This week, the players on the Maryland Big 33 team, in Hershey, Pa., for the annual all-star football game against Pennsylvania's top players, have been practicing more than tackles; they have been working on hugs.
Each player has been paired for the week with a "special buddy," a United Cerebral Palsy child. Most of these physically or mentally handicapped children attend a UCP camp in nearby Camp Hill, Pa.
"They really enjoy the kids," said Doug DuVall, Maryland's Big 33 coach.
"When they're together as a group, they're tough on each other," said DuVall, Wilde Lake High School's football coach. "[With the kids,] you see a whole different side of them."
Lenard Marcus from Poly is paired with Bradley Baker, who is 7.
Marcus said Bradley likes to help people and helps take care of a baby who attends the camp.
In addition to being helpful, Bradley also is a playful child.
"He takes my helmet off, puts it on his head and pretends he's a linebacker and tries to knock me down," Marcus said.
And, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound defensive back said, "He can hit. He's a tough guy."
John Kennedy, a 250-pound offensive tackle from Springbrook in Silver Spring, and his buddy, Lou Shawver of Etters, Pa., presented an autographed football to Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey on Wednesday at the governor's mansion.
"I think I got lucky. He's one of the best," Kennedy said of Shawver. "He's more like a good friend."
But Kennedy said he doesn't single out the children as "special."
"They're regular people out there to have fun," Kennedy said. "I envy them in a lot of ways. They can enjoy life. . . . It's more carefree."
Wilde Lake's Ricky Rowe is paired with Chris Vogt.
"He's a pretty smart kid," Rowe said. "We talked and had lunch."
Forest Park's Joshua Austin is paired with Evan Roane.
"He loves to laugh, and I love to play with him," Austin said.
Bev Myers, Big 33 coordinator for the Maryland special buddies team, said the Maryland players "sang songs for the kids, did the hokey-pokey and handed out footballs and posters."
In addition to the ceremony at the governor's mansion, the buddies have had picnics and pictures with the players and have watched Maryland practice throughout the week. Before tomorrow's game, each player will meet his buddy at the 35-yard line and shake hands as part of the game's opening ceremonies.
Myers said bleachers have been set up on the field so the buddies can sit on the sidelines with the Maryland team.
All the buddies have football jerseys bearing the same numbers as their player friends.
"I think this year, especially the Maryland team has had a great time with them," Kennedy said.
"We go over and spend time with them and try and bring a little joy," Marcus said. "As soon as they see us, they jump right up."
Big 33 game
Who: Maryland vs. Pennsylvania, in a game featuring high school all-stars who graduated this spring.
When: Tomorrow, 7:10 p.m.
Radio: WYST (1010 AM, 92.3 FM), WINX (1600 AM), 6:40 p.m.
TV: Channel 11, 7 p.m.
Tickets: Hersheypark Box Office (717) 534-3911. General admission $5, reserved seats $8.