By JO DEE BLACK and ERIN MADISON Tribune Staff Writers • October, 2008
Since 1947, the best of the best of Montana's graduating high school football athletes have battled for bragging rights at Memorial Stadium in Great Falls during the East-West Shrine Game.
Next July, however, the matchup will move to Butte.
"I can't believe we've lost this game," said John Hayes, a member of the Shrine football game board. "It blows my mind. It's really a matter of pride for the community."
The nine-member Shrine Game Board met in Great Falls on Saturday and awarded the game to Butte.
Proceeds from the game benefit Shriners Hospitals for Children, which provide free pediatric care for orthopedics, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lips and palates.
Over the past 61 years, the event has raised more than $1 million for the Shriners hospital in Spokane, organizers say.
"We knew there was a chance that Billings and Butte could try to get the game this year," said Bill Vischer, manager of the Great Falls Shrine Club. "We feel really badly about it."
Hayes said attendance at the all-star football game has waned.
"Over the past 10 to 15 years, only half the stadium has been full," he said. "In the past, the game would fill both sides of Memorial Stadium, and there were fans seated at both end zones. There would be 7,000 people there."
Mark Schulte served for 14 years on the committee that selected players for the annual Shrine game. His family also holds a record for the most immediate family members who have played in the game. His father played in the first game, and Schulte played in 1974. Two of his brothers have played, as well as two of his sons.
"The game is really important to us," said Schulte, who was born and raised in Butte and now lives in Great Falls.
"I'm all for tradition," he said, but the game hasn't had the involvement in Great Falls that it deserves.
"I think it deserves the attention that it hasn't been receiving," he said. "If moving it creates that new spark in it, I think it has to happen."
In September, the former chairman of the East-West Shrine Football Game, Jerrold Evans, was arrested on charges of embezzling $55,000 from the charity event. He's been charged with three counts of felony theft and will be arraigned in district court Oct. 30.
East-West Shrine Game Board member Sean Johnson of Butte said that case had nothing to do with the Bagdad Shrine Temple of Butte's decision to bid on the event.
"We started talking about going after this nine or 10 months ago," said Johnson, who joined the board five or six years ago. "We noticed attendance has been dropping and the checks we are sending to the hospitals are smaller."
Hayes said that the Great Falls community had become complacent about hosting the game.
"The community needs to recognize the ongoing events that come to Great Falls and not forget to support them," Hayes said. "Economically, sure, this is a slap in the face, but it's also a prestige thing. This game started in Great Falls, and now we've lost it. Everyone in Great Falls would have backed the game — they just needed to be woke up and asked."
Great Falls hoteliers will feel that economic slap in the face.
Hotels usually sell out for the Shrine game, said Sandra Johnson-Thares, owner of the O'Haire Motor Inn and director of the Great Falls Area Lodging Association.
"That's a true shame that we have lost that game," Johnson-Thares said.
Shrine organizations from all over the state come for the game and typically stay in the same motel year after year.
Each year the Black Horse Patrol and a band, both from Billings, stayed at the O'Haire, as well as a group from Columbia Falls.
"They're great guys," Johnson-Thares said. "They're fun, and they spend money."
Butte's Shriners' presentation included a $25,000 corporate sponsorship, although Johnson did not disclose who the corporate sponsor is.
"We also have support from our Chamber of Commerce, who have been doing back flips since the announcement was made that the game is moving to Butte," Johnson said. "The business owners we've talked to are pretty excited about it too."
Johnson, who coached in the 2000 East-West Shrine Game, said the Butte temple has younger members who are ready to put in the volunteer efforts needed to re-energize the event.
"We've been brainstorming for quite a while," he said. "We want to focus on elevating the game day atmosphere and experience. Ultimately our goal is to do something similar to what the University of Montana-Missoula does on their football game days. Their venue is a whole heck of a lot bigger, but we can incorporate some of their ideas and make it a great event."
"They'll do a great job of supporting it, there's no question about that," Hayes said of the Butte Shriners and the Butte community.
"The guys who were pushing for it in Butte were so aggressive," Schulte said.
Johnson-Thares and a group of other Great Falls hotel owners are working to establish a Tourism Business Improvement District that could generate about $372,000 annually by charging a $1 local assessment attached to lodging fees. That money could be used to recruit events such as high school sports tournaments. It could also be used to entice the Shrine game back to Great Falls, Johnson-Thares said.
It's an honor to be selected for the Shrine game, and if the game goes downhill, it will lose that honor, Schulte said.
Johnson agreed and said in the past several years, some athletes invited to play have declined.
"It's tough to say why. There is the Mon- game now, and with two high school all-star games, one may suffer," Johnson said. "Our feeling is that we want the Shrine game to be the premier all-star football game in the state."
Schulte added that ultimately, a successful Shrine game means bigger donations for the Shrine hospital, which is the purpose of the event.
Asked to share stories he's heard from kids who have received care at Shriners Hospitals, Hayes became choked up.
"I can never talk about it because it's enough to make a grown man cry," he said. "I've been an admirer of the Shriners since I was a little kid watching parades with their little cars. Who isn't? Now I'm a clown, and you walk down the street and see a little kid holding a sign that says 'I'm a Shrine patient.'
"Oh man. I'd do anything to bring this game back to Great Falls. "