LEWISTON – Four years ago, Tessie Huntington made a memorable first impression on one of her classmates.
Yesterday, she left an indelible mark on over 100 of her fellow high school seniors from around the state.
Huntington was the featured speaker at the Kora Temple for the team meeting of the 17th Annual Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic, which every July brings together the top senior football players and cheerleaders in Maine for an all-star football game to raise money for the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
The 17-year-old Litchfield girl knows first-hand the work the Shriners Hospitals do. When she was in the womb, an elastic restriction band wrapped around her right leg and three fingers on her right hand and cut off circulation. Doctors had to amputate the leg and fingers when she was just a newborn.
Since then, she’s been traveling to the Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Mass. annually, sometimes several times a year, to be fitted for new prostheses that conform with her growing body and her active lifestyle, which includes soccer and basketball.
After a moving video presentation about the work the Shriners Hospitals do for children, Huntington put a face to the cause, telling a rapt audience humerous anecdotes about fitting in at school with her disability and feeling welcomed at the Shriners Hospital.
“With this disability,” she told the assembly of players, cheerleaders, parents, coaches and Shriners, “it’s made me a very strong person, and I’m so thankful to the Shriners and my doctors.”
As a Shriner who has coached in a half-dozen Lobster Bowls and worked behind the scenes for the event, former Brunswick head coach and current Lewiston assistant coach Dick Leavitt has traveled to the Shriners Hospital and seen numerous patients speak to the players about the cause behind the game. He said Huntington’s presentation was “as good as it gets.”
“You could have heard a pin drop,” Leavitt said. “She’s quite inspirational.”
Like Huntington, Leavitt’s son, Robie, is a senior at Oak Hill. He will be playing on the offensive line for the East when the Lobster Bowl is played on July 28 at Waterhouse Field, and said he wasn’t surprised that his classmate had his fellow football players hanging on her every word.
“The first time I met her I think was in eighth grade, and it was kind of a funny experience because she was chasing one of my other friends and she kind of kicked her (prosthetic) leg off and hit him,” said Leavitt, who is an offensive lineman for the East squad. “I just remember laughing, but feeling kind of confused at the same time.”
“She’s a great person to be around,” he added. “She’s just wicked fun.”
The Shriners have selected 88 football players and 50 cheerleaders to take part in this year’s game. In addition to participating in a week-long training camp leading up to the game and playing in the game itself, each participant is required to raise money through sponsorships and advertisements in the official Lobster Bowl program.
In 16 years, the game has raised over $313,000, including $37,000 last year.
“With the patient presentation and the story of our hospitals, we want the kids to buy into the program, if you will, and go out and do their sponsorships and fundraising,” said Tim Luttrell, who is on the Lobster Bowl Board of Governors. “We’ve been very effective with this approach the last couple of years. The last two years have been the best of the 16 years in terms of fundraising.”
Players and cheerleaders will now fan out across the state and try to meet this year’s goal of $40,000. Lewiston cheerleader Rebecca Roy said that responsibility eclipses the honor of being selected to cheer at the game.
“I’m really happy to be able to meet all kinds of football players and cheerleaders from other schools and to wear the (Lobster Bowl) uniform,” she said, “but it’s really mostly about the children and raising the money.”
That’s exactly the message Huntington wanted her fellow seniors to leave the Kora Temple with Sunday.
“I felt that it was my job to come here and tell people that this is what you’re going to play football for,” she said. “I think it’s so special that people care so much about it.”