They’ve put up the huge career numbers, they’ve hauled in the postseason accolades and they earned college scholarships for their work on the football field.
Now it’s time for three Lorain County players to become part of one of the most legendary traditions in the nation.
Avon wide receiver Matt Eckhardt, Midview defensive end Arlington McClinton and Avon Lake offensive lineman T.K. Burk will join forces with the other top football players in Ohio to face the elite of Pennsylvania in the 55th installment of the Big 33 Football Classic on Saturday in Hershey, Pa.
“This game means a great deal to both Ohio and Pennsylvania,” said Avon Lake coach Dave Dlugosz, who coached the Ohio team in the 2000 Big 33 game. “The people in Pennsylvania are rabid football fans, and they feel like we’re walking onto their turf.”
The Ohio team has walked into Hershey the past three years and walked out with a victory. The local players believe they are up to the challenge of keeping the streak alive.
“For the past four years as an Avon Eagle, I’ve gotten used to representing my town,” said Eckhardt, this year’s Lorain County Golden Helmet winner. “Now we’re representing the entire state of Ohio. It kind of sends chills down your spine.
“It’s a great honor.”
Joining the players will be Midview’s Bill Albright, who was selected as the head coach of the Ohio team. He is the only county coach besides Dlugosz to lead the visiting team.
Albright said the rules of the game limit the teams on defense — they have to run a 4-3 scheme, use man coverage and they aren’t allowed to blitz — but allow the coaches to run whatever offense they prefer.
Albright decided to adopt the Middies offense and picked players from around the state — including the three locals — that best fit.
“We like Arlington because in the 4-3 he’s a natural,” Albright said. “With his size and speed, he can get in and put pressure on the quarterback. That’s what he did for us.
“What can I say about Matt? We coached against him for years and he always did well against us. He’s a game-breaker. He made some tremendous catches in the North-South game.”
“We scrimmage against Avon Lake every year and the Shoremen are known for their linemen, and T.K. is one of the best. He’s strong, quick and agile.”
While the trio grabbed headlines all year in Northeast Ohio, they will be just three more names on a roster of superstars this weekend. The Big 33 boasts at least one alumnus in every Super Bowl, most of each team’s roster will be filled with Division I college recruits and more than a handful of players from each side should end up playing in the NFL.
“I think it’ll be a great way to test myself before college,” Burk said. “It’s kind of humbling to be able to play with the elite players we’re going to play with and against. It’ll be a blast.”
Burk will play next year at the University of Findlay, while the other two are headed to the Mid-American Conference — Eckhardt to Toledo and McClinton to Akron.
“I love seeing where my talent and skills match up against others,” Eckhardt said. “It’s cool knowing that some of my (Big 33) teammates will be in the NFL some day. It’ll be nice in 10 years to look back and say I played with this guy or that guy.”
The players are following in the footsteps of some of the greatest players to ever step onto a football field. Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Archie Griffin, Tony Dorsett, Jim Kelly and Herb Adderley are just a few of the legends who have played in the Big 33.
During the week in Hershey, the players will meet several big names in the sport — including Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger — and have the chance to hear them speak.
“I’ve seen a couple of the big names that have played in it,” McClinton said. “I’m excited to add my name to the list of great players who have been a part of this.”
Dustin Fox, who starred at Ohio State and spent five years in the NFL, said he went to the Big 33 as a fan — his uncle Kenny and older brother Derek both played in it — before finally getting to play on Dlugosz’s team in 2000. Pennsylvania won the game, 30-14.
“I played in the first-ever U.S. Army All-American Bowl that year, too,” Fox said. “The Big 33 game was pretty close in terms of competition, and the U.S. Army Bowl includes the best players from around the whole country.”
While the game itself is worth the trip, many players say the rest of the week’s activities — including going to Hershey Park, mentoring youth football players and living with a host family — are what really create the best memories.
“I still talk to my host family,” Fox said. “We exchange Christmas cards every year. This is a great event for building relationships.”
Another Lorain County player who was part of the Big 33 was Elyria Catholic’s Matt Wilhelm, who went on to win a national championship at Ohio State and a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers.
Wilhelm had advice to offer the three local players.
“I’d tell them to remember that they are representing more than themselves,” he said. “I’d tell them to remember to take it all in and enjoy it, but to also remember that everyone steps it up there. This is the last friendly competition they are going to experience, because next they are going to be playing in college and that’s the real deal.”