By Keith Mills
As word spread around the state that Maryland would once again be part of the Big 33 Classic all-star football game with Pennsylvania, Antonio "Buttons" Freeman and Reggie White took time to remember just how important the event was to both their collegiate and NFL careers.
"It was life-changing for me," said Freeman, who graduated from Baltimore's Polytechnic Institute in 1990 and lives now in Plantation, Fla. "Coming out of high school, the game showed me what college football and college life would be like. The Big 33 was the first time I was away from home in my whole life."
White, a 1989 graduate of Milford Mill and now the football coach at his alma mater, agreed.
"Let me make up a new word," White said. "It was the most 'awesomest' thing I ever did. And I was fortunate to play in the Super Bowl. You spend some time with guys you just met. After you get to know each other, then you say it's us against them, Maryland versus Pennsylvania. And then you start to build morale and relationships, relationships that have lasted a lifetime."
White and Freeman were at St. Paul's School Nov. 8 for the official press conference announcing a five-year arrangement between the Big 33 Classic and the Maryland Football Coaches Association, which will run Team Maryland and ultimately select its coaching staff and 33-man roster.
Also in attendance was Keith Kormanik, who graduated from Gilman in 1991 and played in the Big 33 that same year, helping Maryland beat Pennsylvania, 17-9.
"It's something you never forget," said Kormanik, who played at Boston College after high school and is now an assistant to Biff Poggi at Gilman. "The host families, the game, the whole experience was unbelievable."
Joe Russo, president of the MFCA, noted the significance of Maryland's inclusion in the Big 33 and said it was a big day for the state.
"We'll eventually be going after the best 33 guys in the state," said Scott Ripley, an assistant coach to Paul Bernstorf at St. Paul's and director of Team Maryland. "With all the all-star games we have now in the area, this will be the premier game these kids play in."
The Big 33 has been played in Pennsylvania since 1957. In 1985, Maryland joined the event, playing eight games and winning two. One victory came in 1987, when the late Jerry Mears coached a team that included future NFL running back Richie Anderson of Sherwood High. Maryland beat Pennsylvania by a field goal. Then, in 1991, Wilde Lake's Doug Duval coached Maryland to a 17-9 win.
Duval retired from Wilde Lake three years ago, but has stayed active in the MFCA and was instrumental, along with Russo and Ripley, in landing the game.
"We've really come together as a group the last several years," said Ripley, who was the coach at Cardinal Gibbons when the school closed its doors three years ago. "Coaches aren't enemies. Coaches are family and friends. We've lost so many great guys, like Ben Eaton and Mike Whittles, the last couple of years. And we help get each other through it.
"Now, we're trying to showcase our student-athletes. It's all about the kids, not the coaches. It's not about the schools. It's about the kids."
Russo said the Big 33 game had allowed college coaches to see high school players, thus helping them get recruited.
"When we played the first Big 33 game back in '85," Russo said, "we had 14 kids who received Division I scholarships. Now, we have about 75-80."
Add another 30-40 who are playing college football at the Division II or III levels, and MFCA's goal of providing more exposure for the players is not just being met, but exceeded.
"The kids today realize that football is important," said Eastern Tech coach Mark Mesaros, who led the Mavericks to the 2009 Class 2A state championship. "Not that they didn't before, but we're seeing more scholarship kids than ever before, [Football Bowl Subdivision]-quality players. Maryland is a place that every coach hits on their recruiting trips. The coaches throughout Maryland have done a great job of shepherding the kids through that process and getting them ready to play college football."
Kormanik said all the local programs had done a better job with training and scheduling. At Gilman, he has watched the Greyhounds take on out-of-state powers from Ohio and New Jersey.
"The quality of the players is getting better and better in Maryland, and there's a lot more of them," Kormanik said. "It's all about repetition. The commitment's there. They're not missing workouts during the summer and they're getting good coaching."
White said increased information and technology had also played a role, as well as former pro and college players who returned to their alma maters to coach.
"Guys coming back to coach who've been through it, played college football," White said, "it's the information age and everybody's a part of it. Now the coaches can spread that information to the kids and the parents."
White played for John Buchheister at Milford Mill, helping the Millers win the Class C state championship as a sophomore in 1987. Two years later, he was a dominant senior defensive lineman selected to play in the 1989 Big 33 game, which Pennsylvania won, 29-19.
