(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)
Mike Brewton has never ridden in an airplane and never left Florida.
This summer though, the East Lake High School senior has a chance to travel halfway around the world and play football in Australia.
Brewton, who lives in the North Greenwood area of Clearwater, is one of five Pinellas County high school players who have accepted a bid to play in the Down Under Bowl, an exhibition tournament that promotes American football to the Aussies.
This is the first time an all-star team from Florida has been invited to the bowl, which is put on by a sports promotion company in Utah. The bowl started in 1988, and this year 30 states are sending teams to compete against club teams in Australia. In the past, teams also have traveled to New Zealand to play.
"It's a chance of a lifetime," said Tom Keeler, East Lake's head coach.
Besides Brewton, the Pinellas players who have signed up so far are Cory Hess of Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg; Justin Ketter and Pete Stamas of Tarpon Springs High School; and Christopher Stewart of East Lake High.
Nominated by coaches or bowl officials, seniors are invited from around the state to put together a team of between 28 and 35 players, said J. Brian Pella, vice president of International Sports Specialists, the company that puts on the bowl. Florida's team isn't complete yet, but when it is, it will be coached by Andy Siegal of Venice High School.
Playing football is the easy part. It's getting to Australia that can be tough.
Each of the players must raise $2,700 to pay for their 13-day trip, which includes a stop in Hawaii and an exhibition game there.
For Brewton, 19, that means peddling his mother's fried chicken dinners and launching a letter-writing campaign. His mother, Pearlie Jelks, also goes door to door collecting what donations she can from neighbors. She keeps her proceeds in a flowered cardboard box decorated with a picture of her and her son in his football jersey.
"I have the faith we're going to make it," said Jelks, a single mother. "I pray every morning and every night."
So far, they have raised about $400, but much of it went to cover a $300 deposit on the trip.
The $2,700 price tag for the trip covers air fare, accommodations, some meals and sightseeing tours. The boys need to bring extra spending money for lunches and souvenirs, Pella said.
Hess' family is seeking corporate sponsorship, and Ketter has launched a letter-writing campaign of his own to friends, neighbors and relatives.
"I'm trying my hardest," Ketter said. "I hope I make it."
Ketter's mother, Debra, said they still need about $2,000, and the payment is due in May.
"If I had it, the kid is a good kid, I'd give it to him in a heartbeat," she said. "This is a kid that deserves it."
The trip will run from June 25 to July 7. The Florida team will play in Melbourne, with teams from other states in Brisbane and Sydney. The plan is for Florida to play two games during the trip, one in Australia against an amateur club team there and another in Hawaii against the team from Texas, Pella said.
When the players aren't on the field, much of their time will be spent sightseeing.
"If you're going to travel halfway around the world, you don't just want to play football," Pella said. "You want to see some of the sights and enjoy some of the culture of the country."
Pella said the Down Under Bowl was started by the company's founder, George O'Scanlon, a New Zealander who loved American football. O'Scanlon wanted to bring the sport home to his country and to Australia, where rugby is king.
Crowds at the Down Under Bowl games can be as few as 200 or as many as 2,000, Pella said.
"It's still a real novelty," he said. "They're rugby through and through."
Mark Dodd is the head coach of the Illinois team going to the bowl. Last year was his first trip to the bowl, which was played in New Zealand.
"It was outstanding," said Dodd, who coaches football at a high school outside Chicago. "It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things."
The football players are treated like celebrities by the locals, who often ask for autographs, Dodd said.
"Just to see a young kid be able to have that kind of experience is just very valuable," he said.
Brewton is looking forward to his chance to play. The plane ride over is another thing.
"I'm going to take sleeping pills," he said.
_ Clearwater reporter Deanna Bellandi can be reached at 445-4163 or by e-mail at bellandisptimes.com.