MARQUETTE - Wednesday was a relaxed day in the middle of an intense week of workouts in the Superior Dome leading up to the seventh annual Upper Peninsula All-Star Football game.
The day was reserved for the Skills Challenges in competitions ranging from throwing to running to kicking to weightlifting.
How relaxed was it? Just ask West Iron County's Bryson Heimerl, who despite being a 6-foot-3, 310-pound right tackle and nose guard, joined in every throwing and running event he could find time to try.
West Iron County lineman Bryson Heimerl throws during the U.P. Football All-Star Game Skills Challenges on Wednesday at the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Heimerl was his own man, complementing a week-old scruffy beard, muscle T-shirt and athletic shorts with a pair of cowboy boots that just about covered up his fluorescent green socks.
A man comfortable in his own skin.
"Naw, I never threw a pass during a game. I just like tossing the ball around the yard," he said as he waited among a crew of former high school quarterbacks for his turn in the distance throwing.
While he had a respectable showing in the weightlifting competition, he said he had the most fun running the 40-yard dash.
"6.6 seconds," he said in answer to his time in that event, more than two seconds slower than the fleetest of foot.
Asked if that was because it's hard to get a big body to explode out of the blocks, he said, "Well it was because I had to run in these boots."
There were several spots that many of the 85 to 90 players from both East and West teams gathered during the two hours of skills, starting with lifting competition, then the 40 and field goal kicking before finishing up with the receivers skills.
The 40 was a natural - watching guys burn up the turf from a standing start - that was won by Devon Harris of Menominee in 4.649 seconds, with Tyler LaJoie of Negaunee barely edged out with a reported 4.65 seconds on one of his several attempts barefoot and shirtless.
Several field goal kickers wowed the assembled group at midfield as Cedarville's Nick Ellis made a 45-yarder, but was still beaten out by Northern Michigan University-bound Ryan LaBerge of L'Anse, who hit at that distance, then impressed one and all with a 50-yarder that split the uprights and had plenty of room to spare over the crossbar.
He then lined up for what would be a Skills Challenge-record 55-yarder. After shanking his first try low and left, his second attempt lofted high and much straighter with the tight spin seen in long kicks made in the NFL. But the ball drifted a few feet left and landed just beyond the end line in a bid for the record.
"I started with one of those Fisher Price PVC pipe toys and a Nerf football when I was 6 (years old)," LaBerge said about his kicking career, though his interest was really piqued about a year later at a family gathering in the Minneapolis area.
"I remember when I was 7, I was at a (Minnesota) Vikings draft party and I got to kick, and I beat everybody else, even all the older teenagers."
To this day, he said he still has a PVC pipe set up across a gully and about 40 yards away from his family's back porch at home in the L'Anse area.
"And the posts are only 10 feet wide," he added.
Finally, the receivers competition was probably the most dynamic of all, with Xcel President Todd Goldbeck and three QBs - Alex Briones of Ishpeming, Jake Pearson of Rapid River and Jeff Johnson of Forest Park - tossing balls from four directions in rapid-fire order.
Contestants had to make two rotations during each time up, and once the group was whittled to the best, some tosses were purposely a bit off to increase the degree of difficulty, much to the delight of their fellow graduated seniors.
Here are the other winners from Wednesday:
Strongest Man (225-pound bench press) - Linemen, Tyler Thomas, Negaunee, 15 repetitions; Non-linemen, Alex Briones, Ishpeming, 11.
Quarterback Challenge (throwing distance) - Briones, 59 yards (ties record).
Punting - Cam Beversluis, Escanaba, 61 yards (third best all-time).
Receivers Challenge - Non-linemen, Cole Potvin, Manistique; Linemen, Bailey Lamb, Escanaba.
Fastest Man (40-yard dash) - Linemen, Jorden Neumann, Norway, 4.745 seconds (second best all-time).
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.