For the first time in five years, Free State High linebacker Keith Loneker and Lawrence High center Kyle Wittman are teammates once again.
The two will play together — for the first time since playing on an all-star team in the seventh grade — on the East squad in the Kansas Shrine Bowl. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. today at Pittsburg State University.
Loneker and Wittman, who will remain as teammates at Baker University next year, left Lawrence on July 18 for Pittsburg to begin practicing with their team and digesting the playbook.
“It’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun,” Wittman said. “When we first got here, we all kind of eye-balled each other, but later, it didn’t take more than two or three practices before we all became good friends, and now it’s kind of like a family.”
Free State assistant coach Mike Gillman, who is an assistant coach on the East squad under McLouth coach Chris Stewart, said both players have taken a leadership roles throughout the two-a-day practices. Loneker was named the captain of the East’s defense Friday.
“Kyle and Keith are both leaders on our team,” Gillman said, “not only on the field but their mentality and work ethic. They’re both tough-nosed, great football players, and (their teammates) saw it.”
Practices have been fast-paced this week, with the offense nearly running through the entire playbook each day. It’s easier to speed up when most players don’t require much instruction on the simple points of the game from coaches.
“When you have that much talent in practices, it’s pretty easy,” Gillman said. “You don’t have teach much technique when you have all-stars who are going to be playing in college.”
However, it was the moments off the field that gave Loneker and Wittman a greater appreciation for being a part of the Shrine Bowl. Thursday, all of the players met with children from the Shriners Hospitals for several hours. All of the proceeds from the game are donated to the hospitals.
“It’s been really sweet so far,” Loneker said. “(Thursday) we got to meet the kids and everything. Before we did that, a lot of two-a-days and hot practices. There was a lot of groaning about practice, but going to see the kids and seeing them … you get to see who you’re playing for. At the end of the day, it’s not about who wins. We get to raise money for them, and it’s something they look up to.”
The East will have four other area all-stars: Baldwin’s Chad Berg, Mill Valley’s Coltyn Gatton, McLouth’s Nick McAferty and Tonganoxie’s Cody Snyder.
After facing off against each other during high school, Loneker and Wittman are relishing the chance to join forces. Shawnee Heights’ Tyson Toelkes is also on the East team and was teammates with the Lawrence pair during youth football with the Hurricanes.
“It was really, really cool that we all got to play again together,” Wittman said. “It was just real cool to be (Keith’s) teammate again. It’s kind of setting us up for Baker together.”