One of his teammates was Vaughn Hebron of Cardinal Gibbons, who had just signed to play at Virginia Tech. One year later, Roger Wrenn drove Hebron to Hershey, Pa., to watch the 34th Big 33 game, which included Freeman, who also had decided to play at Virginia Tech.
"Vaughn started all of it," Freeman said. "Prior to the Big 33, a few guys went off to play in college, but nothing like what happened after that. For a long time, college recruiters wouldn't come into Baltimore City. We were just a stop between D.C., Virginia, Philly, Delaware, New York. But the Big 33 changed that. College coaches saw how many great players there were around here, and they've been coming ever since."
White played at North Carolina A&T and the San Diego Chargers picked him during the sixth round of the 1992 NFL draft. Two years later, he helped the Chargers win the AFC championship before losing to the San Francisco 49ers during Super Bowl XXIX in Miami.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed Hebron out of college as a free agent, although on Jan. 25, 1998, he was playing for the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. On the opposite sideline was his close friend and former Virginia Tech teammate, Freeman, who was playing for the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers had won the Super Bowl one year earlier, thanks to an 81-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre to Freeman, which helped beat New England, 35-21, in New Orleans. One year later, though, it was Hebron and the Broncos who spoiled Freeman and the Packers' hopes of a repeat as Denver won, 31-24.
Hebron earned another ring a year later as the Broncos beat Atlanta, 34-19, in Miami.
"What a thrill," Freeman said, "Vaughn and I in the same Super Bowl. I know we lost, but looking back on it, that was amazing. What a moment for Baltimore football."
Hebron, White and Freeman are also part of an amazing Super Bowl trivia question.
During how many Super Bowls has there been a representative from the Big 33 Classic?
How about all of them?
Joe Namath (Beaver Falls High School), Joe Montana (Whitehall High), Jim Kelly (East Brady High) and Tony Dorsett (Pottsville Area High) are NFL Hall of Famers who represented Pennsylvania in both the Super Bowl and the Big 33. Hebron, White, Freeman, Eric Jonassen and Jermaine Lewis represented Maryland.
Jonassen was a 6-foot-6 offensive tackle who went to Mount St. Joseph, played in the 1986 Big 33 game and was a teammate of White's with the Chargers during Super Bowl XXXIX. Lewis went to Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's County, played in the 1992 Big 33 game and helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa.
Kim Herring of Solon High in Ohio played in the 1993 Big 33 game and also was a member of the Ravens team that dominated the Giants on Jan. 25, 2001.
"This is big for the state of Maryland," said Freeman, who was accompanied at the Big 33 press conference by his father, Clarence, and former Poly assistant football and basketball coach Bucky Kimmett. "When you're one of the elite 33, one of the best players in the state, that's a big deal. You get to play against other great players and high-profile athletes. It gives you the opportunity to further your education. It's football, but it's also a great opportunity."
Jerry Franks, who eventually won a state championship 10 years later at Calvert High School, coached Freeman's 1990 Maryland team. Seneca Valley's Al Thomas; Towson's Ben Wright; and Patterson's Wrenn, who retired last year after 40 years of coaching at Patterson and Poly, assisted Franks. Wrenn was also on hand for the Nov. 8 press conference.
"I think we can all look back," Wrenn said, "and say the real beginnings of the surge in high school football around here was when we started to be associated with the Big 33 and formed the state football coaches association."
John Harville, who won two state championships at Gaithersburg High in Montgomery County, was Team Maryland's first coach, in 1985, and Poly's Augie Waibel the second. Mears, who led Arundel to a state championship in 1975 before moving on to Meade in 1977, coached the third Maryland team, which beat the Pennsylvania all-stars at Hershey Park Stadium, 25-22.
In 1991, Maryland won its second game as Duval coached a team that included Kormanik and Jamal Cox of Gilman, Raphael Wall and Ricky Rowe of Wilde Lake, quarterback Matt Byrne of Damascus, Josh Austin of Forest Park and Larry Washington of Randallstown.
"Coach Duval did a great job with our team," Kormanik said. "He'd come and say: 'We're going the magic. Every time I walk by, and I hold out my hand, I want you to give me a little magic.' That was our theme. He did a great job of bringing that team together and we upset Pennsylvania that night."
"I'm a PA native," Mesaros said. "I was never good enough to play in this game, but I knew the legendary guys who did -- college guys, NFL guys, Hall of Famers. The name Big 33 just carries such reverence that when we found out we actually had a chance to bring it back here, I said to myself, 'That's the greatest thing that's happened for high school football in Maryland in 20 years.' "
Issue 179: November 2012