Running back Steve Hess was a marked man while carrying the football for Bayard Rustin the last two football seasons. But the 5-foot-8, 175-pounder knows that on Thursday night, many of the people who were gunning for him will be on his side now.
Hess' South team will try to halt a two-game losing streak against the North in Chester County's 10th annual Valor Bowl at Downingtown West. No matter which squad wins, the players know the big winners will be the youngsters and adults who participate in Special Olympics of Chester County.
The Valor Bowl is the last hurrah for senior players from 17 county high schools, and it has far exceeded the expectations of retired West Chester East coach Joe Carroll and assistant Scott Allison, who launched it in 1999.
The game has raised more than $170,000 for Special Olympics, and this year's goal is to add $40,000.
"I've been connected with the Valor Bowl since the beginning," said Downingtown East coach Mike Matta, who will direct the North team. "In the beginning we had to ask kids if they were interested in playing. Now we can't accommodate everyone.
"It's a little more fun" than a regular-season game, Matta said, "but we have some of the best players in Chester County, so there is a lot of pride at stake. Many of the kids we have now have grown up watching this game."
Matta's North players come from his school and Downingtown West, Coatesville, Great Valley, Owen J. Roberts, Phoenixville, Spring-Ford and Bishop Shanahan.
"It's kind of funny to be playing with guys you played against," said Hess, who rushed for more than 2,700 yards for Rustin, which opened when he was a junior. "I'm really looking forward to playing with them."
Hess' bowl teammates come from Rustin, West Chester Henderson, Kennett, Conestoga, West Chester East, Malvern Prep, Unionville, Avon Grove and Oxford.
A dinner was held for the two teams May 12, and they have have been practicing evenings since May 13.
"We're approaching this knowing that it's a chance to raise money for a good cause," said Rustin coach Mike St. Clair, who is directing the South squad. "We're looking to keep a great tradition going. It's a quality night out."
At practices, both teams got to meet a few of the mentally and physically disabled youngsters who benefit from Special Olympics.
"We've gotten an overview of Special Olympics," Hess said. "It's great to be raising money for a special cause."
Eddie Matta, son of the coach and a 6-2, 200-pound end for the North, agreed.
"We met a couple of the kids at practice," he said. "It's a very special game."
As for game plans, St. Clair and the elder Matta said they were trying to keep things simple.
"But we are trying to break the two-game losing streak," said St. Clair, whose squad features the first young woman to play in the Valor Bowl: Kalyn McDonough, a kicker from Unionville.
"She's been coming to our practices after her lacrosse practice," St. Clair said. "I hope she kicks a lot of extra points in the game."
The 10th annual Chester County Valor Bowl is scheduled for 7:15 p.m Thursday at Kottmeyer Stadium on the Downingtown West campus, 445 Manor Ave. Tickets are $5 and can be bought at the gate. Proceeds benefit Special Olympics of Chester County.