BILLINGS — The Montana East-West Shrine game is a noteworthy all-star contest where 80 of the best high school football players in the state showcase their talents for 60 minutes.
But at its heart, the game has heart. And that’s why the Shriners Hospital and game organizers makes sure that patient ambassadors remain the focus of an eventful week.
This year has two ambassadors: Lexi Emeneth from Laurel and Grant Heaton of Worden.
Grant is a 7-year-old who loves football, playing with his cat named “Cheese” and building Lego sets.
“I have a policeman set and a Jurassic World set and a Spiderman set and a Ninjago set,” he explained as his eyes lit up.
He looks like a healthy kid, but his body is slowly failing him.
Grant has been diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a genetic disease that destroys his muscle. As the disease runs its course, Grant will likely be bound to a wheelchair by age 10 and isn’t expected to live past his mid-20s.
Before making the trip to Billings to serve as the ambassador, Grant was in Spokane at the Shriners Hospital getting fitted for new braces to keep him ambulatory for as long as he can.
“I wear them at night,” he said.
He is front and center for the festivities at the Montana East-West Shrine Game this week. And it’s fitting for Grant, because he has a favorite player. Colter Bales of Laurel, a defensive end for the East Team, is Grant’s cousin.
“He’s a really strong kid, and I’m very proud to be his cousin,” Bales said Friday at practice. “The way he’s handled everything, and he’s still just happy.”
Grant’s presence brings the purpose of the Shrine Game into focus for Bales and the other players. Grant broke down the East huddle, he played catch with the players and hung out with them during the parade.
“Yeah, it really does, (the hospital) helps a lot of kids,” Bales said. “And just by playing the game, I want to do anything I can to do my little part to help raise money for kids like Grant and everybody else who needs help.”
The motto of the Shrine Game is “Strong Legs Run So Weak Legs May walk”, and you don’t have look further for an example than Grant and Colter.
Kickoff at the Montana East-West Shrine Game is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Daylis stadium. You can watch the game on MTN stations across the state.