Baxter football coach Rob Luther was the head coach for the South all-stars at the 49th Annual Iowa Shrine Bowl last week. And he could be the only multiple-year head coach in the event’s long and storied history.
Last year’s game was canceled due to COVID-19 so Luther and his coaching staff had one more year to pick from the state’s pool of talented kids with high character.
Unfortunately for Luther, the state’s 2020 Gatorade Player of the Year was the quarterback for the other team.
Future Iowa Hawkeye safety and OABCIG standout Cooper Dejean was just too good and future Hawkeye preferred walk-on Max White of Cedar Rapids Kennedy was pretty good, too, as the North all-stars downed the South 52-24 at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
The win pushes the North to a 24-23-1 lead in the all-time series. Dejean threw a handful of touchdowns and White scored three times in the victory.
The shrine bowl all-star experience is much more than just one football game in the final Saturday of July each summer. But coaches are competitive and Luther still hates losing.
“Right now, it’s kind of a crappy experience because we lost. The week was phenomenal though,” Luther said. “Just being able to coach the quality of these kids, D-1 kids, high-character kids is just a blessed opportunity. I will never forget this. It’s a lifetime experience.”
It was an experience PCM senior Sage Burns won’t forget either. Burns was one of Luther’s running backs. Unfortunately, for both tailbacks who carried the ball, the South all-stars got down early and Luther went to a heavy passing attack.
Burns’ best run of the game was a nine-yarder that put him a half yard shy of the goal line. He finished with 14 yards on seven carries.
“He got better as the week went on. He runs pad level down,” Luther said. “We kind of knew it was going to be a shootout. We didn’t do a great job getting him touches. We got behind and then didn’t run it much.
“Sage Burns is a great football player and a better young man. It’s a phenomenal family. I love Burns’. I don’t like playing against them, but I like them.”
Burns and Luther could not experience a busy day visiting with kids from The Shriner’s Hospital for Children. Most of those kids did not make the trip because of COVID-19.
But Burns enjoyed making lifelong memories with people he never thought he’d become friends with.
“I never thought I would be friends with anyone from Dowling or Valley or even Williamsburg or West Marshall. It was pretty cool,” Burns said. “It was cool to sit down at lunch and talk with them about games we played against each other in.”
Burns said he knew Pella Christian’s Luke Mulder and Nevada’s Ayden Rhodes before showing up to Cedar Falls. The Mustangs play the Eagles in a lot of sports and the Cubs are in PCM’s conference. Solon’s Colton Hoffman was the fourth guy in their formed quartet and they hung out a lot over the course of the week.
“It’s crazy to be a part of something that has so much talent from 8-player all the way up to 4A,” Burns said. “All of us coming together as team is crazy to me.”
While the North all-stars had the best player on the field in Dejean, Luther did have some studs on his side of the field, too.
Urbandale’s Max Llewellyn is headed to Iowa. So is DCG’s Zach Brand, Dowling Catholic tight end Andrew Lentsch and West Branch’s Jeffrey Bowie, among others.
“I was pretty impressed with (Lentsch) coming into the week, the tight end from Dowling,” Luther said. “He’s a Big Ten tight end. Llewellyn and Bowie are great, too. Some of these kids’ heads are in Iowa City. And I probably would be, too.”
Luther enjoyed coaching great football players who also did not let egos take over the week.
“When you put all of the best kids on the same field, there can be a lot of egos. But our dudes were so humble and did whatever we asked and whatever it takes,” Luther said. “They checked themselves at the door and how they handled themselves in the dorm and hanging out was first class. It was really special to get to know these kids.”
In the past, the coaching staffs have used their athletes by quarters as everyone has to play the same amount. Luther and his staff went to a series rotation. That may have hurt them against Dejean, who was out there against some of the South’s second-teamers. And he seemed to be on the field more than the other quarterback, too.
“We had one plan to cover him up and rush lanes but he’s just that talented,” Luther said. “In an all-star game like this, when you have a guy back there handling it like that, we knew it’d be tough.
“I was happy with our kids. We turned it over five times. It was going to be a shootout and we had a bad turnover in the red zone.”
The final two games of Burns’ high school career were played inside the UNI-Dome. He was able to put the pads on one more time before heading to William Penn University in a few weeks.
“It was fun playing another game here,” Burns said. “We got to practice here all week, too, which was really cool.”
The Iowa Shrine Bowl all-star game, which also includes about 60 cheerleaders every year, is a charity event that benefits The Shriner’s Hospital for Children.
To date, the annual event has raised more than $2.76 million.
“The experience was phenomenal,” Luther said. “This was two years in the making for the coaching staffs. We had a great week.”