The Optimist All-Star football game still matters.
It matters for the charities, matters for the graduated high school seniors who wear their school colors for the last time and it matters for the prep followers who have been a part of the event for 52 years.
The 53rd game is Saturday at American River College. Yes, quite a few top talents declined invitation due to scholarship commitments, but there's still a ton of talent to see. Here's a look at some highlights over the years, from a story by The Bee' Bill Paterson from three summers ago and memory and archives.
Jim Mikacich - Bishop Armstrong, 1958
Although he already had been named the MVP in the North-South Shrine Game, played in front of 65,000 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and earned a full-ride scholarship to his dream school, Notre Dame, a few weeks before, he wasn't about to miss the second Optimist game.
"Probably the biggest memory is that the (Shrine and Optimist) games ended in ties," said Mikacich, a longtime Sacramento attorney. "We didn't play the big offensive games you see nowadays."
In Los Angeles, Mikacich made a game-saving tackle to help the North preserve an 8-8 tie. After receiving MVP honors, Mikacich remembers then-Fighting Irish coach Terry Brennan entering the locker room, congratulating the players and then making scholarship offers.
Mikacich didn't hesitate to accept. He had wanted to play for Notre Dame since junior high school.
The Optimist game was played on a smaller stage, in front of a crowd of 8,600. But Mikacich, a fearsome linebacker who played for the Sacramento County All-Stars, had no thoughts about taking it easy against the Northern California All-Stars.
"The one thing I remember is that the players were as good, if not better than in the Shrine Game," he said of a game that ended in a 6-6 tie. "I don't remember too many highlights because everything was pretty much between the 20-yard lines."
It was during practices for the Optimist game that the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Mikacich realized his days as a running back were over.
"I wasn't fast enough with all the good quality running backs, so I switched to center on offense," Mikacich said.
Mikacich was a reserve tight end, defensive end and center at Notre Dame, but the longtime Optimist member said his fondest memories are of his high school days.
"I'm very proud being associated with it, not only as a player but as an Optimist member."
Al Biancani - Norte Del Rio, 1959
Biancani got hit low, which wasn't surprising as a 5-foot-8, 145-pound player.
"I went over to the sideline, threw up, then came back in the game and scored a touchdown," he said.
By the time he was done, Biancani was named the outstanding back, he said, and his South team had won 22-12 in the third Optimist game.
A track star who had run 100yards in 9.7 seconds, Biancani gave football a try as a senior. He said he was unstoppable through four games, averaging nearly 11yards per carry, before a broken collarbone knocked him out for the rest of the season.
"It was a lot of fun," Biancani said of the Optimist game. "I scored either two or three touchdowns, and I had a 79-yard kickoff return. I didn't score, but I must have run 100yards in trying to get away from people."
The opposing North team was made up of players from as far north as Chico and Red Bluff.
"It was a real honor to be selected back then because it's not like it is now, where you play against guys on the other side of the river," Biancani said. "We were playing against cats from all over Northern California."
The Optimist game was Biancani's last football hurrah, though he later gained recogntion as the Kings' strength and conditioning coach. Biancani, who retired in 2005 after 18 seasons, now has dozens of high school, college and pro athletes, including Chris Webber and Derrek Lee, working up a sweat through his personal training business in Natomas.
Dan Bunz - Oakmont, 1973
For a guy who would go on to win two Super Bowls and be an inspiring leader of a gifted 49ers defense, Bunz admits to being one scared pup when he showed up for his first Northern California team practice (it was NorCal vs. Sac County All-Stars that year).
"These were all the top athletes in the area, and they all looked a lot more mature," Bunz said. "I was still 17 and not very developed."
He wasn't sure if he'd even get in the game.
"Their middle linebacker was a stud, so I knew I wasn't going to play there, and the tight end was from Colusa, where the coaches were from, so I figured there wasn't much hope for me there, either," Bunz said.
But when one of the coaches noted the team had no outside linebackers, Bunz raised his hand and said he could play the position.
"I was lying through my teeth," Bunz said. "I knew nothing about it, but I wanted to get on the field."
That might have been a mistake.
"All I know is that it was the worst game of my life," Bunz said of his team's 28-14 loss. "I didn't even go home. My parents were having something after the game, but I was too embarrassed to show my face."
Bunz said the debacle might have been the best thing to happen to him.
