Turners Falls High School’s Ryan Wilder became the first running back in Franklin County history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season this past fall.
He will now take his talent halfway around the world to represent not only Turners Falls and Franklin County, but state and country, too.
Wilder will compete in the Down Under Bowl, which takes place in Australia in July. He was selected to represent Massachusetts when Turners head coach Chris Lapointe was contacted by Down Under Sports, an International Sports Specialist based in Australia.
The Down Under Bowl is now in its 25th year, having first started in 1989 to help promote football to the people of New Zealand and Australia, according to the bowl’s website. Players from the United States, Australia and New Zealand are invited to participate, and teams are divided into brackets of four, with each team playing two games.
“It’s a great opportunity and a great experience,” Wilder said. “You get to meet a bunch of new people and do something that is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
There have actually been some big names associated with the Down Under Bowl, including former NFL quarterback Jake Plummer and NFL running backs Ahman Green and Rob Morris. Over 11,500 players have played in the tournament. That also includes Lapointe, who was invited to take part in the summer of 1999, following his senior season at Turners. The former quarterback, along with Indian wide receiver Jay Niedbala, both made the trip that season and Lapointe said that it was a great experience.
“I remember it was my first time flying in a plane,” he recalled. “Along with the football, they also take you on little tours. We went to a zoo and saw local beaches. It was a great time. And it’s well deserved for Ryan. He will represent our school and our league very well.”
But before Wilder can go hang out with kangaroos and koala bears, he will have to raise $5,000 to foot the bill. And just as he did on the football field all season, Wilder has been busy running around to try and earn the trip.
The one fundraising idea that Down Under Sports helps each player with is T-shirts sales. The shirts cost $20 and Wilder gets $15 toward his trip from every shirt he sells. Anyone interested in buying a shirt from Wilder can call him at 413-531-6386.
Wilder has also been going to local businesses in Turners Falls, asking for support. That included a stop at Between The Uprights Sports Bar and owner Lew Collins, who is a former Indian kicker and avid Indians fan. Collins immediately put out a donation box at the bar and a couple of weeks ago, during halftime of the AFC Championship Game between New England and Baltimore, Collins held a 50/50 raffle, which netted Wilder $100.
He didn’t stop there. Collins decided to hold a fundraising event at the bar as well, and on Feb. 23 from 6-9:30 p.m. BTU will host the Ryan Wilder Down Under Fundraiser. Wilder will be selling his shirts at the event, and Collins will also have a number of raffles going on to raise money. There will be a coffee-can raffle with prizes ranging from sports memorabilia to gift certificates among other things, as well as a 50/50 raffle. Also, every 20 minutes Collins will sell raffle tickets that go toward winning one of eight or nine big prizes. Collins said that he hopes the event can raise somewhere near $1,500.
“I think it’s a unique opportunity for the kid and it’s a chance for him to get rewarded,” he explained. “It’s the chance for him to do something that not everyone gets a chance at.”
Collins said they are still looking for any businesses or people to donate raffle prizes, and the monetary donation box remains at the bar.
There is a Facebook page called the Ryan Wilder Down Under Fundraiser. For more information on the event and to schedule a donation pick up, contact Collins at 863-2882.
In other area football news, I received an anonymous letter about a week ago from someone referring to themselves as “A Very Frustrated Franklin County Sports Fan.” The well-written letter was in response to a story from a couple weeks back after Greenfield quarterback Zach Bartak won the Intercounty League MVP Award.
The writer was very upset with me and the rest of the “Good Old Boy Network” he believed was responsible for Bartak winning the MVP award over Turners Falls players Wilder and John Ollari, who he felt were more deserving. The writer thought that Bartak received the award based more on career totals and less on the accomplishments of last season. The person also felt that because Bartak was not on the Academic Team, this somehow should have been taken into account.
I thought it pertinent to use this space for a couple of clarifications, because in my six years covering area football, there has never been a more hotly contested IL MVP race than this year’s. The writer seemed to be under the impression that we at The Recorder have a say in who wins the award. We don’t. As I stated in that earlier column, only the IL coaches vote on it. The Recorder simply sponsors it, which means we foot the bill for the engraving and the winner’s trophy.
Also, the writer was very upset that I dedicated so much space to Bartak this season. Yes, “Frustrated Fan” suggested that he may have won the award based on that as well. It’s fine to blame me for whatever you would like. I write a column for the newspaper and enjoy the passionate feedback, but I thought it was unfortunate that in blaming me this person overlooked what the quarterback accomplished this season. It’s also possible that Wilder and Ollari split the vote a bit, both being from Turners Falls.
Finally, the writer discussed former athletes who have been glorified by the media, only to struggle to adapt to life after high school sports. Those individuals yearn for their glory days. I found this interesting, considering they were pushing for the MVP to be awarded to Ollari or Wilder, who have garnered nearly as much attention as the GHS quarterback; maybe more, given their run to the Super Bowl and the numerous stories I wrote in advance of that.
Let me close by saying this: All three of these players were not only great on the football field but have been wonderful young men off of it, a credit to them, their families and their schools. Each player could have won the award and a strong argument could have been made to support that. Bartak was also named the Dagenais Award winner as the WMass MVP, so it would have been odd if he had not also been named the MVP of his league. He also made the all-state team. lthough both Wilder and Ollari may have been upset that they were not named league MVP, I’m guessing if you asked Bartak, he would trade all the individual awards for the chance that Wilder and Ollari got to play with their team in the Super Bowl.
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is email@example.com.