Behind the spectacle and excitement that defines the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas lies a noble cause, one which became immediately apparent to the Fighting Scots’ Artemis Robinson and Malik Diggs.
Barely a day after arriving in Spartanburg, S.C. for a week’s worth of festivities, Scotland’s two representatives stepped foot inside the Shriners Hospital for Children (located in Greenville) to interact with the kids residing there.
And for Robinson and Diggs, this moment proved to be the highlight for what turned out to be an experience that will linger for a lifetime.
“When I got inside, there was a child without legs sitting on the floor, and when I briefly turned my attention away I felt a tug on my pant leg, and it turned out to be him,” said Robinson, who was the recent recipient of the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year honors. “I picked him up and it was such an emotional moment. It showed me that it was more than just a football game I was playing in, and that there will always be someone out there less fortunate than me.”
“You go to school and interact with students just like you every day, but meanwhile there’s kids out there battling diseases and injuries,” said Diggs, who was an all-conference cornerback for the Scots this season. “It makes you feel blessed and appreciative for what God has given you. We don’t consider ourselves heroes, but those kids do, and the fact that we got to use our football talents to raise money for a cause like that was a humbling experience.”
Not including this year’s game, the Shrine Bowl has raised more than $74-million for Shriners hospitals around the country, with the inaugural game occurring Dec. 4, 1937 in Charlotte.
More than 80 of the top high school football players in the Carolinas make the journey to Spartanburg each year to take part in the game, and current Scotland coach Richard Bailey has had his fair share of Shrine Bowl experiences to cherish.
Having sent 13 different athletes to the game since he began coaching, Bailey was also the defensive coordinator for the North Carolina squad in last year’s game. And for him, the Shrine Bowl not only has the potential to change lives, but it also brings out the competitive best in the players who participate.
“It’s important for these high school athletes to see that kids can view them as role models, it lets them know what’s really important in life,” Bailey said. “As for the game itself, I think they come back with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at the next level, because it’s a true rivalry game featuring big-time talent. They’re used to being the best players on their team and on the field, but it’s a different story at the Shrine Bowl.”
Prior to the game which took place Saturday Dec 15 at 1 p.m., the participating players established a regular regimen in the days prior. From Monday to Friday, players found themselves practicing twice a day and eating meals provided by the Shriners Club three times a day as well. Much of their days were also spent relaxing and getting to know one another, which gave Robinson an opportunity to bond with five of his future NC State teammates who also earned Shrine Bowl nods.
“Some of my favorite moments came from just joking around with the other great athletes that were there with us,” Diggs said. “All their personalities were different, and looking back it’ll be cool to say that I got to be around athletes who might one day go pro.”
And then there was the slew of famous sports faces and guest speakers who addressed players on a daily basis, with it all culminating in a Friday night banquet. On the eve of the game, Robinson and Diggs got to meet University of South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier, Clemson University coach Dabo Swinney and many others, who shared advice and tutelage that each will keep close to heart going forward.
“You can never stop learning, and I learned a lot from being there,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t just an opportunity to play in one more high school football game as a senior, but a chance to learn from some great coaches and people along the way.”
After a Saturday morning parade through the streets of Spartanburg, approximately 10,000 fans packed the stands of Wofford College’s Gibbs Stadium as things finally got underway.
In a game which saw South Carolina narrowly edge North Carolina 23-19, both Robinson and Diggs logged ample minutes. Playing in a 3-4 defensive package reminiscent of Scotland’s scheme from this past season, Robinson saw his snaps come at the inside linebacker position, while Diggs assumed roles on the punt and kickoff teams.
“It was a huge game that was carried by a lot of emotions,” Robinson said. “Seeing all those fans from both states coming out and supporting their hometown kids was just awesome. Next to last year’s state championship game and this year’s game at Richmond, this was the biggest game I’ve ever been in.”
Though the final score ultimately gives fans, coaches and players a year’s worth of friendly bragging rights, the overall experience meant much more to Robinson and Diggs. No matter what the future of each player holds, they will always be grateful for the time they spent in Spartanburg.
“It was a week of education that sets you up for life and makes you realize a lot of things,” Diggs said. “It shows what you can do with your talent and how much people care about you. It felt like all the love in the world from people we’ve never met before was endless.”
The Shrine Bowl is scheduled to air on ESPNU Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, at 8 p.m.