He hit the weights and ran with ferocity the rest of the summer. Bunz played as a freshman at UCRiverside before transferring to Long Beach State, where he was the Pacific Coast Athletic Association MVP as a senior and played in the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl.
Bunz played with the 49ers from 1978 to 1984 and forever will be remembered for stopping Cincinnati's Charles Alexander at the 1-inch line to help preserve the 49ers' 26-21 win over the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI, the first of five NFL titles for San Francisco.
Bunz now is a teacher and owns a personal training business in Rocklin.
Robbie Bosco - Roseville, 1981
His name is etched in the Optimist record books for two feats that likely won't be equaled -- most passes attempted (41) and most interceptions (five).
Bosco, who went on to a BYU Hall of Fame career, still wasn't able to prevent an 18-15 loss to the South.
"I remember losing the game, but it was a lot of fun to play," Bosco said. "You play football all year long, and you hear about the players in the area. To be able to compete with them and against them was special."
Bosco had an idea he might be throwing a lot.
"Nate Harris was the coach, and he told me before the game we were going to break some records," Bosco said.
Bosco succeeded Steve Young as BYU's quarterback and led the Cougars to the national championship and a 13-0 season in 1984.
In the last win, 24-17 over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, Bosco threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, finished 30 of 42 for 343yards, and did it despite tender ribs, a bruised knee and a severely sprained right ankle.
He received the Sammy Baugh Award as the nation's top quarterback that season.
Bosco was a third-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in 1986, but his pro career was shortened by a shoulder injury. Bosco spent more than a decade as BYU's quarterbacks coach and now is the executive director of the BYU Varsity Club.
Greg Benzel - Lincoln, 1986
The confession is voluntary.
"Between me and you, you're the only one that knows," said Benzel -- one of a handful of men to play and coach in the Optimist All-Star Football Game -- in recalling his performance 20 years ago in the annual tussle between some of the area's top graduated seniors.
Benzel, a 1,000-yard rusher as a Lincoln senior, was trying to help the North team hold a six-point lead with two minutes to play.
Then, during a bad exchange, Benzel couldn't handle the ball, the South recovered the fumble, and Troy Taylor capped a 61-yard drive with a one-yard quarterback sneak with 43 seconds remaining to tie the score. Brad Warner's PAT gave the South a 14-13 victory in front of nearly 11,000 fans at Hughes Stadium.
"It's not an exciting memory for me," Benzel said. "I basically helped set up the South's winning touchdown.
"That's my claim to not-too-much fame, although no one really knew it because, in the paper the next day, it said that Pat Birdsong of Nevada Union had fumbled."
This time, Benzel hopes to bring home a victory tonight as the North coach.
"I still consider it a special honor to have played," said Benzel, now the head football coach at Rocklin High School. "It was great to be associated with a great group of players and for such a good purpose."
Troy Taylor - Cordova, 1986
After leading Cordova to a 14-0 season and the Sac-Joaquin Section championship, the future Cal and New York Jets quarterback wasn't quite done.
Playing for his high school coach, Max Miller, on the South team, Taylor led a late 61-yard drive, scoring on a one-yard plunge with 43seconds to play to give the South a 14-13 victory.
"I know I wanted to win," Taylor said. "It's just being competitive. But when you put two weeks into it, you want to win the game, especially when it's your last game as a high school player."
The last drive was typical Taylor, as he scrambled for key gain after key gain.
"I remember a couple of big third-down plays, running for one and throwing for one," Taylor said. "Then Max, who is the most competitive person you are ever going to meet, called the sneak. It was great that we could win all 15games that season."
If there is anything that bothers Taylor about the Optimist game these days, it's that the top players aren't competing because they aren't interested or have to head to college early.
"The game is important to Sacramento," Taylor said. "It's always a great game to watch growing up, and it was such an honor to play in."
He said one of the neatest aspects was getting to play with and against players he had read about through the years.
More importantly, it was a chance to play some defense.
"I wanted to play on defense, an idea Max didn't like," Taylor said. "He had made a bet with the defensive coordinator that I wouldn't get in at all on defense.
"Well, he snuck me in for one play at the end of the second quarter just so he could win the bet from Max."
Taylor went on to a stellar career at Cal and played for two seasons with the Jets. He coached football at Folsom High School for four seasons but stepped down last year to do color commentary on Cal football games.
"I miss coaching, but it's a blast doing the radio and being able to watch Cal football," Taylor said.