Former McDonogh star safety Josh Woods had to do his research.
When the Maryland commit received an email in early January saying he'd been selected to represent his home state in the Big 33 Football Classic — an annual interstate all-star game for top high school football players — he had no clue what it meant.
Woods had never heard of the 57-year-old game, which is known for its Super Bowl streak — there has not been a Super Bowl that didn't include a Big 33 alumnus. He was unaware that notable NFL players such as Dan Marino, Joe Namath and Joe Montana had played in the game.
“I got the first email telling me I was selected and I was like, ‘What the heck is this? Big 33? Team Maryland? I guess that's pretty cool,'” Woods recalled. “I looked into it and found this video on YouTube and they had some pretty big names, such as Ben Roethlisberger, talking about this program, how great it was and that they enjoyed it.
“So I figured, ‘Why not?'”
Woods is one of 34 players who will play for Team Maryland against Team Pennsylvania in the Big 33 Classic tonight at the 15,000-seat Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa.
The all-star game was first played in 1957. The teams originally comprised 33 players — 11 on offense, 11 on defense and 11 backups. When kickers were added, the roster was bumped to 34 players, but the name of the game did not change.
Pennsylvania played against a team drawn from across the nation in the first three years of the classic. The game has also been played between East and West Pennsylvania squads and the state had multiyear series against Texas and Ohio.
In 1985, Pennsylvania began an eight-year series with Maryland, which won twice, eight matches, Maryland won twice — 26-22 in 1987 and 17-9 in 1991.
Doug Duvall — president of the Baltimore Touchdown Club — coached Maryland to the 1991 win.
“It is much like, maybe even better than, winning the state championship game,” the longtime former Wilde Lake coach said.
The eight-year matchup between Pennsylvania and Maryland ended after the 1992 game. For 20 years, Pennsylvania faced high school players in Ohio. But in 2013, the Pennsylvania-Maryland series restarted.
Big 33 Scholarship Foundation executive director Dave Trimbur said part of the reason for the revival was to start a three-sport “border war” between the two states. The foundation began hosting the Big 26 Baseball Classic in 2012 and will begin a similar game for top Maryland and Pennsylvania basketball players this year.
“We started looking maybe four or five years ago to see if we wanted to stay with the state of Ohio,” Trimbur said. “We met with the Maryland Football Coaches Association … met with New Jersey, met with Ohio, just kind of talked through some things and thought it was the time to bring the game back to Maryland.”
The renewed, five-year series began last year with Pennsylvania dominating Maryland, 58-27.
But Maryland got a jump-start for this year's game. In February 2013, the Maryland Football Coaches Association announced that River Hill football coach Brian Van Deusen would head the 2014 squad.
Van Deusen then embarked on a yearlong process of handpicking his coaching staff and narrowing a list of 250 prospects, through film study and invitation-only tryouts, to a 34-man roster.
“When you're looking at the state of Maryland and all the good talent that's in the state and trying to pick just 34, there were a lot of tough decisions to make,” Van Deusen said. “But it's a great group of kids. We picked 34 great kids.”
Like Woods, Gilman offensive tackle Sheldon Johnson hadn't heard of the game before he became a late addition to the roster because of a player's injury. Johnson, who will play for Army in the fall, isn't originally from Maryland but said he's happy to represent the state he now calls home.
“I'm from Virginia. I move to a state, play football there and now I'm representing the whole thing on the football field? That's really special to me,” he said. “I can't truly describe what the feeling is. It's just great to be here representing this Maryland squad.”
If you go
What: Maryland vs. Pennsylvania in the 57th Big33 Football Classic
Where: Hersheypark Stadium, Hershey, Pa.
Kickoff: Tonight, 7:06p.m.
Tickets: Available at ticketmaster.com
Video: Big33.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun