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Ex-players, coaches hail Maryland's return to Big 33 Football Classic

Ex-NFL star Antonio Freeman among those at news conference at St. Paulís

By Katherine Dunn

The Baltimore Sun

3:20 PM EST, November 8, 2012

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Antonio Freeman didn't remember whether his team won or lost the Big 33 Football Classic game the summer after his senior year at Poly in 1990. He has more important memories of the Maryland-Pennsylvania high school football all-star game.

"I had never been away from home for a week's time, slept in somebody else's bed. The whole experience helped me prepare for college. I had a great host family. I'm still in touch with the host family," said Freeman, who went on to play in two Super Bowls with the NFL's Green Bay Packers, winning one.

"And it was just one of those things that made you realize you were one of the elite in the whole state, and you were surrounded by other guys who have the same goals that you have, to play college football and to get an education, and it was a great fraternity to be a part of."

Freeman, whose team lost the game, gathered with fellow Big 33 veterans Reggie White and Keith Kormanik, as well as coaching veterans Roger Wrenn and Bill McGregor, at St. Paul's School on Thursday to talk about how happy they are to see Maryland and Pennsylvania renew their Big 33 rivalry after 21 years. Maryland went 2-6 against Pennsylvania between 1985 and 1992, but in 1993, Pennsylvania began playing Ohio.

Last month, Maryland Football Coaches Association officials signed a deal with the Big 33 Scholarship Foundation, Inc., to renew the rivalry for at least the next five years. One of the reasons Maryland officials were eager to get back in the game is the improvement in Maryland high school football in recent years. In the early 1980s, only about a dozen players a year from the state went on to play college football on scholarship. Last year, 83 received Division I scholarships.

"Our players and coaches just don't know what they have in store for them," said Wrenn, the former Patterson and Poly coach who was an assistant on the 1990 Big 33 staff. "It's such a treat, such a class event. It's gone on for so long [since 1958]. There's never been a Super Bowl played that didn't have a Big 33 player in it."

But more importantly, the former players want Maryland youngsters to have the same experiences they had -- not only in the game, which is scheduled for June 15 at Hersheypark Stadium, but in the week leading up to it.

"It was the best experience an 18-year-old could have," said Milford Mill coach White, a former Miller who played in the 1989 game and went on to play for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots.

"Besides my recruiting trips, I had never been away from home. We stayed with a host family and that was a great experience. Then, I was shocked to play with all these all-stars. We played against Rocket Ismail. They were all great guys and the camaraderie is something I will never forget."

Atholton coach Kyle Schmitt couldn't make it to St. Paul's, but he played in the 2000 game and said he enjoyed being in the community with a host family rather than in a hotel and that he also enjoyed his experience with the Buddy Program, where players worked with special needs students about their own age.

"It's really unlike any all-star game that I've seen, high school or college," Schmitt said. "They run a first-class event. I think in an era where all-star games are all about promoting these kids and promoting their schools and making them out to be like professional athletes before they're anywhere near there on the field or in their own heads, this is different. It was the highlight of my high school football career. Playing this game was such an honor and then they teach you a little about being humble which I think our kids need. You really appreciate the buddy experience because it's eye opening. They're really cool kids and I loved that part of it."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com