Events like The Opening have stolen thunder of summer all-star games


LOS ANGELES -- There is no bigger high school football event right after the Fourth of July than The Opening, that extraordinary week-long event in Oregon that showcases the best of the best of returning high school talent.

ESPN cameras will be rolling, reporter notepads will be filled to the brim with recruiting tidbits, and the players will be learn on the field that there are others just as talented as them, and sometimes even more so.

The Opening, of course, is for returning high school players, so USC Trojans fans find themselves once again reaching back for a summer tradition that seems to have completely gone to nostalgia heaven -- the local, county, and/or state summer all-star football games. There are still some around, but most are devoid of the best of the best.

In today’s world of post-high school football, these highly decorated athletes from the previous fall now bypass these former summer traditions of high school all-star games to enroll early in the college of their choice. It can mean early enrollment in summer classes, summer workouts with their universities or simply dorm-room adjustments with a new teammate.

And in an established tradition, some high school seniors have already entered into the new world of college football, having left high school quickly after the fall semester by enrolling in their university’s spring semester to get a football head start with spring football and academic acclamation.

With all these established changes, one of the nation’s cherished summer traditions -- the summer high school all-star game -- has basically become the leather helmet of football’s past. Oh sure, there are still various summer all-star games, but few will ever be the same since the "real" all-stars have already left town to pursue their college dream.

For Trojans fans, gone are the days of the California North-South Shrine Game, which for decades was played in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and pitted the high school stars of Northern California against their Southern California counterparts. For prep football fans and recruit-aholics, this was a chance to tailgate, compare recruiting notes and stories and debate their respective university’s football future.

Many USC All-Americans participated in the North-South Shrine Game, such as fullback Sam "Bam" Cunningham (Santa Barbara), quarterback Pat Haden and favorite high school receiver J.K. McKay (La Puente Bishop Amat), tailbacks Anthony Davis (San Fernando) and Ricky Bell (L.A. Fremont), tight end Charles "The Tree" Young (Fresno Edison), wide receiver Lynn Swann (San Mateo Serra) and safety Dennis Thurman (Santa Monica).

The Shrine Game even featured some pretty recognizable future Trojans adversaries, like Stanford Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jim Plunkett (San Jose James Lick). The game for years was a California showcase of graduated high school seniors.

The fan interest during those days could produce crowds as large as 70,000 when the game was played in the Coliseum, home of the Trojans. Making the game extra special was the fact that incoming freshmen weren’t eligible to play their first year in college, so all-star games like the Shrine was the last chance to really see these potential college stars for at least a year.

Back in the day, a vast majority of high school summer all-star games were for charity organizations such as the Shriners Hospitals for Children. Local and county summer all-star games also found homegrown charities to send their proceeds. It was a win-win situation.

In today’s high school all-star world, the big postseason games are national in nature, televised by the big networks, and sponsored by athletic wear companies or military establishments like the U.S. Army. Nothing wrong with all that, but the games are played in December or January, thus freeing the top freshmen to immediately enter college either after the fall semester or quickly before the true onset of summer.

In today’s high school summer all-star world, chances are -- if you’re lucky -- you might see a future USC Trojans walk-on participating, but even that’s becoming a rarity. Most summer all-star games now feature small college, Ivy League, or junior college-bound players.

Of course lost in all of this is that many graduated seniors in summer all-star games are still highly skilled, normal-sized athletes playing their final game of organized football and are being saluted by the benevolent organizations that run these football jamborees.

So, Trojans fans, while enjoying your summer by watching ESPN highlights and video presentations from The Opening, don’t forget there was a time when prep summer all-star games -- featuring many of those prep All-Americans headed for USC -- was as traditional as a summer barbeque and fireworks on the Fourth of July.