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A case of the sweats came over Pennsylvania's defensive coaches just moments after kickoff for the Big 33 Football Classic.

Maryland had scored ... and scored ... and scored again.

Pennsylvania didn't typically lose this game, and this was turning into the unthinkable — a blowout loss to Maryland.

"What are we going to do?" a fellow Pennsylvania defensive coach asked George Shue, who won 226 games in a career that included stops at Littlestown and Red Lion high schools.

Shue can laugh about it now.

"I don't know," Shue recalled saying. "I've never been down 21-0 in the first quarter."

Pennsylvania rallied, relying on what had been a given for this game — two big-name players who would eventually develop into NFL stars. That season, in 1990, Kerry Collins and Kyle Brady helped Pennsylvania score 42 of the game's final 49 points to lead the comeback win. That's the magic and appeal of the Big 33, to see the best in Pennsylvania high school football face off against recent high school graduates from another state before they all head to college.

Impressive history of the Big 33

Reporter's notebook, a Q and A on the Big 33

The Big 33 Football Classic has an impressive history, with at least one former Big 33 player appearing on every Super Bowl roster.

"It was the ultimate, especially for Pennsylvania ballplayers," Shue said.

Approaching its 60th year, the Big 33 does not always attract the biggest names in high school football anymore, however. The game has been overshadowed on the national stage by all-star games in California, Florida and Texas during the winter holidays, with rosters complemented by the presence of some of Pennsylvania's best-known players.

"Kids are not as nostalgic as people were maybe years ago," Big 33 Executive Director Dave Trimbur said. "To sit there and say, 'I played in this,' took on a whole different meaning 10 years ago than it does now."

The game has had money issues. About 10 years ago, under different leadership, the Big 33 Scholarship Foundation misused funds to pay off the foundation's debt. The foundation agreed to continue to restore scholarship funds, paying at least $5,000 a year until the full amount is restored. The foundation and Trimbur made changes, slashing its budget. All students have received the partial scholarships they were promised, Trimbur said.

And the game has survived.

"Very creatively," Trimbur said. "We've had to do things differently.

"It was in trouble years upon years ago when we had lavish spending until we made adjustments."

Now the question is how will the game and foundation evolve in the future? And can it again attract the biggest names from Pennsylvania and Maryland?

The best that ever played

The list of NFL quarterbacks — men whose names are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — is overwhelming. Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly all played in the Big 33.

The game in Hershey has drawn crowds in excess of 19,000.

Future NFL players, three future Heisman Trophy winners and at least 10 Pro Football Hall of Famers suited up in the game.

"It was 42 years ago ... but I remember Tony Dorsett — for sure," said Keith Zimmerman, a 1973 West York graduate who played tight end and linebacker in the Big 33 and went on to play at Penn State. "He was fast, he went about his business and he got the ball most of the time."

The game had always been a chance for Pennsylvania to show off its schoolboy football power. The format has changed, switching opponents from USA All-Stars to matchups with Texas, Ohio and Maryland. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the game switched to an all-Pennsylvania format with the East taking on the West. Some years — like when Pennsylvania All-Stars beat Texas All-Stars in 1964 — Pennsylvania could argue it had the best high school football in the nation. That's no longer the case.

"I think Pennsylvania has a good level of talent," Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brian Dohn said. "But a lot of this is cyclical, and maybe some states are catching up and even passing them. ... When I talk to people in the western part of the state, they talk about the loss of jobs and how people have left for jobs down south."

And the best talent in Pennsylvania doesn't always play in the Big 33.

"We've seen a steady decline and I think it has a lot of reasons," said Manheim Township football coach Mark Evans, who served as the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Association's president in 2013.

There's no argument the best-known recruits in the state are no longer suiting up for the game. The starting quarterback for Pennsylvania this season was Brett Brumbaugh, a recruit for Duquesne University — which is a Football Championship Subdivision school. Of the 13 players from Maryland and Pennsylvania featured in the ESPN 300, not one played in the Big 33 this June.

It's not a mystery why players aren't showing up.

Organizers know.

Changing rules, times

The future of the Big 33 changed dramatically in 2006 when it moved its game from July to June. The NCAA extended scholarships to summer sessions for recent high school grads, meaning recruits could enrol in college in June.

"That's had an effect," said Shue, who is involved in the selection of the players for the Big 33 as the co-executive director for the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association. "That's probably the No. 1 reason."

The Big 33 has adapted. Its game day changed from July to June.

But that didn't eliminate the problem.

Some recruits have opted not to play because their final week at home with family and friends fell on the week of the Big 33, meaning they had to choose between a hectic schedule or some free time before at least a four-year commitment to college football begins.

