(TNS) — The real meaning of the Shrine Bowl, and the events leading up to the game, can be difficult to comprehend for many of the high school graduates who will be playing football Saturday night in El Dorado.
That changed this week when Gentry Ramsey, the 8-year-old cousin of West lineman Marshall Rutschman of Sedgwick, came to meet the West squad before a practice in Salina.
As Gentry's father, Chris, stood before the team and talked about how his daughter was born with hypotonic cerebral palsy, and how Shriners Hospitals gave the family hope in a time of need, West coach Marc Marinelli could see the significance of this week dawn on his players.
"That was really, really powerful stuff," Marinelli said. "These are 18-year-old men about to set off for college and someday will have families of their own. You can sit there and talk to them about what it means all day long, but when you see a little girl up there and a whole family explaining to you what it means then that changes everything. I think it gave the guys a sense of purpose."
Gentry Ramsey is one of thousands of children aided by the 22 non-profit Shriners Hospitals for Children across the country. The Shrine Bowl on Saturday is one of the organization's largest charity events, as all of the profits from the game will be donated to the Shriners Hospitals to help offset medical costs for families in need.
When his nephew was selected to play in the Shrine Bowl, Chris Ramsey did not want to pass up the opportunity to share his family's story.
"We have never paid for a hotel room, for food, for gas, for anything really," Ramsey said. "They do so much more than just the basics and it's been such a huge blessing for our family. It's truly amazing what they do and I just wanted to stress to those guys how much more the Shriners do than just put on a football game and ride around on motorcycles. They have given our family hope."
Hope was something the Ramsey family was desperate for in the days following Gentry's birth. Due to her medical conditions, her tissue was soft and doughy and her skin tone was gray.
The complications delayed Gentry's growth, as she didn't begin to crawl until she was 2 and could not walk without assistance. That's when the family was accepted by the Shriners and they began making an 8-hour trek from their home in Great Bend to the Shriners Hospital in St. Louis for treatment.
Doctors fitted Gentry with custom braces, from her ankles to her knees, to help stabilize her, although she still required a walker to walk. But Gentry has thrived under the Shriners' care and has not needed assistance walking for the last three years.
The family is optimistic she will soon go down to just ankle braces.
"The Shriners never hesitated in telling us that she would be able to walk on her own and they never doubted her," Ramsey said. "She has progressed so far from where she was. When she takes her time, she can do anything she wants."
Rutschman, who does not have plans of playing football in college, says he will have Gentry on his mind as he's playing what could be his last football game on Saturday.
"It's a pretty big deal to me because I actually have somebody I know that I'm going to be playing for," Rutschman said. "I've seen what the Shriners have done and how much it has helped them out, so it's really cool to be able to play in this game. I'm definitely going to go a little bit harder because of her."
Seeing her cousin play will surely delight Gentry Ramsey, who will be in attendance Saturday night.
The Ramsey family is planning on making a long weekend out of it. A trip to Sedgwick to visit family, then to Wichita to do some school-supplies shopping for Gentry, who is entering the third grade, and then to El Dorado for the game.
She will serve as a reminder, not only for Rutschman, but for the entire West squad.
"Gentry is a little girl with a heart of gold," Ramsey said. "She doesn't know a stranger and she loves every kind of animal. There are some things she can't do, but it doesn't bother her or slow her down. And she always has a smile on her face. I just want people to know how much the Shriners have helped with it all. They have been a true blessing."