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Lions Club All-Star Game a ‘labor of love’ for founders

Milt Dickerson did not waiver when answering the question.

Did he ever envision being one of the main coordinators for the Kensington Lions All-Star Football Classic in 2015 after helping organize the first game in 1976?

“Never thought that far ahead,” said Dickerson, a retired commercial banker. “It’s been a labor of love. We’ve all worked very hard at it and made it a successful project.”

That project once again takes center stage at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Depew High School when the 40th edition of the contest takes place. The game pits Western New York’s top graduated senior talents against each other in a North-versus-South format.

The North is coached by Rich Robbins of Canisius along with his staff of assistants and Lockport coach Greg Bronson. The South is headed by Brian Wilson of Depew and his staff with an assist from Alden’s Rob Currin.

While those who signed letters of intent to play at Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools (formerly Division I-A) won’t be playing, there are still plenty of talents participating. Seven of the 22 seniors who earned spots on the All-Western New York first team will play, including Canisius’ 1,600-yard rusher Mitch Thomas and his teammate, defensive back Josh Huffman; ferocious Burgard center/linebacker Roderick Morrow and North Tonawanda’s versatile-do-everything quarterback Chris Woodard. Nick Ames (Williamsville North) will also participate before attempting to walk-on at UB.

“All the kids are excited about it,” Robbins said. “It’s an honor for them. They talk about older siblings they’ve had play in the game or teammates that they’ve had play in the game the last couple of years so they’re excited about their chance to get out there and compete in front of the whole city.”

Representing one’s high school one final time in an all-star game is neat, but that’s not the sole purpose of the contest. It’s a fundraiser meant to help others. Proceeds from the game will once again benefit various charities, the biggest being Kids Escaping Drugs – which has received more than $100,000 since forming a partnership with the Lions Club roughly 12 years ago.

“Even though it’s a football game and they’re getting to show their talents, they’re doing this for others,” Wilson said of the charitable aspects of the game. “Hopefully it’s not lost on them.”

To think the all-star game failed to make a profit prior to the Lions Club’s involvement. The UB alumni organized an all-star contest sanctioned by the NCAA in 1975. However, the group failed to make the required 40 percent profit.

Football coaches Gene Zinni and the late Harry Chambers approached Dickerson about taking over the game. The trio, all members of the Lions Club, made a presentation to have the organization take over the event effective in 1976.

“The Lions had strong ties to local football and we felt we could make this a fundraiser where the Western New York community could benefit from the monies raised from the game,” Dickerson said.

The group did that through hard work, controlling expenses and acquiring non-profit status. It pays for neither stadium use nor referees.

“There’s no expenses related to anybody that’s involved with the game,” Dickerson said. “The only expenses are those that are directly responsible for equipment and whatever is necessary to run the game.

“We just made sure we controlled our expenses and watched every penny we spent. On the income side, we sold ads, sponsorships and tickets and all the other things that make it a financial success.”

Zinni is still involved in the organization of the game. Dickerson has had family members help him over the years, too.

Twenty-nine Lions game alumni have at least had a cup of coffee with NFL teams. Current active NFLers who played in the Lions Club classic include James Starks (Green Bay), Corey Graham (Bills) and Brett Kern (Tennessee).

Dickerson mentioned he remembered Starks had a big game back in 2005. But he said he’s usually too busy to keep up with what’s happening on the field.

“I’m wherever I’m needed” during the game, Dickerson said. “I don’t get much of a chance to watch. … I could be anywhere. It’s just wherever a fire has to be put out.”

Per usual, the game will be played in four 15-minute quarters. Both coaches said they plan to use balance on offense even though the North and South have accurate quarterbacks with big-time arms and lofty passing numbers.