VANCOUVER — In a weird way, it can be argued that Mountain View football players Ben Huebschman and Josh Baird saved the Freedom Bowl Classic.
There is no doubt that they saved the game for the East team in the very first Freedom Bowl.
The 15th Freedom Bowl Classic is set for Saturday at McKenzie Stadium. The all-star football game featuring recent graduates of Southwest Washington high schools is a fundraiser for Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Back in 2003, the goal was for it to become an annual event. However, after the first half of that first game, well, let’s just say it was not looking like the best of ideas.
For whatever reason, the half was marred by several personal fouls. Late hits. Trash talk. Officials had to break up several small skirmishes, hoping to prevent a bigger brawl.
Cooler heads would prevail in the second half, and the two squads gave the fans a thrilling finish: A heartbreaking loss for the West; a memory of a lifetime for the East.
Huebschman, the quarterback who had led Mountain View to back-to-back state semifinal appearances, found his top receiver, Baird, on a 32-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game for a 24-21 victory.
Earlier this week, ClarkCountyToday.com sat down with the two former Mountain View Thunder standouts – they are both 33 now – who played a key role in the history of Southwest Washington high school football.
Huebschman is married, lives in Portland and is an assistant coach at Woodland High School. Woodland’s head coach is Mike Woodward, who was Mountain View’s head coach 14 years ago.
Baird is married, has two children, and lives in Vancouver, just a couple miles from where he grew up while attending Mountain View.
In the week leading up to the first Freedom Bowl, the East players hung out together and even had an overnight at the Mountain View gym.
“Back then, we never got together with other schools, other players,” Huebschman recalled. “That was the first time we met most of them. By the end of the week, we were all friends. It was really awesome.”
Nowadays, Huebschman noted, there are a number of offseason events for football players from different schools. These days, many of the best players from each school already know each other.
“I just remember getting together with all these guys you used to play against,” Baird said. “You always heard about how good this guy was or that guy was. It was really great to see what they were capable of, the differences between (Class) 2A, 3A, and 4A. Getting to know each other was a theme.”
Perhaps all that getting to know each other led to the bizarre first half during the game. While the East players were forming a fast bond, so, too, were the players from the West. Both sides became protective of their new teammates All of a sudden, this fun, friendly game for charity was a rivalry. A real rivalry.
“There was a lot of ‘My school is better than your school’ and vice versa,” Baird said. “There were some hot heads out there, too. I thought it was good that it was competitive.”
Baird did acknowledge, though, that it became too competitive at times.
“It was pretty intense,” Baird said.
Huebschman noted that there was an online chat room – in the days prior to social media – that gave an avenue for a lot of trash talk between some of the players prior to the game.
Words turned into actions once the game started, and it turned ugly in a hurry.
(Reporter’s note: I covered this game from the sideline. I heard the language. I saw the late hits. I had seen battles for league championships and do-or-die playoff games, but I had never seen a more unsportsmanlike football game than that half of a charity game. It was bizarre.
And it was about to get stranger … for me, at least. One of the game organizers “encouraged” me not to write about all the penalties. He was concerned that if the unsportsmanlike conduct was “the story” of the night, then the event might suffer long-term. At the time, though, that was the only newsworthy item from this game. The two of us actually started arguing. Not exactly my shining moment. Fortunately for all involved, the second half was about to begin.)
Game officials took even more command at halftime. They huddled with the captains of both teams to remind them that this was a charity game, for fun. There would be zero tolerance the rest of the night.
The players got the message. Football, the way it was meant to be played, was back at Kiggins Bowl.
The pressure picked up late in the game as the East drove the field, moving to the West’s 32-yard line.
“We were trying to figure out what play we were going to run,” Baird recalled. “I told the wide receiver next to me, ‘Just run into the end zone.’”
That’s what Baird did, too. But first he looked back at his quarterback.
Saturday at McKenzie Stadium 2 and 4 p.m.: Clark County Youth Football all-star games 7:30 p.m.: Varsity all-star game Tickets: $10 More information:
2017 Freedom Bowl Classic
Saturday at McKenzie Stadium
2 and 4 p.m.: Clark County Youth Football all-star games
7:30 p.m.: Varsity all-star game
“I saw Ben scrambling for his life. He just threw it, kind of awkwardly. I don’t know how he got it out,” Baird said. “I just remember timing it right. It fell in my arms, I scored, and I remember going crazy after that.”
Huebschman said Baird did not give himself enough credit. Baird had to battle between two defensive backs to get that ball.
“I just threw it on the run, and it was just a dumb-luck perfect one,” Huebschman said. “He was between two guys, and he made an incredible catch.”
Huebschman was named the offensive player of the game. He was told that the award was going to go to the West’s quarterback, Mike Schmit of Columbia River, until that final play. Schmit and Huebschman would end up being college roommates at Western Washington University, and the story of the first Freedom Bowl came up from time to time.
Baird and Huebschman were instrumental in the Thunder’s run of excellence. In 2001 and 2002, Mountain View reached the Class 4A state semifinals, the first time that a big school from Clark County made the final four in consecutive seasons. Since then, Evergreen, Skyview, Union, and Camas, along with small-school La Center, have made multiple final four appearances.
Evergreen (2004) and Camas (2016) have won state championships.
Baird said it feels good, knowing he and his teammates got it started for Southwest Washington.
Huebschman said he is more proud of starting a trend. Mountain View was certainly the first in the region and one of the first in the state to go shotgun formation, with four-wide receivers, on just about every play.
“Now, everyone is doing it,” Huebschman said, or at least a variation of it. “I see it everywhere.”
As far as beyond high school, Huebschman did not play much in college. Baird was injured prior to his first game in college.
The winning play of the Freedom Bowl “ended up being my last play, playing football,” Baird said.
“That was so much fun,” Huebschman said.
That play, and the second half, also gave the media something better to write about other than all those penalties.
In 2017, the Freedom Bowl Classic continues, still raising funds for charity, still allowing for one final chance for Southwest Washington high school players to make another memory on the football field.