Former resident stamps name on all-star football game
By BRIAN WIERIMA
All-Star games come and all-star games go.
But when former Sanibel Island John Carrigan started his version of a football all-star game in Fort Myers, it certainly stuck around.
The Rotary South All-Star Classic will be celebrating its 26th year with a three-day event, starting with the All-Star Banquet Monday, Dec. 8, and climaxing Wednesday, Dec. 10, with the game featuring some of the best football players in the Lee County area.
The event was Carrigan’s project when he moved from the Washington D.C. area after his career as a football official came to an end. In retirement and living on Sanibel, Carrigan’s love for the sport of football followed and it eventually blossomed in the all-star game which has attracted some of the biggest names in Florida’s gridiron history. Carrigan now resides in North Carolina.
“John had a passion for football and the youth,” said Fort Myers High School head football coach Sam Sirianni Jr., who has been around the all-star game since its inception in 1989. “When he got here, he came up with an idea to set up an All-Star game. He asked around and my dad, Sam Sirianni’s, name came up and he started helping. Basically, John’s first thing was to secure a sponsor. He wanted it to be first class, because that’s the way he always was.”
The key to the game’s longevity was the fact the grass roots were strong, in that it was done right in its first year. Once the foundation was laid by Carrigan, with the help of Sam Sirianni Sr. and former Estero head football coach Joe Hampton, the game became a strong tradition in the Ft. Myers area and was the first county-wide all-star game in the state of Florida.
As Sirianni Jr. expounded on, Carrigan’s first venture into starting the All-Star Game was to land a sponsor. He found it in the Sanibel Lion’s Club. The facility to host the game was obvious, in that Edison Stadium was the largest one in the immediate area.
But skepticism was still present in the first year, since other all-star ventures went by the wayside soon after they started.
“People didn’t realize about John’s commitment,” Sirianni Jr. said. “Although it was only a two-night production back then, the work was 12 months. But John had the drive, personality and time to get it done.”
To separate the Lee County game from others, Carrigan made sure to put a big splash of clout to it. Players named to the game would be given an All-Star ring, along with a jersey and a nice night out for the banquet to start the week.
To help offset the costs of all this, Carrigan beat the bushes to sign up sponsors for each player.
“I know that other national and well-known all-star games don’t give rings to its players,” Sirianni Jr. said. “Another key was that everything which was made, went back to the charity. The community embraced it and it gained the support of the local news press. From the start, with John’s vision and planning it, he covered all of his bases from the get-go.”
But that didn’t mean everything would go according to plan.
The first game was Dec. 23, 1989, at Edison Stadium. But the feel wasn’t that of Florida football, but instead that of a Midwestern late autumn feel to it.
“It was a Saturday afternoon game, and it was the coldest recorded day in 100 years,” said Sirianni Jr., who was in attendance. “We literally had snow flurries on the beach. I can remember that game like it was yesterday and it was miserably cold for this area.”
It was marked as North versus South, as it still is today, and the South won 17-14. The South won the first five tilts, before the North snapped that streak with a 43-0 lambasting in 1994.
The first one would be the only time the game was held on a Saturday, as Carrigan and other game organizers decided to move it to Wednesday night, to help increase attendance, in which it has.
The players who have participated in the Lee County All-Star game is as prestigious as it comes. A total of 17 players who played in it, went on to play in the NFL, most notably kicker Matt Prater of Estero (Denver, Detroit), cornerback Phillip Buchanon (Lehigh, Oakland, Houston, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Washington), running back Earnest Graham (Mariner, Tampa Bay), defensive end Jevon Kearse (North, Tennessee and Philadelphia), wide receiver Sammy Watkins (South Fort Myers, Buffalo) and defensive end Greg Spires (Mariner, New England, Cleveland and Tampa Bay).
But the clout didn’t stop with the elite talent which is drawn to the game, but as well as its keynote speakers it has attracted for the Monday banquet. A who’s who in college coaching has been keynote speakers, which included Bobby Bowden (three times), Howard Schnellenberger, Jim Tressel and Will Muschamp.
“The speakers alone gave the game some juice,” Sirianni Jr. added.
Over the years, there have been some changes, such as the addition of the Dolphin’s Youth Camps held on Tuesdays (this year on Dec. 9) and how the players are chosen – due to the fact the amount of schools in the area doubled from its original eight in 1989.
But Carrigan’s blueprint is still in use today and it has been duplicated many times over since 1989.
“One of greatest compliments you can give this game and John, is that a year doesn’t go by when another community or county is asking for advice from us on how to build their game up,” Sirianni Jr. said. “This game is a gold standard for running All-Star games. It shows you the way how the (all-star) game is structured, the game has stood the test of time.”
The All-Star week starts with the banquet, which is Monday, Dec. 8, at 6 p.m. inside the Harborside Convention Center in Fort Myers. The keynote speaker will be NFL umpire Jeff Rice.
Tickets for general admission for the banquet are $75 per person. Advance registration is requested. Players, coaches and principals receive special pricing through registration forms that were sent to them in November. To purchase tickets for the banquet or for questions about registration, please contact Tracie Bagans at 239-850-0540.
Bell Towers Shops will be this year’s title sponsor, with festivities starting Monday with the All-Star Classic Banquet, Monday, Dec. 8. The next day, the Dolphins Youth Camp will be held free for boys and girls aged 6-14, at Fort Myers High from 6-8 p.m., with the finale being Wednesday, Dec. 10, as the North All-Stars will face the South All-Stars in Edison Stadium, with the top cheerleaders also being honored and performing, starting at 7:30 p.m.