The first Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl wasn’t as close as its score would indicate.

The West scored the first 24 points in a 24-12 victory at Thornton Academy’s Hill Stadium, the first of nine consecutive West wins.

Matt Friedman scored the last West touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 46-yard run that ended in the waiting arms of some former Jay teammates watching from the end zone.

Friedman, who is now the head coach at Skowhegan High School, remembers being awestruck as a small-town kid lining up behind players from Portland and Marshwood, the dominant program in the state at the time.

 “I had one lineman who weighed more than me in high school. The first time I lined up in the backfield at the Lobster Bowl, I couldn’t see the defense when I got down in a three-point stance,” he said.

The West used that size advantage, which included Lewiston tackle Eric Lachance, to dominate on the ground with a backfield featuring Friedman, Fitzpatrick Trophy winner Steve Knight and his Noble teammate, Abel Schultze. Each scored a touchdown, and Friedman ran for 123 yards on 11 carries.

A lot has changed about the game over the quarter century since, but it never fails to inspire.

In the first 15 years or so of the game, players and coaches would get a break from training camp and board a bus bound for the Shriners Hospital in Springfield, Mass. If anyone wondered what they were playing for, the hospital tour and visits with the children being treated would answer any questions.

The tradition started in 1990 with the first Lobster Bowl, played for the first and only time at Thornton Academy’s Hill Stadium. Training camp lasted nearly two weeks then instead of the one week it is now. The West stayed on the campus of the University of New England in Biddeford, the East at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, but both teams travelled together to Springfield.

During the tour, Lachance ran into a classmate who was visiting his sister, an orthopaedic patient at the hospital. Understanding the Shriners’ work on such a personal level inspired him beyond the game.

“That trip was so uplifting,” said Lachance, who went on to play college football at Colgate and is now a Title 1 ed tech at McMahon Elementary in Lewiston. “Besides the birth of my children, that’s one of the things I remember the most.”

The trip had a equally profound impact on Friedman. 

“It was the first time that I had the feeling of playing for somebody else,” Friedman said. “When you’re a part of a team, you play for your teammates, but that was the first time I realized being part of a team and playing in a sport could mean more than just the sport itself.”

About a decade ago, the Shriners stopped the trips to Springfield due to patient confidentiality laws, but Friedman has seen for himself how they still get the game’s ultimate meaning across.

Instead of bringing the players to the hospital, the Shriners bring the hospital to the players at the annual spring team meeting, which is held at the Kora Temple in Lewiston.

The highlight of every meeting is the guest speaker, someone who has been helped by the Shriners Hospitals and brings the game’s motto, “Strong legs run so that weak legs may walk,” to life.

Friedman has been a member of the Lobster Bowl coaching staff four times in the past decade. He’s heard the most powerful stories from speakers such as Caitlin Bazinet of Winthrop, who received treatment from the Shriners Hospital after a December, 2008 car accident, and Dan Caro, a world-class drummer who speaks on behalf of the Shriners for helping him recover from life-threatening burns suffered in a gas explosion when he was two years old.

“Just seeing those people, whoever it may be, from year to year, and what they go through, I think that the kids really get it,” Friedman said.

No matter who delivers the message, it resonates throughout the players’ fundraising efforts in the spring and summer.

It’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed in the Lobster Bowl’s quarter century.

The game still marks the end of its participants’ high school careers, but now many simultaneously consider it the start of the upcoming high school football season. The Shriners moved it to Biddeford’s Waterhouse Field in the second year, reduced training camp to one week and consolidated the teams at Colby College before moving it to Hebron Academy. They added cheerleaders, skydivers, pregame and halftime entertainment.

More schools are represented, thanks to the boom in high school football in the state over the last two decades. The action on the field itself is more wide open, more pass-oriented, more entertaining and more competitive (the West is 8-7 in the past 15 years).

Through it all, the Lobster Bowl stands alone as the state’s ultimate all-star showcase, regardless of sport.

Above all else, the game has taken fundraising for the Shriners Hospitals for Children to new levels. Last year, players and cheerleaders raised a record $94,000.

On Saturday, former players, cheerleaders and coaches will gather at Waterhouse Field three hours before the 6 p.m. kickoff for a reception celebrating the game’s silver anniversary.

Perhaps someone should propose a toast, to those who made the Lobster Bowl what it is, and those who will help make the Shriners Hospitals what they can be.

“It’s one of the best things that I’ve been a part of,” Friedman said. “I hope it makes it another 25 years.”

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