BUTTE — The Montana East-West Shrine Game is the state's premier all-star game, a best of the best assembly of Big Sky Country's top high school football talent.
But the annual clash between East and West — now heading into its 75th iteration — has always been about more than just what happens on the gridiron.
Since 1947, the contest has been a way to raise both funding and awareness for the services offered at the Shriner's Hospital for Children in Spokane. The Montana Shrine Game has raised nearly $1 million in the past decade alone.
"It means everything to be able to go and perform and play the game we love for such a good cause," said Braunson Henriksen, a Polson product who will play defensive end for the West Team when The Shrine kicks off on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Great Falls. "That means the world to me and our whole team."
This year's patient ambassadors are Mazie and Cece. Mazie, now 7, was born without a fibula or ankle structure in one of her legs and required an amputation at 11 months. Cece, now 8, was diagnosed with hip dysplasia as an infant after being born prematurely at 21 weeks.
Both girls have received years of specialized treatment from the Shriner's Hospital and today are thriving.
For the West Team players, knowing that they're helping out kids like Mazie and Cece adds an extra dimension of meaning to a game that's already very special.
"Just it being for something bigger than what we stand for, it's awesome," said Kalispell Glaicer graduate Patrick Rohrbach who will join the Griz as a kicker in the fall.
"I think it's awesome we get to do what we love and we get to help people out," said Dillon's Callahan Hoffman who will play defensive end in The Shrine and join Montana State's track and field team in the fall.
After seeing 2020's contest was jettisoned, the West Team rallied to beat the East 21-12 last season in Billings. This year's West players are determined to make it consecutive wins.
"The goal is to keep the winning streak from last year," Hoffman said.
Said Henriksen: "I'd say what I'm looking forward to the most is really just bonding with the guys, creating a bunch of new friendships and then going and getting the win on Saturday."