CAMP PENDLETON — Military and civilian football players gathered to play in the annual Buddy Bowl to support military charities and share their love of the game Nov. 30.
The bowl opened with the national anthem and a formal thank you to military troops, law enforcement personnel and their families for their service.
“The opening ceremonies are emotional for me,” Erik Benitez, military veteran and Pop Warner coach, said. “I’ve had friends who were injured or lost. It’s awesome how some guys don’t miss a beat. And how these guys have a love for country and service.”
Flag football fields were set up at the 11 area athletic fields, where Marines, Navy and civilian players formed teams and faced off.
The bowl is open to all levels of players from kids’ Pop Warner teams to elite adult league players.
Seven on seven teams are organized the day of the bowl based on player turnout. Games are 24 minutes, which allows teams to play three or more games in the bracket playoff tournament.
“There are different brackets all based on ability,” Nico Marcolongo, Buddy Bowl organizer and retired Marine, said. “Elite teams are very experienced flag football players who are in organized leagues and tour in high level competitions.”
“It’s fun,” Marcolongo added. “The higher level teams are more competitive, but overall it’s very friendly.”
Challenged athletes are also welcome.
“It’s an opportunity for them to get out and prove to themselves they can do things they did pre-injury,” Marcolongo said.
“It’s very humbling hearing the stories of the troops and what they’ve been through,” Marcolongo added. “To see them smiling and having a good time is an honor.”
The goal of the event is to raise funds to support local military charities. Players are asked to make a $20 to $40 donation, but no one is excluded from playing.
Marcolongo said funds raised go to local nonprofits that benefit military and law enforcement personnel. Funds from this year’s Camp Pendleton bowl will be donated to Operation Rebound challenged athletes foundation to help supply sports equipment and pay travel costs of military veterans in the program.
Another big benefit of the game is that it allows civilians to spend a day playing football with military neighbors. Marcolongo said it is a great opportunity for civilians and military to connect.
“It’s not just support,” Marcolongo said. “The community comes out and actively participates with them, sweats with them. It personalizes the connection between service members and community members.”
Benitez brings his Fallbrook Pop Warner flag football team out every year to participate. Most players are age 7 and have not been on a military base.
Benitez said he hopes to teach his players that football can be played to support a bigger cause.
“Through sports we can do great things,” Benitez said.
Benitez added challenged athletes are a real inspiration to young players.
“Kids are shocked to see amputees playing with false legs,” Benitez said. “Most have never seen an amputee. To see the guys out there playing, it impresses upon them you can overcome a lot.”
Five Buddy Bowls are held through out the U.S. Annual funds raised from all five bowls amount to about $30,000. Bowl locations include Nevada, Indiana, New York and Massachusetts. Buddy Bowls have been held since 1977.