By Bill Foley
When a group of Butte Shriners considered trying to move the Montana East-West Shrine Game to Butte about a decade ago, they knew two things.
They knew they risked starting a feud with Great Falls Shriners who hosted the game for more than six decades.
They also knew they wanted to make the game better. Their plan was to restore the Shrine Game as Montana’s premier All-Star football game.
About that, they had no idea just how right they were.
As the Bagdad Shriners prepare to host the 73rd Shrine Game — the fourth in the Mining City — on Saturday, July 20 on Montana Tech’s Bob Green Field, they do so knowing they have ownership of the No. 1 Shrine Game in the country.
“In the program every year, it says, ‘Over $1 million has been sent to the hospital,’” said Butte Shriner Jeff Hartwick, the West Team coordinator for the Shrine Game. “Since we started rotating the game in 2010, we’ve made over $700,000.”
That is money that goes to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane, Washington. It has helped Butte’s Sudah Davis get new legs. It helped Anaconda’s Kasey Morey get, among other things, new thumbs.
The money also helps 2019 patient ambassador Emaline Musson of Belgrade receive the treatment she so desperately needs.
“They’re continuing to work miracles over there, especially when you look at Sudah, Casey Morley and Tucker (Thatcher),” Hartwick said of the Shrine Hospital. “People are able to live full lives because of them.”
Many of the patients from Montana head to Spokane in a transportation paid for by the Montana East-West Shrine Game.
“We used to be able to dedicate the funds to a project the hospital requested,” Hartwick said. “One year we bought the van, which has our logo on it. It’s pretty cool to see when you pass it.”
The money, though, only tells part of the story of the revival of the Shrine Game.
By the time Hartwick joined the Shriners in 2003, the Shrine Game had lost a lot of its luster. It was still a huge honor to play and coach in the game, but the crowds were waning. The festivities leading up to the game were dwindling.
By 2007, Butte’s Albert “Turtle” Johnson was about to retire as the West Team coordinator. Hartwick assisted him that year, then took over the job full time in 2008.
Around the same time, Hartwick was part of the push to move the announcement of the Shrine Game rosters back to Christmas morning.
That was one of the steps in “restoring the pageantry” of the game. Countless other steps soon followed. Most of them little things, but all of them a big deal to the Shriners.
“Some of that stuff got lost due to guys not being able to work anymore,” Hartwick said of the game in Great Falls, which had an aging group of Shrine members. “They were short on man power.”
Then, Hartwick and his fellow Butte Shrines targeted bringing the game full time to the Mining City.
After some arguing and hard feelings between some Shriners around the state, a settlement was reached to rotate the game between Butte, Great Falls and the Billings area. When Billings hosts the game, it has been played in Laurel.
Butte first hosted the game in 2010 at East Middle School’s Bulldog Memorial Stadium, and it was a huge success. It went to Laurel in 2011, Great Falls in 2012, and back to Butte, where it was played in Naranche Stadium, in 2013.
The game was played at Tech in 2016, where it will likely be played every year in Butte from here on out.
Crowd size for the game immediately went up starting with the 2010 game when an official crowd of 4,954 packed Bulldog Memorial Stadium. It has stayed up, too, especially when played in Butte.
A standing-room crowd watched the 2016 at Alumni Coliseum.
The 2010 game resulted in more than $100,000 being sent to the hospital. The figure was that large each year the game was played in Butte since.
“Our first goal when we started rotating the game was to send $25,000,” Hartwick said. “Up until then, the goal was to send $5,000. We never thought we’d hit six figures.”
That check went a long way to easing hard feelings about moving the game from Great Falls. It also started a competition, with Shriners in Billings and Great Falls looking to top the guys in Butte.
Such a competition has helped the Montana Shrine Game consistently raise more money than the other of some 25 games around the country.
“The competition has been good for that,” Hartwick said. “It has been kind of a friendly — for the most part — competition. They understand it’s a state game.
“We call it the No. 1 game in the country,” Hartwick said. “It has been every year it has been in Butte. When Billings hosts, it has been as well.”
Another large endeavor was to start a Shrine Game website before the 2010 game. That website included the rosters from East and West for every game since the first in 1947.
“That took a lot of work,” Hartwick said. “We had to make everything electronic, so I had to retype all the rosters. It was a pretty big undertaking.”
Tickets for the game and the Friday banquet can be purchased on the website, montanaeastwestshrinegame.com.
The game is about even more than the rosters, the internet, the money and the patients. There is also a parade.
In 2010, the Butte Shriners reached out to make sure just about every clown in a 1,000-mile radius was in Uptown Butte.
