LEWISTON – Like many of the players who will be participating in it on July 27, the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic turns 18 this year.

And like the thousands of players that preceded them, the current crop of Lobster Bowlers is learning that it’s much more than just an All-Star football game.

The 150 football players and cheerleaders, as well as coaches and parents, converged on the Kora Temple for an orientation on the Shriners, Shriners Hospitals for Children and the game itself.

The participants will now go back to their communities to begin soliciting pledges for the game, which benefits the Shriners’ 22 hospitals in North America. They are required to raise money through sponsorships and advertisements in the official game program.

The Lobster Bowl has raised more than $300,000 in 17 years, including $26,000 last year. But the high school seniors learned that their task is even greater than money.

“You guys are involved in something much more than a football game,” said guest speaker Jon Caro, a former patient of the Shriners Burn Hospitals, who spoke to the gathering. “There are a lot of people who don’ know what the Shriners are who really need to know. You are raising awareness in the community that will bring people to the Shriners to get the care they need.”

Caro was severely burned and disfigured in an accident when he was two. With the help of Shriners Hospitals, he recovered after countless operations and skin grafts. Now 27, he is a highly sought-after drummer on the New Orleans jazz scene, despite losing all of his fingers. He uses wristbands to help him hold the drum sticks.

He demonstrated his skill on the skins for the assembly and earned three standing ovations. He then told the participants to give themselves a hand.

“I want them to feel good about themselves, and I want them to live up to the best that they can be,” Caro said following his short speech. “This is a good way to bring them into adult life, to show compassion and fellowship with your fellow man.”

“The Shriners really do a good service to the country,” said Nate Chamberlain, a Fryeburg Academy lineman who will play for the West squad. “It’s not just a football game. It’s an advertisement for what the Shriners do.”

Players and cheerleaders will spend the next three months seeking pledges, then meet again the Sunday before the game for week-long training camps at Hebron Academy (players) and Central Maine Community College (cheerleaders).

“It’s a huge honor to be in the game,” Chamberlain said. “To play with the best of the best in the state, it’s something you look forward to your whole high school career.”

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