GREAT FALLS -- By the time Montana East-West Shrine Game all-stars break camp, most of them are already friends or at least familiar with their teammates and opponents in large part thanks to social media keeping high schoolers across the state connected.
But for the past six years, the rosters have included a few wild cards.
Since 2014, the Montana Shriners have invited two players from Canada to participate in the annual game, splitting them between the East and West teams.
This year’s East representative is lineman Tariq Essa, a lineman from Earnest Manning High School in Calgary. And at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds he certainly passed the eye test for a football player.
“Yeah, it helps to be a little bit bigger than some of my guys here,” Essa laughed.
[caption id="attachment_120956" align="alignright" width="300"]<img class="size-medium wp-image-120956" src="https://s3.amazonaws.com/cordillera-network/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2019/07/16184111/1.-TARIQ-ASSA-300x169.jpg" alt="" width="300" height="169" /> Calgary's Tariq Essa talks to an East team assistant coach. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)[/caption]
He’s the biggest player on the East roster, but that’s not the only thing that makes him stand out. Fairfield’s Les Meyer, head coach of the East team, was quickly impressed by Essa’s attitude.
“Immediately he was involved, leading a break,” Meyer said. “He’s fitting in very, very nicely, he’s just one of the guys.”
Essa, who will play collegiately at the University of Calgary next year, estimates football is about the second- or third-most popular sport in Canada. And he’s the first member of his family to play.
“Yeah, I’m a first-generation football player,” he said. “We have some water polo and figure skating in our family but no football.”
Did he ever give one of those sports a try?
“I can swim half decently, I’m a lifeguard,” he admitted. “But haven’t really tried out figure skating, maybe later on in life.”
[caption id="attachment_120969" align="alignright" width="1024"]<img class="size-full wp-image-120969" src="https://s3.amazonaws.com/cordillera-network/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2019/07/16184243/14.-ASSA-FAMILY.jpg" alt="" width="1024" height="576" /> Tariq Essa's family watches from the sideline. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)[/caption]
Five members from Essa’s family made the trip with him and have been on the sidelines for every practice this week.
“It definitely invigorates me to do my best and to try and do my best and put more energy in practice,” he said. “They’re my stronghold and without them, I don’t think I’d be here.”
And on Saturday, he hopes to show his family and the rest of Montana that he’s not just a token Canadian.
“Definitely, I want to showcase my skills foremost and kind of be that ambassador for Canada and Canadian football, in general, and show some of these guys up a little bit,” he said.
The 73rd annual Montana East-West Shrine game will kick off at 7 p.m. at Bob Green Field in Butte. The game will be broadcast on MTN stations throughout the state and online at MontanaSports.com