Fennelly: Real East-West Shrine all-stars not on the gridiron

Leigh Dittman, an ambassador for the Shriners Hospital in Tampa, is with (from left) West team members Matt Korte from the University of Alberta, Joel Lanning of Iowa State and Jacob Alsadek of Arizona. (Courtesy of the Dittman family)
Leigh Dittman, an ambassador for the Shriners Hospital in Tampa, is with (from left) West team members Matt Korte from the University of Alberta, Joel Lanning of Iowa State and Jacob Alsadek of Arizona. (Courtesy of the Dittman family)
Published January 15 2018
Updated January 15 2018

TAMPA — The East-West Shrine Game is back. And we're better for it.

The oldest college all-star game, Saturday at Tropicana Field, will be filled with kids who dream of one day playing in the NFL, of making the kind of play that lifted the Minnesota Vikings over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. What a remarkable moment.

Then there was Sunday afternoon: the good stuff. Far from the football showcase, East-West players visited the Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa, on the edge of the USF campus. Quarterback Quinton Flowers, the best player in USF history, who'll play for the East on Saturday, posed for photos and signed footballs — and made an admission.

"I didn't even know this hospital was here," Flowers said. He had just finished talking with 19-year-old Crystal Molina, who attends Plant City High and battles spina bifida, and battles, and battles.

"I had my coach once tell me that 'all dreams are legit,'" Flowers said. "You come here and you know it: All dreams are legit."

Leigh Dittman, 17, sat in her wheelchair and waited for the players. Leigh is a firecracker, a superstar in or out of her wheelchair. She has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Like that ever stops her.

Leigh is an ambassador for the Tampa Shriners Hospital and a former national ambassador for Shriners. Leigh is a superstar, a straight-A student at Gaither High School, bound for the University of Tampa. She wants to be a nurse. Leigh is a community icon, having helped raise $1.4 million for the Tampa hospital. She has been coming to Shriners since she was 3. She has undergone 13 surgeries and had 40 fractures.

She also knows the drill when college football stars visit the Shriners kids.

"It's always the same," Leigh said. "You see these big guys come off the bus. They're very unsure. They come in with headphones on. It's another event. But by the end, you have these big guys carrying around kids on their shoulders. They don't want to leave."

That happened Sunday. Players descended a staircase to cheers from Shriners kids and their families. One startled player turned to another.

"Dude, this is a whole thing," he said.

We sometimes make sports is to more than it is. But a day like Sunday shows you that there is more to games than games, that we're on the same team. Those players and Shriners kids provided a message that's undefeated.

Former Ohio State star quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will play for the East, watched a young girl fight her way up a hill in leg braces.

"It's powerful," Barrett said. "We always went on hospital visits and maybe we made a day brighter, inspired people. Today, I'm inspired."

Former Iowa State star Joel Lanning, who is on the West team, played both quarterback and linebacker this season in a upset win over Oklahoma.

"What is that, really?" Lanning said. "For us, it's playing in the NFL. For some of the kids here, it's walking across a room. We all start from different places."

Leigh smiled.

"We all want to be adults in a world that is becoming more and more challenging. And to hit it in full stride."

The East-West Shrine Game is here. On hand was teenager Isabella Rose of Stuart, who goes by Bella and is a Shriners national ambassador. Bella overcame a cleft palate, underwent two years of speech therapy and is now a singer and drama student. Bella performed a song Sunday. She's a winner.

Oh, one other thing …

"I can't wait for some of these players to turn to mush," Bella said.

It happens. Dude, it's a whole thing.

You knew it as Flowers chatted with Crystal. Barrett took a knee to speak with 8-year-old Zavi Gonzalez of Lithia. Zavi has a right leg prosthetic. His mother, Aleisha, didn't tell Zavi's Little League baseball coaches.

"Zavi's dream is to be a major-league player with a prosthetic," Aleisha said.

Zavi told Barrett about his sports. Barrett listened and smiled.

Inside, big, strong football players were dancing to music with children with walkers. Outside, in the playground area, Leigh had a captive audience in Lanning and two offensive linemen, Jacob Alsadek from Arizona and Matt Korte from the University of Alberta.

They own NFL dreams. Leigh wants to be a nurse in a neonatal intensive care. Leigh and the three young men exchanged phone numbers and social media information. The players headed out. They were late for the bus.

"I'm pulling for them to make it," Leigh said.

The East-West Shrine Game is back. Thank goodness.

All dreams are legit.

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