Joe Davidson

Optimist All-Star Football Classic needs a makeover

Wide receiver Tito Rocha (4) celebrates with wide receiver B.J. Brown after Brown scored a touchdown in the third quarter of the 59th Optimist All-Star Football Classic at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif., on Saturday, June 18, 2016.
Wide receiver Tito Rocha (4) celebrates with wide receiver B.J. Brown after Brown scored a touchdown in the third quarter of the 59th Optimist All-Star Football Classic at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, Calif., on Saturday, June 18, 2016. ehiller@sacbee.com

Nothing sullies a charity event quite like a benches-clearing scrap at the end of the game.

The 59th Optimist All-Star Football Classic for graduated area high school seniors was halted with 1:33 to play Saturday. The officials became fed up with the bickering and boorish behavior of players from both teams, leaving a lasting image for all the wrong reasons.

Such conduct reeks of selfishness when the event was designed to raise awareness and funds for disabled children in the region – kids who would do anything for a chance to run with a ball in their arms.

The summer all-star football game desperately needs a reboot and might have to return to a December date to thrive again. The attendance of some 500 was a record low for this once-proud event, a far cry from the thousands who used to pack Hughes Stadium and seniors in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s hoped to be selected to this showcase.

The Optimist game started to lose its luster in the 2000s as players on college scholarships declined invitations, either because they reported to school early or their college coaches prohibited all-star participation. A few Optimist games in the 2000s also ended in the fourth quarter because of fighting.

How can an all-star football game in this region be held without players from powerhouse programs such as Folsom, Del Oro, Granite Bay and Burbank, which was the case Saturday because of senior trips or other obligations? The contest was held at Jesuit, though no Marauders participated.

Athletes still crave to be selected for all-star games, and many go on social media to vent after being overlooked or disrespected. But in this game, many declined to but still expected to suit up for the game.

North coach Mike Dimino of Del Campo had just 19 of 40 players report for the first and most important practice, leaving him to wonder, “I don’t know how we can win this game with so many no-shows. It’s unfortunate. Kids now don’t understand how special this game is, what it’s for, and what an honor it is to play in it. Too many just don’t care.”

With 28 players, the North won 29-7 largely because the South trotted out only 23 players. South coach Jason Rossow of Pleasant Grove showed me a clipboard with an army of no-shows at practice last week, adding: “We’re in trouble. I don’t get it. This is a fun game, and kids want to be in the game but not practice?”

“We are concerned,” Optimist game director Fred Claussen said Monday. “We changed the game from the summer to December a few years ago to get more Division I scholarship kids in the game, more interest, and we did get some to an extent. But in the last winter game in 2014 (with no game in 2015), the North coaches still had a hard time getting kids to commit from 36 available schools. It’s been a problem.

“It’s certainly a different time. Kids have more things going on, playing other sports, going on trips, and it’s hard to get coaches to coach. We used to have 10,000 or 15,000 fans at our game. We’re a proud group, doing our best, and we’re brainstorming on what to do to keep this going.”

When the Optimist game was held in December, the momentum from the freshly completed season reaped encouraging results. There were full rosters, entertaining games, larger crowds and no fighting. The main concern was inclement weather, a big reason the Optimist board moved the game back to the summer.

Claussen said Optimist officials will “absolutely consider moving back to December” in an effort to save the game.

The Optimist game isn’t the only all-star game struggling with an image crisis. Saturday’s 43rd Lions All-Star Football Game pitting Merced-, Modesto- and Stockton-area players had its issues. Some players were no-shows, and there reportedly was tension and taunting throughout an otherwise competitive game played before about 1,600 spectators at Tracy High. All-star football games in the Bay Area face similar woes.

Claussen said he and the Optimist board that includes decades-long fixtures Ross and Tom Relles remain hopeful of better days.

“It’s a meaningful game, but it’s hard to pull off, and of the four of us who put in the most time, I’m the youngest at 68,” Claussen said. “Coach Dimino thinks we should move the game back to December. It has to be one of the things on our mind. The real brainstorm meeting is coming.”

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