Football meets Bay Cliff: Upper Peninsula all-stars make annual visit to Big Bay to interact with young special-needs campers

Upper Peninsula Football All-Star Game player Jeff Stenson of Gladstone, signs camper Jordan Anderson’s booklet at Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay on Thursday. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

BIG BAY — It’s a nine-year tradition that’s turned into a highlight of Upper Peninsula Football All-Star week and a day that players, coaches and campers alike won’t soon forget.

The 89 players and 15 coaches that make up the all-star rosters made the trip to Bay Cliff Health Camp on Thursday afternoon to have some fun with the campers, putting on various activities such as football clinics, human tunnels the campers could run through, dinner and signing autographs.

There were smiles all around.

“This is our ninth year now,” U.P. All-Star Football Game organizer Todd Goldbeck said. “They gave us tours around the facility and showed us where all the dorms are.

“We’re going through all the different football drills, so we’ll teach the kids a little bit about football, have a little excitement and then we have dinner with them.

“One of the biggest things for us during All-Star week is giving back to our communities. This is a signature event for the All-Star game that will be here forever now.

“It’s really important for the kids to know that wherever they are we need to give back to our communities, so this is really important.”

Goldbeck added that they try to put an emphasis on the annual football event by teaming up with a U.P. organization like Bay Cliff.

“Our relationship with Bay Cliff is so unique because we’re (both) in the U.P.,” he said. “All of these high school kids are from the U.P. and although there’s campers from all over the country, most of them are from the U.P., so they know these (football players). They’re the kids that watch them on Friday nights in the stands cheering for them and seeing them in school walking around with their jerseys on, so it’s really important for us to come here because it’s a U.P.-based event obviously and we want to give back to the U.P.”

Westwood wide receiver-defensive back Ethan Burke, who will play for the Black team in Saturday afternoon’s game at the Superior Dome, said the experience of teaching and talking with the campers was a good one.

“We’re having a great time meeting everyone,” he said. “Having dinner and running some drills with the kids (right now) and just getting to know them.”

Rapid River fullback and Red team player Jarrett LaCasse said it felt good to get involved at Bay Cliff.

“I watched the video from last year and it touched me because I really looked forward to meeting the kids and helping them out,” he said. “It makes me feel really good knowing we’re here for a good cause and we’re making these kids happy.”

Kingsford cornerback and Black team player Preston Strong said it was a fun day of football with the campers.

“It’s just the coolest thing ever,” he said. “We get to throw some footballs with them, they run through our tunnels, we have some pads they can run into at the end and they just love it. They’re having a blast and it really made our day to come here, for sure.”

Strong added despite some nerves about coming to Bay Cliff and not knowing what to expect, it made him feel humble when he saw what the Bay Cliff program was all about.

“I was kind of nervous to come here,” he said. “I didn’t know how I would feel, but I’m happy I came. It’s a very humbling experience to come here and see that some of these kids are a little bit less fortunate than I am. I’m just humbled.

“I have the ability to walk on two legs, do everything I do in a day that they can’t, and it’s just a great experience.”

Along with praise from the players came praise from the all-star coaches as well. Black team assistant coach Brad Wiljanen of Westwood said the campers and players have a similar work ethic in improving their life and football skills.

“These kids up here at camp are really working hard to master a lot of skills in their lives and I think our players have a good viewpoint on what that takes,” he said. “Even if it’s in different realms, I think they have the same focus on getting better and improving.”

Red team assistant coach Neil Clapp of Escanaba said seeing the players work with the campers was an emotional experience.

“It’s been great,” he said. “I’ve already been in tears a couple of times. Some of the interactions have been great.”

Red team assistant Kevin Leonoff of West Iron County said the Bay Cliff experience as a whole put a smile on everyone involved with the event.

“It’s been fantastic watching the campers interact with the football players,” he said. “To see the smiles, enjoyment and excitement with everyone involved, it was a great experience.”

All-Star week continues today with a banquet recognizing players and coaches at the University Center on the campus of Northern Michigan University. A social starts at 6 p.m. with the program beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets for the banquet are $20 for the public with a limited number available.

The 11th annual U.P. All-Star Football Game kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Superior Dome. Tickets can be purchased in advance online for $6 at xcel.com or $7 at the door.

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.