For many of the 57 former high school seniors competing in the 9-man North Dakota Shrine Bowl, Saturday's game at the Alerus Center will be the final time in their football career they strap on the pads and helmets.
While the six-day trip to Grand Forks is football related, it's also about spending quality time with patients from Shriners Hospital for Children - a facility specializing in care for kids with orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lip and palate.
Unlike last year when the players and coaches traveled to Minneapolis to visit patients in the hospital, this year the kids came to them during Thursday's practice. Shriners Hospital organized the practice and players had the opportunity to interact with the kids through a series of drills.
"It was amazing," TGU graduate and West representative Kevin Vollmer said. "Being able to interact with them and hearing their stories and just being able to put a smile on their face, it was just great. It will stick with me for a lifetime."
Vollmer will play linebacker and defensive end in the Shrine Bowl. He will play outside linebacker for Jamestown College in the fall.
The athletes spent Thursday's practice running plays with the kids, playing catch and signing footballs.
Thursday was also the day players heard patients' stories during the hospital presentations. There, they listened to the story of a teenage girl with a prosthetic leg who was born with a missing limb, as well as other moving tales. TGU coach and West assistant Scott Thorson called it "an eye-opener" for the athletes.
"It's still a touching experience," Thorson said. "I look forward to this day and I look forward to seeing the looks on the players' faces and the reactions of the patients. It's something I hope they never forget and I don't think they will."
As for the game, an East vs. West matchup, a total of 11 practices were scheduled from the time they arrived in Grand Forks on Monday to the day before the 7 p.m. kickoff in hopes of developing chemistry. For the second consecutive year, Mayville State University hosted players and coaches, allowing them access to their practice facilities, residence halls and dining services.
With cramming as many practices into a tight window as possible, Thorson said he expects there to be some rust among the players. It's been more than eight months since New Rockford-Sheyenne defeated Divide County 40-22 in the 9-man state title game in the same building they'll play in Saturday.
"These kids haven't played football since November and some since October and they definitely are a little rusty," Thorson said. "Our job is to get them to look like a team and that takes a few days. It's more about them understanding what the Shrine experience is all about and also to develop friendships."
Cavalier, Lakota-Adams-Edmore, NR-S, TGU and Central McLean have a Shrine Bowl-high four representatives each.
Twenty-nine teams are represented at this year's 9-man Shrine Bowl. Players and coaches are selected by the North Dakota High School Coaches Association.
Mike Kraft covers racing at Nodak Speedway and assists with Legion baseball coverage. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.