By Joseph Santoliquito

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The score won’t matter Thursday night and every player on both sides knows it when the Central League meets the rival Del-Val League at Widener University’s Quick Stadium at 7:30 p.m. for the 36th Annual Hero Bowl.

The players will bang pads for pride, and for many, it will mark the last time they look through a facemask, but the real reason they’ll come together is for the families of fallen police officers, firemen and EMTs, which the Hero Bowl proceeds benefit.

The Central League, with Haverford School and Episcopal Academy, will be coached by Garnet Valley High School head coach Mike Ricci, while the Del-Val League, which also includes Sun Valley, Cardinal O’Hara, Archbishop Carroll and Monsignor Bonner, will be coached by Bonner coach Tom Oropeza.

It’s all about giving. The coaching staffs volunteer their time, and the players, all seniors, take the time out of their busy springs, since many play spring sports, to participate in what they know is a great, selfless cause.

“First of all, it’s such an honor to be a part of this game, and when you think about the cause of this game and the true heroes we have with our policemen, firemen, and the EMTs, this gives us a chance to give back to the community in a small way, and a fun way,” Ricci said. “These kids this year truly understand that message. For the kids, it’s not only an honor to play in this game, it’s fun to play in this game and meet guys from other teams on a great stage and great atmosphere. They really relish the opportunity.”

Ryan Kelly, 6-foot-4, 215-pound Harriton tight end, is headed to play football for Penn in the fall. This means it’s his last high school football game, but he gets the larger picture.

“Coach Ricci has placed a lot of emphasis on playing for all of those who lost their lives to save us,” Kelly said. “It’s not a football game, though it’s my last high school football game, and I want to represent my team well, my community well, and my coaches. But there is a lot more at stake than winning or losing, both teams are here for the same cause.”

For James Chakey, the game marks a rite of passage. The 6-1, 175-pound Haverford School quarterback will be playing in his last football game ever. Chakey still can’t fathom the thought. He has played football his whole life, since he was a third grader running around playing flag football.

He’ll be going to Penn State on a lacrosse scholarship next fall, so the Hero Bowl will be it for football.

“Everyone asks me what my favorite sport is, and I never give anyone a straight answer, but it’s hard to let everything go when you’ve played football, basketball and baseball your whole life,” said Chakey, who plans on majoring in biology or pre-med at Penn State and just finished an amazing season as a midfielder for the nationally ranked Fords’ lacrosse team.

“I got a couple looks for Division III schools for football, and I love the game. Football is like a part of you, and it will be a tough goodbye. I’m definitely going to miss it. It will be hard not playing further on after this game, but the most important thing is what the game means. It is about sacrifice and what these policemen, firemen and EMTs all mean to us. Doing anything for them is special. It’s something we all should think about.”

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