Look what’s back in play and in good standing again from all angles and views: The Optimist All-Star Game.
A regional sporting fixture since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, the 60th Optimist game on Saturday night was a rousing success with an encouraging future, though challenges loom. It was as exciting a finish as any Optimist game in memory, with the South team winning 24-23 by holding off a last-second, two-point conversion pass by the North.
The game played at Sacramento State went without incident. There was sportsmanship throughout, unlike some games in the past 15 years when in-game fighting among players sullied the game’s reputation of raising funds for charities and athletes coming together for a common cause.
Old-time Optimist leaders bristled when media mentioned fights, insisting it was exaggerated or simply not true, fearful of a bad reputation. And the old timers, for all their noble efforts to promote their game and primary charity Camp Ross Relles, regularly blamed the media for small crowds, wondering why 15,000 didn’t attend like in the 1970s.
Different era, folks.
Saturday’s contest drew some 2,500 fans and raised $47,000 for Camp Ross Relles.
The Optimist folks a year ago wisely turned game operations duties over to younger hands, specifically Jay Erhart, a highly regarded local presence who is the commissioner of Sacramento Youth Football. He understands football challenges at all levels and he earned a game ball for pulling off a gem this week. Optimist players this winter delighted in the chance to meet patients at Sacramento’s Shriners Hospitals for Children. Rivals enjoyed being teammates with those who eliminated them in the playoffs.
“There’s great football in Sacramento, a lot of talent, and we’ll do our part to make this game work here every year,” said Mark Orr, Sac State athletic director, as the game unfolded in front of him. “I want to keep working with Jay and the coaches. We want to keep this game going, to make it bigger, to keep it special.”
But there are hurdles to clear.
All-Star football games have been in decline across the country. The four- and five-star recruits don’t play in local charity events anymore, preferring the national showcase games, or not playing in one if their college coaches insist they not suit up due to injury concerns.
The Optimist game can grow from here, using Saturday as a blueprint. In revving up the game after a year hiatus to rethink matters, Erhart’s first great move was to land two of the most known names in the region to coach: Max Miller (South) and John Volek (North).
These old salts are retired, so they had time to prepare and they reveled in the chance to compete against each other. Getting active coaches who teach and have families at home to commit to being head coaches was something that frustrated the Optimist leaders in recent years. Can Miller and Volek do it every year? If so, then the game will thrive. Find a way to keep them in place.
There was a classic scene at the half when Miller and Volek glowered at referees, and each other, so you knew this game mattered. Afterward, the old friends were buddies again, and they dined and drank later to celebrate the good game.
“Look at those guys!” Orr said at the half, amused. “Max and John are so into it. Love it, love it!”
“I’ll keep doing it and John will, too, because we believe in this game and understand the purpose,” Miller said Sunday afternoon. “(Saturday night) was one of the greatest coaching experiences I’ve had, and a lot of players felt the same way.”
The Optimist needs an afternoon kickoff, in the sun. It’s asking a lot to have fans sit for three hours in the cold, the game ending at 9 p.m., no matter how entertaining the contest is.
And this cannot be the ultimate area All-Star game if players from some of Northern California’s elite programs are not involved. Saturday’s game did not include a single player from Del Oro, Granite Bay or Oak Ridge, and just one athlete each from Inderkum and Rocklin.
Folsom had five players from its 16-0 team in the contest, so, apparently, none of them were too busy to squeeze in one more game.
These are solvable hurdles. The momentum for better Optimist days is already in motion.