Steve Wagner and Tristan Kulp admit they aren’t overly talkative. But taking part in last week’s Shrine Bowl, they said, helped both break out of their shells.
“We’re both pretty quiet, so an all-star game isn’t exactly our cup of tea,” said Wagner, Riley County’s head coach who was a member of the West team’s staff. “We both had to get out of our box I’d say.”
Although the two were on the same squad, they didn’t spend a lot of time with each other during the nine practices leading up to the game.
“I coached receivers, he played D-back,” Wagner said. “We’d see each other and wave.”
(Manhattan High defensive David Hernandez also played in the game for the West team; he was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.)
For Kulp, earning a spot in this year’s Shrine Bowl was a pleasant surprise.
Kulp was a versatile weapon for the Falcons last fall, playing multiple positions. But he lined up exclusively at defensive back last week.
In his senior season, Kulp recorded 50 tackles, hauled in seven interceptions and propelled Riley County to an appearance in the Class 2A state championship game. Kulp said he knew he had a good season statistically, but wasn’t sure it was enough to make it to the Shrine Bowl.
“I felt like I would be able to (make the team),” Kulp said, “but didn’t know if I’d get a chance,”
The Riley County star not only led the West to a 26-7 Shrine Bowl victory over the East squad, he also won a personal reward — a sausage.
“My position coach said that if we get an interception or turnover of any kind, he’d give us a sausage link as a ‘turnover chain’ kind of thing,” Kulp said.
In the fourth quarter, Kulp intercepted Washburn Rural quarterback Jordan White’s deep pass, essentially ending any chance of an East comeback.
“We were in cover two, so I was staying behind everyone,” Kulp said. “I saw the receiver coming from the other side, stayed over the top of him and picked it off.”
While Kulp was a Shrine Bowl newcomer, it marked the third time Wagner coached in the game. But he said this year was more “special” than the previous two.
“For me, being able to see (Kulp) grow throughout the week and get outside of his box a little bit was fun to watch,” Wagner said. “He had a great game — just a flawless game, really. He had the interception. He had the big hit of the game. That increased my enjoyment by 10 times seeing that.”
Although the Shrine Bowl provided the top players the opportunity to play together, there was more to the event than just football. The Shrine Bowl hosted a banquet highlighting Shriners Hospitals, which the game benefits.
The ceremony included a guest speech from a patient at Shriners Hospital in St. Louis. Kulp said the banquet was an unforgettable experience.
“It was really eye-opening about what the hospital did for the kids,” Kulp said. “They’ve changed their whole lives basically. They took care of all their expenses and really made (the hospital) feel like home for the kids.”
Wagner said the banquet reminds those participating in the contest what truly matters.
“Each group of players would go around and talk to them and see what Shriners Hospitals had done and where the money (from the game) is going,” Wagner said. “The whole purpose is to raise funds for the kids involved. I know for me, when you see that, it puts perspective on the game.”
The Shrine Bowl marked Kulp’s final game playing organized football. Next year, Kulp will continue his education at Kansas State University — but not as a student-athlete. Kulp said it wasn’t an easy decision to hang up his cleats.
Even so, he’s pleased with how his career ended.
“It was just an awesome ending,” Kulp said. “It was great to end it with the Shrine Bowl after the state (title) game.”