message got out. Yes, there’s winning and losing, but that’s not what it’s about.”
All three said it was nice to be on the same team again. Brees played at Seward through his junior year before transferring to Centennial to play for his dad one more time.
“I hadn’t played with Jordan since eighth grade,” Brees said, citing injuries to one or both throughout high school. “It was good to be with Tyler again. I always trust him.”
Lenz and Brees played with some of their teammates and opponents in the River Battle Bowl against Iowa in the fall. But all three said it was fun to get to meet new people and make new friends.
“You get to meet a lot of new people and come out as brothers,” Kavulak said.
Lenz said he’d seen a couple of the North’s defensive ends in the RBB and was excited to go up against them in the Shrine Bowl. His future roommate at Northwest Missouri State was on the offensive line for the North, so as an offensive lineman himself, Lenz didn’t get to face him.
Brees also got to play for Coach Evan Klanecky of CHS for one final game.
“He was the first person I met at Centennial,” Brees said. “He taught me so much – it was an honor, to be honest.”
The week before
Players reported to camp July 6 to collect their gear and have their temperatures taken. Temperatures were taken at least twice every day, Brees said.
“All 90 players and coaches passed all week,” Lenz said.
Teams met mornings and afternoons for practices and had down time in the evening for group activities like bowling, mini golf and laser tag.
“That was a good way to bond,” Kavulak said.
Brees said they’d warm up as a team, then break into smaller groups for practice and then close as a team.
One of the challenges, Lenz said, was getting their legs under them.
“We were in decent shape but not conditioned,” he said, adding that things started feeling better about day three.
The hardest thing was learning an entirely new playbook in five days, Lenz said. The team went through a lot of mental repetitions before a scrimmage on Wednesday. Lenz said it was rough.
“Then we just snapped as a unit,” he said, adding that Thursday’s scrimmage went much better.
Kavulak said the defense played well all week but was surprised at the early difficulty the offense was having.
“The defensive line only had to learn eight things,” he said, adding that the coaches focused on letting the players do what they knew.
Lenz said blocking for Brees felt like old times. He was also happy for Kavulak, who finished with two tackles and two sacks from his defensive line spot.
The two Bluejays lined up against each other all week in practice, Lenz said.
“It felt like practice with Coach Opfer,” he said.
Kavulak also lined up across from a future Concordia University teammate during the game, he said. Going against Lenz in practice was fun, Kavulak said, adding that there was a lot of trash talk between the two.
“It’s been nine months said I got competitive reps in anything,” Brees said. “It was nice to get back. It was a breath of fresh air.”
The North was actually favored by 17 points coming into the game. Brees said the South’s strategy was to run a balanced offense, but when they saw the mismatches in the passing game, they switched their plan.
“I got some tough yards when I could,” Brees, a running back, said.
Lenz said there was some pressure with the game being the first football game since the COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. The coaches warned them there would probably be more eyes on this game.
“It was super-great since no one knew if it was even going to happen,” Kavulak said. “We didn’t know until about three weeks before.”
He said everyone talked about the pressure, but the players and coaches were just glad to be there.
He said he hopes the game can be an example for the fall season and “show stuff can start to open up.”
Brees said the South brought the same energy and physicality to the Shrine Bowl that the Nebraska team brought to the River Battle Bowl.
“We had fun, but we were zoned in and focused,” he said.
Even the touchdown celebrations were planned, he said. Lenz said the first one (a dunk over the crossbar) was planned, but the rowing was Zach Fye’s idea on the sideline. Fye represented Crete on the South team.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a football game,” Lenz said.
The South team is already planning to attend next year’s Shrine Bowl as a group, Lenz said.
“We all wanted to celebrate and have a good time together and cherish the moments,” Kavulak said.
After his second sack, Kavulak celebrated, not something he’s known for.
“It was different bcause you know everyone is good,” he said. “It was a way different feeling because you had to really try to get it.”
Kavulak will attend Concordia University in the fall and study business management. He’ll play on the defensive line for the Bulldogs. While he waits to report in August, he’ll continue to work for a general contractor in Seward.
Lenz will attend Northwest Missouri State and study agribusiness. NWMS redshirts all incoming freshmen, so Lenz, who play on the defensive line, will spend time in the weight room and on the scout team.
“I’ll do what I can to help give them a better look,” he said.
Until then, he’ll keep working at Corteva in York and lift every day.
Brees will attend Morningside College and play for the two-time defending NAIA national champions. He plans to major in history education and wants to be a high school coach.
Between now and when he reports in August, he’ll keep working at Seward Memorial Hospital, lifting weights and running.
“I plan to contribute any way I can,” he said. “I just want to play football.”
Overall, all three said, the experience was a great one.
“It was a super super great experience. It’s an honor to play in the Shrine Bowl,” Kavulak said.