BIG BAY - Close to 90 of the best football players from all around the Upper Peninsula took on a new role Thursday - that of coach and counselor.
The more than seven dozen recent high school graduates who will participate in this weekend's U.P. All-Star Football game traveled 25 miles north to visit the Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay, speaking to and interacting with kids from ages 3 to 17.
These are children attending a special summer camp that provides therapy for a range of conditions with therapies that include physical, occupational, speech and music, according to the camp's website, www.baycliff.org.
U.P. all-star football player Jonny Magaraggia (20) of L’Anse pushes camper Brandon Hensley, 10, through the players tunnel toward Jack Merrill, far left, of Iron Mountain during the U.P. all-stars visit to Bay Cliff Health Camp in Big Bay on Thursday. (Journal photo by Elizabeth Bailey)
"We have 161 children at Bay Cliff this summer," camp director Tim Bennett told players before meeting the campers. "Kids may be learning to walk, to speak or to feed themselves."
He went on to say that unlike these elite football players, they've often been the kids left out of activities and never picked for teams.
So understandably, some were a bit hesitant when they first entered the camp activity room filled with a hundred giant teen boys wearing matching football jerseys.
Others, though, couldn't bridle their enthusiasm at meeting high school heroes from their own and their camping friends' hometowns.
But it didn't take much of the organized, noisy chaos to melt away any shyness some had.
Very few noticed how the room got hot and stuffy - everybody, from the high school stars to the wheelchair-bound, was having way too much fun to let a little heat interrupt their play.
"Oh yeah!" 11-year veteran camper Tim Minier of Ironwood said when asked if he enjoyed all the noise. The 16-year-old, who usually uses braces to help him walk, discarded them while taking part in several activities.
The big attraction was a pair of human "tunnels" lined with football players that campers could sprint through, run into, bounce off of, and at the end, run smack dab as hard as they could into a football stud holding up a practice pad.
The pad was more for the players' protection, as they stood their ground and took what the kids dished out. Yes, there might've been a bit of embellishment when a tiny, 6-year-old girl sent a 200-pound brute flying backwards, but some of the older boys looked to be making an impression on a few of the all-star coaches who chaperoned.
Either way, the youngsters in turns squealed and clapped and jumped up and down watching the stars take their licks from their friends.
Brandon Hensley, 10, got to tackle a couple guys despite being stuck in his wheelchair Thursday with his braces "in the shop" for adjustments.
"And I got a few autographs, too," he said, proudly showing off his All-Star program.
Some girls were elated like teenyboppers at a rock concert.
"I'm really excited to meet them!" said Kayla Smith, 14, of St. Ignace. "I know him, he's No. 22 over there," she added, pointing to her hometown Saints football player Jake Dodds.
Kalli Gustitis, 13, of Negaunee wasn't nearly so sure when she came to this event as a first-time camper.
"Last year, I was really scared when I came in here," she said about entering the activity room, "but this year is pretty good."
She ticked off her favorite Miners players, including Tyler Thomas, Tyler LaJoie and Jeremy Bell. The first two were in attendance Thursday.
Seth Ventimiglia, 13, of Kingsford, is in his seventh year at camp, and could rattle off his recent accomplishments.
"Last year, I learned how to ride a bike," he said, showing off his leg braces. "This year I'm working on my handwriting. And now I'm going to join the teen program."
Ventimiglia had to be one of the campers on the minds of several of the impressed football players.
"There were a couple of them, they looked like they wouldn't make the sprint (through the tunnel)," said Gabe Apple of Marquette. "But they were really determined - they were going to make it no matter what. And they did."
Bennett summed up what Bay Cliff means to these campers.
"Parents want their kids to receive therapy we offer, but when I talk to the kids, I hear something different," he said. "They say, 'I want to learn to speak clearly without being embarrassed in front of my friends,' 'I want to learn to walk like other kids do' or 'I want to be able to push my wheelchair by myself.'
"That's what we're really about - the kids say, 'We want to be just like you.' These kids have the same hopes and dreams as any other kids.
"So let them give you their best shot. They want to be accepted and be part of your team."