"Part of what they look at is they know they only have two weeks to enjoy life before someone owns me," Trimbur said.

Some players don't even have a choice, including an SEC recruit willing to play in the Big 33 this year that had to report to college before the game, Trimbur said.

Adding to the issue, a trend developed during the last 10 or 15 years for recruits to enrol early in college. Working ahead academically, recruits would graduate from high school in December and enter a college classroom in January, conceivably heightening their chances to break into a college lineup sooner. Big-time Pennsylvania recruits like Justin King (2004), Adam Breneman (2012) and Sterling Jenkins (2014) never had a chance to play in the Big 33 because they enrolled at Penn State in January. But the trend might have hit its peak in January 2010, when Central York's Kyle Baublitz was one of seven early enrollees at Penn State.

A bigger concern could be that the Big 33 is no longer the No. 1 or even second choice for recruits.

The biggest all-star football games in the country for high school players now serve as national recruiting spotlights, without border restrictions. The U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, drew just 6,300 fans in its first season in 2001. Yet for the last 11 years, the game has drawn more than 30,000 fans while showcasing some of the best talent in the country — including Pennsylvania's Terrelle Pryor — for a nationally-televised audience. The Under Armour All America Football Game in Florida is broadcast on ESPN2. The Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl is played at the StubHub Center, about 10 miles from Los Angeles, and broadcast on Fox Sports 1. All three of the games are played in January.

"I think the (Big 33) is still held in high regard, but the national all-star games have taken a lot of the hype — kids are going for the swag," Evans said. "The kids that play in the Army or Under Armour games are coming back suited head to toe, three times over."

Airfare, gear and national exposure are all part of the allure. That's what Hershey and the Big 33 are competing against.

"If I told you, you could play in the Big 33 in June or go to Florida or Texas or California in December, where would you go?" Dohn asked.

Trimbur will argue, even though the Big 33 has missed out on what recruiting sites tab as five-star recruits, the most hyped players on the Internet are not always the players that turn out to be the best players in college or the NFL.

"We still have big names playing in the game ... maybe we're missing who the recruiting sites think are the big names," Trimbur said.

His opinion is backed up by the fact Ohio State national champion quarterback Cardale Jones (2012), Pitt running back and two-time 1,000-yard rusher Tyler Boyd (2013) and West Virginia running back Rushel Shell (2012) have all played in the Big 33 in recent years.

"The Big 33 is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Bucknell special teams player and linebacker Mark Pyles, who played quarterback in the Big 33 after graduating from Lebanon in 2014.

He called it an honor just to play in the game, but he also pointed out he replaced another quarterback.

"I wouldn't have even been in the game if J.J. Cosentino hadn't reported to Florida State in early June," Pyles said.

Cosentino played in the Semper Fidelis game, but not the Big 33.

"The Big 33 is still a large-scale game, but the other (national all-star) games are huge," Pyles said.

Progressive thinking

There's no wiggle room for the Big 33 if it remains a summer game: It will be a tough sell for some players.

In order to attract the best of the best, the Big 33 might have to change its game date — again.

They have explored options.

Organizers have talked about moving the game out of Hershey, Trimbur said, including playing the game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field when Ohio still played Pennsylvania. Organizers considered pairing the Big 33 with the PIAA football championships in December.

On paper, it sounds like a football spectacular, and the Big 33 could feature early-enrollees. But it's winter in Pennsylvania.

"Find me a dome, and we will play it," Trimbur said.

"The problem is just the weather," Trimbur said. "We don't want to endanger the kids or anyone travelling to the game, and we don't want to endanger the athletes."

Trimbur notes organizers have discussed moving the game to May, perhaps near Memorial Day, to avoid missing out on some of the state's best recruits who are still in school. He hasn't ruled out a switch in the schedule for 2016, but he also wants to make sure a hasty move doesn't ruin part of what makes the Big 33 special.

"After 58 years it's great to have that tradition, and we want to keep what we think is the best part of that tradition," Trimbur said.

That includes more than just a football game. It includes awarding between 40 and 80 partial college scholarships each year. It includes a buddy program, where athletes and cheerleaders are paired with special needs youngsters for the week. It's a program that has been expanded to the foundation's baseball and basketball games.

"That's really an eye-opening and cool experience," Pyles said. "You're given a chance to give back to some people that don't have the same opportunities as you."

The Big 33 is something special, but it's an age where Hershey is competing with the sunshine and allure of California, Florida and Texas. So a shift in schedule to May could take place, but will that be enough? Will the crowds come back to Hershey? And will the Big 33 still be something looked at with pride throughout the state in future years?

Contact Jim Seip at 771-2025.

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