Former Carlisle prep and incoming Drake University Bulldog Luke Oja participated at the 43rd annual Shrine Bowl on Saturday in Cedar Falls.
An offensive lineman listed at 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds, Oja was a member of the South squad, which went on to win the Shrine Bowl 37-24 over the North squad.
The competition featured some of the best in the state’s outgoing high school senior class, but the meaning behind the Shrine Bowl was more of the difference maker for Oja rather than the action on the field.
“The reason we were there wasn’t because of football, but because of the kids we were playing for,” Oja said.
The Shrine Bowl is one opportunity to help raise money for The Shriner’s Hospital For Children, where funds are generated by ticket and merchandise sales, sponsorships as well as donations. To date, the Shrine Bowl has raised over $2 million, according to its web-site.
Oja said he was able to hang out with some of the kids prior to Saturday’s game, which was by far one of his favorite experiences of the event.
“Seeing those kids persevere against the odds they have against them is really something special. It really warms your heart” he said. “Made me realize we are so fortunate to have what we have and do what we do.”
Four or five rows filled with family and friends arrived to the UNI-Dome on Saturday to show their support and cheer the Wildcat standout on during the game.
“Always nice to have someone in your corner, and five rows is quite a few people in one corner,” Oja joked.
As far as the football side of things went, he said both North and South squads spent last week practicing and preparing for the game. The teams started two-a-days and went full pads on Thursday, and the coaches made sure both teams were ready to play.
Oja admitted it was a little weird at first when players arrived.
“Just seeing all these guys walk in because most of them you’ve heard of but never met before. But you create a nice bond” Oja said. “I’ve met guys there that are lifelong friends now because of the cause of the Shrine Bowl.”
Even though the South squad was only a team for a week, Oja felt his team was real because of that brotherhood and strong connections.
“I already miss the guys because we just started to get to know each other,” he said.
But now those players officially close the chapter of their high school football careers and begin a new one as they head to play collegiately. Oja starts camp at Drake on Aug. 11.
“I’m ready,” Oja said. “Half nervous, half excited. I’ve met the guys and it feels like a great group of people and I’m ready to try and win a championship.”