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Interest in Shrine Bowl slowly waned in Charlotte

There was a time when the Shrine Bowl all-star high school football game was Charlotte’s signature sports event.

Crowds filled Memorial Stadium to watch some of the best high school football players from North and South Carolina play. It was the first high school all-star game of its kind in the United States.

From its inception in 1937 until 2000, when the game left Charlotte for South Carolina, the Shrine Bowl was a showcase for legendary players such as Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, Sonny Jurgensen, Freddie Solomon and William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

Yet for all its popularity as a spotlight for high school talent, the focus of the Shrine Bowl has never been football.

The Shrine Bowl serves as the main fundraiser for the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Greenville, S.C. More than $75 million has been raised for the hospital, including $1.358 million in 2012. Shrine Bowl players each year visit the hospital on the Sunday preceding the game.

Until the Shrine Bowl was integrated in 1966, an all-star game for North Carolina’s black high school players – the Shrine Youth Bowl – was played annually in Greensboro.

The game featured stars who would go on to professional careers, including Shelby’s Bobby Bell and Second Ward’s Dick Westmoreland.

In 1965, after Myers Park’s Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick and Harris Woodside were not invited to the Shrine Bowl in Charlotte, the pair were asked to play in the Shrine Youth Bowl. Kirkpatrick, who is black, and Woodside, who is white, declined the invitation because the game was not sanctioned by the N.C. High School Athletic Association and playing in it might have threatened their college eligibility.

In Charlotte, Shrine Bowl attendance began to dwindle in the 1980s. The game was televised live by then, and Charlotte’s sports priorities had also changed. The Shrine Bowl’s December date eventually conflicted with the seasons of the city’s pro sports teams – the NBA’s then-Hornets and the NFL’s Panthers.

In 2000, fewer than 6,000 fans attended the Shrine Bowl in Memorial Stadium. The next year – after 64 years in Charlotte – the game moved to Rock Hill. It moved again in 2004 to Wofford College’s Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg, where it is still played.

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