Last time in pads: Upper Peninsula all-stars look forward to what for most is last football game

Football players from the Red squad pose for their team photo with their coaches in the top two rows and helmets representing their high schools in front of them in the Superior Dome on Tuesday evening. Both the Red and Black have 13 area players on their rosters that were chosen in a draft by the game’s coaches in March. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

“Everyone has become friends in the dorms, and this week is like a college experience.” — Jace Briggs, Bark-River Harris player, member of Black team in U.P. Football All-Star Game

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MARQUETTE — With the 2017 Upper Peninsula Football All-Star Game set for Saturday afternoon, the best of the region’s recently graduated football players have begun their activities on Northern Michigan University’s campus in Marquette.

Players are scheduled for a week of activities that include skills competitions today — which begin at the dome at 2:15 p.m. — and community activities for most of the week, all built toward the annual exhibition game held at the Superior Dome at 1 p.m. Saturday.

North Central’s Bobby Kleiman said at media day Tuesday that the all-star game is a unique experience to end his high school career.

Football players from the Black squad pose for their team photo with their coaches in the top two rows and helmets representing their high schools in front of them in the Superior Dome on Tuesday evening. Both the Red and Black have 13 area players on their rosters that were chosen in a draft by the game’s coaches in March. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

“The atmosphere between all the players is incredible,” Kleinman said. “Everyone’s friendly and we’re meeting new people from all the schools in the U.P.

“It’s a great experience for anyone that’s able to come here.”

The game has a new wrinkle to it this year, with the teams divided between Red and Black during a draft held in March.

Under this format, players still face top competition from across the U.P., but that could include their former high school teammates.

Kleiman said the intensity in the buildup to the game is heavy as they look forward to Saturday.

“We’re going to beat (the Black team),” said the Red team member. “It’s fun talk, but everyone’s talking smack 24/7.”

Negaunee’s Neal Violetta is one of the players who will face some of his former teammates and said he’s warily looking forward to the opportunity.

“It’s fun to go against your old teammates,” Violetta said. “Joking around I say I want to hit (former teammates), and it’ll be fun.

“I would have rather stuck with my guys for one last game, but it’ll be fun going against them. We’re still hanging out every day like nothing has changed.”

Others have taken full advantage of their opportunity to form friendly rivalries, whether it’s against ex-teammates or other U.P. players.

Ishpeming’s Ashok Ravindran, who is with all three other Hematites who were also selected to the Black team, said the friendly rivalry is in full effect.

“We have a good group of guys on our team,” Ravindran said. “I like it because we have shorter practices than the Red team. They’re busting their humps over stuff that isn’t going to help them anyway.”

Jace Briggs from Bark River-Harris echoed Ravindran in that Team Black is enjoying poking some friendly fun at their opponents.

“We’re watching ‘Looney Toons’ and we say we’re scouting out Team Red,” Briggs said. “I’m sure we’ll have more fun throughout the week.

“We’re a pretty well-joking team that likes to mess around and have fun. Everyone has become friends in the dorms, and this week is like a college experience.”

That experience will extend to NMU’s football field on Saturday, which is larger than the high school fields most high school players are accustomed to.

Former Marquette Redman Travis Christensen knows the challenges of the Superior Dome, since Marquette played the majority of its football games last season in the dome.

“It’s a pretty good experience,” Christensen said. “It’s the biggest wooden dome in the world, so we we have the edge knowing what areas are bad, where the bad spots on the carpet field are. We’ve played here in the heat, so we should be ready.”

Christensen’s former Marquette teammate Wyatt Goodwin, who is also on Team Red, said he can help his teammates in the challenging atmosphere.

“It’s very hot in here, especially with a big crowd,” Goodwin said. “We adapted to it throughout the season. Because of that, I think our team has the advantage.”

For players like Briggs, the opportunity to play one final game of football is a big moment in their lives.

“It will be the last time I’ll be strapping on the pads, and it’ll be hard,” Briggs said. “It was hard at the end of the (fall) season, too. I’ve played with these guys for a long time and it’s felt like my whole life.

“I’ve created a lot of bonds and friendships, but (Saturday) will be a fun experience, and when it’s done it will be something to look back on.”

Ray Bressette can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 251. His email address is rbressette@miningjournal.net.