“We really worked hard to restore the parade,” Hartwick said. “It was a big deal in the past and it fell to the waist side. When we hosted in 2010, we invited everybody. The kids love it. The crowd loves it. That part has been fun.
“It shows that it is a statewide game, not just a local one.”
The parade starts in Uptown Butte at 10 a.m. on gameday. It will include the players and participants from Friday’s Mini Cheer Camp, whose participants perform at halftime of the game.
Each time the Shrine Game comes to Butte, an event is gets added. New this year is the Little Guy Football Camp at Montana Tech. It runs from noon to 2 p.m. on the Bob Green Field.
Cost of the camp for payers entering fourth through eighth grade is $25. That includes a T-shirt and a ticket to the game, which is $10.
The price for the Mini Cheer Camp, which is for participants 3 years old through the 12th grade, is the same. Neither camp is a money maker.
“We just want them exposed to the game,” Hartwick said of the young players. “We want them to enjoy the experience and have them at the game.”
That Little Guy Football Camp runs in conjunction with the National Guard Football Combine, which was started when the game was last in Butte in 2016.
The combine is run much like the NFL Combine, and college coaches can look up the times and marks posted by aspiring football players around the state.
The late Lee LaBreche, who passed away unexpectedly in February, was instrumental in bringing the combine to the Shrine Game. The National Guard took it from there.
“They take care of basically 100 percent of it,” Hartwick said. “It’s not labor intensive for us, but it adds another element and gives the kids a chance to show off their talent.”
(Click here for registration for all the Shrine Game events.)
For the fourth year, the game will be televised live on CBS thanks to a partnership with the Montana Television Network, which donates its July free air time to the Shrine Game.
“They’ve been awesome,” Hartwick said. “Working with MTN took our game to the next level in my opinion.”
He pointed out that moving the game to CBS from the CW made the Montana East-West Shrine Game show up on the television guides for cable, Dish and DirecTV.
Part of the televised coverage includes the a telethon to help raise money for the cause. The telethon goes on throughout the game.
“That’s basically doubled in size each year,” Hartwick said. “This will be our fourth year.”
This year’s telecast will also include a halftime announcement of the 2020 class of the Montana Football Hall of Fame, which will be inducted next spring in Billings.
Hartwick said it takes a crew of at least 100 to pull off hosting the Shrine Event. He said the committee consists of about 25 people. The other 75 or more come from the community.
“We have a bunch of guys in Butte — whether they’re Shriners or not — who are there to help us.”
He said the wives of the Shrines are the unsung heroes during Shrine week.
“We’re the ones who decided to become Shriners, and we put them to work,” Hartwick said. “My wife (Velvet) is in charge of the banquet this year.”
Major supporters like Community, Counseling, and Correctional Services, Inc. and Montana Tech are key hosting the Shrine Game.
In addition to hosting the game, Tech hosts the West Side players from the time they check in on Sunday, June 14 until after the game.
Players from the West Side check in this Sunday. The East Side trains in Billings.
Hartwick pointed to Joe McClafferty, the president of the Montana Tech Foundation, and Matt Stepan, Tech’s director of athletics.
“Tech has been such a huge partner for us,” Hartwick said. “From Joe McClafferty’s group to Stepan and his group, we never heard ‘no’ from Montana Tech.”
In 2013, Hartwick pointed out, Tech let the West Team become the first team to practice on the newly laid artificial turf of the football field. Oredigger football coach Chuck Morrell urged the team to leave the HPER Field for the new turf.
“Chuck Morrell came out and said, ‘What are you doing on the HPER? Get on the turf,’” Hartwick said.
Five years later, that turf set the scene for a practice that made all the work, worry and argument worth it for Hartwick.
On the Thursday night before the West Team headed to Great Falls for last year’s game, the team had the honor of meeting Bob Schulte and young Kasey Morley.
Schulte, who passed away in the fall, was having a hard time getting around and was pulling an oxygen tank. He still showed up to tell the players about playing in the first Shrine Game in 1947, what it meant then and what it still means.
“Bob was part of the best day of camp I have ever had,” Hartwick said. “He was in failing health, but come hell or high water he was going to be there. He shook hands with Kasey, who ended up scoring a touchdown. Coach (Mike) Cutler shared his (cancer survivor) story.”
Morley’s touchdown came as players pretended to try to tackle Morley, then 7, as he weaved his way to a 40-yard touchdown run that took about 20 seconds.
After he reached the end zone, Morley spiked the football. The players lifted him up as they chanted his name.
“It was very emotional,” Hartwick said.
It was one of those moments that highlighted what the game is all about.
It was one of those moments that showed that those Butte Shriners knew what they were doing when they started fighting for the Montana East-West Shrine Game a decade ago.