Commentary

Prep pipeline to the Super Bowl

Originally Published: August 4, 2009
By Ben Houser | ESPN

HERSHEY, Pa. -- Point A: For more than 50 years, there's been a Big 33 Football Classic, starting when a team of Pennsylvania high school all-stars took on an all-star team from the rest of the nation back in 1957.

Point B: For 43 years, there's been a Super Bowl, dating back to when the Packers beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl I in 1967.

Since that very first Super Bowl, there has been a direct line from Point A to Point B. Yes, you can get there from here; in fact, it's happened in every Super Bowl ever played. At least one participant in all 43 Super Bowls also appeared in the Big 33 Football Classic as a high school player.

Roethlisberger
Courtesy of Big 33 A young Ben Roethlisberger threw two TDs in 2000.

"All the great quarterbacks that came out of Pennsylvania, like Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana -- you can go on and on," says Tim Janocko, who served as head coach for the 2009 Pennsylvania All-Star team. "It has a storied past."

Joe Montana? Big 33 Classic, 1974.

Tony Dorsett? Big 33 Classic, 1973.

Joe Namath? Big 33 Classic, 1961.

Herb Adderley? Big 33 Classic, 1957.

Jim Kelly? Ben Roethlisberger? Matt Millen? Kerry Collins? Marc Bulger? Orlando Pace? Russ Grimm? Ty Law? Ricky Watters?

They all played in the Big 33 Classic on their way to professional careers that took them to the Super Bowl.

"Growing up in Pennsylvania," Montana says, "it was one of the things that all the players aimed for because it was the big all-star game for the high schools in our state. The biggest honor that you can have coming out of Pennsylvania or Ohio is being named to that game."

The Big 33 Classic was birthed in central Pennsylvania, right outside Hershey, in 1957 when Al Clark, a sports editor for the Harrisburg-area Patriot News, issued a challenge to the rest of the nation. Clark believed very strongly in the caliber of Pennsylvania high school football and felt an all-star game against the nation's best would be an appropriate vehicle for showcasing it. For the first three years, Pennsylvania's best prep players met a team assembled from the rest of the country. For the next three years, an all-star team from western Pennsylvania played an all-star team from eastern Pennsylvania. At various times since then, the game has been played between Pennsylvania and Texas, between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and between Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Starting in 1993, Ohio has been the permanent fixture as Pennsylvania's opponent. Pennsylvania leads the current rivalry with Ohio 9-8.

"That game," says Roethlisberger, who has taken the Steelers to Super Bowl victories in two of the past four seasons, "is huge. For an Ohio kid … that is the biggest game you can play in as a high school player." Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes for Ohio in the 2000 Big 33 game.

In June, the 2009 version of the game went to the final buzzer before a Pennsylvania Hail Mary pass fell incomplete and Ohio won 38-31. The Ohio team consisted of 20 players who will start their college football careers at BCS schools this fall, including running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (Michigan), who scored a pair of touchdowns, and wide receiver Micah Hyde (Iowa). Pennsylvania was led by quarterback Curtis Drake (Penn State), who rushed for 88 yards, scored two touchdowns and passed for 172 yards.

Ohio quarterback Patrick Nicely (Akron) sums up the rivalry neatly: "It's just two states that really don't like each other."

[+] EnlargeBig 33  PA
ESPNCurtis Drake, bound for Penn State, rushed for 88 yards and threw for 172 more in the 2009 game.

For Montana, the rivalry went beyond state bragging rights.

"Back there [in Pennsylvania], people live and die and breathe sports," he says. "When I was growing up it was the coal mines and the steel mills that were running, and from an area that people said, 'Hey, I don't want my kids going down in that mine, so do whatever you can in sports and hopefully you play well, get a scholarship and move on.'"

Off the field, the Big 33 Classic is more than just a game. The Big 33 Scholarship Foundation has given out $4.2 million in academic scholarships, and the organizers began a Buddy Program in 1985 in which each player in the game is matched with a person facing challenges in his or her life, in the hope of fostering long-term support relationships.

"Big 33 to this day remains one of the best times that I ever had in football," says Watters, who represented Pennsylvania out of Bishop McDevitt High in Harrisburg in 1987 and still remembers the host family system. "They give you a family that kind of takes care of you. My family, they gave me their whole downstairs. It had everything that I had never had before that."

Montana says that even today, 35 years later, he still remembers feeling honored about being picked.

[+] EnlargeOhio
ESPNThis year's Big 33 Ohio stars mugged for the camera after their 38-31 win in June.

"I'd had a fairly decent year, but I don't think it was anything out of the ordinary as a senior, but I was just happy to be named to it," he says. "Other than being named to an All-American position, it's the biggest honor you can have coming out of Pennsylvania and Ohio."

Tony Dorsett describes it as the ultimate.

"This was the top of the mountain for me coming out of Hopewell High School," he says. "At that stage of my life, it couldn't have gotten any better than that."

So who's next to make the journey from the Big 33 to the Super Bowl? It just might be one of the eight Big 33 alumni who were chosen in the NFL draft this year, including Ohio State wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline and Michigan State running back Javon Ringer.

Super Bowl XLIV kicks off on Feb. 7, 2010. Don't bet against them.

Ben Houser is a senior producer for "E:60."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.