By Kalle Oakes, Sun Media
Talent and dedication weren’t always enough to get Ryan Vail noticed during his high school football career.
Yes, Vail was a four-year starter. It was at center and defensive tackle, however; two places where you don’t gobble up yards, score touchdowns and accumulate the statistics that made fantasy football famous.
And his career unfolded in Bethel at Telstar Regional High School, a place that only revived its varsity program the year Vail was an incoming freshman. The Rebels won four games during Vail’s career and forfeited the invitation to a playoff game at the end of his senior campaign.
Vail will wear that logo with pride — and receive those well-deserved, long-awaited minutes in the spotlight — when he represents the West on Saturday in Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic XXVI. Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford.
“It definitely feels very good,” Vail said, “especially for Telstar’s program. We’re still working to build it up and get it established, and I’m honored to represent them. I’ve put in four hard years there. There’s been rough patches.”
Telstar went winless Vail’s freshman year, broke into the victory column once his sophomore season, then parlayed two triumphs into a playoff berth the next fall.
The Rebels’ only official win in 2014 was a loss at Traip that was overturned when the Rangers reported their inadvertent use of an ineligible player. That vaulted Telstar into a quarterfinal game at top-seeded Lisbon, which the team declined.
“This is one of the biggest games for me,” Vail said. “Playing with so much talent around me, I haven’t really had that as much as I’ve wanted. I’ve personally put in a lot of hard work and tried my hardest to build up everybody else. It’s definitely good to have that all around me.”
One of the Lobster Bowl’s many great traditions is that it issues invitations to every varsity program in the state, pulling players from the four state champions all the way down to those that struggled to field a team.
Vail, therefore, is not the first Telstar graduate to suit up for the game. Austin Ryerson was selected a year ago. Two players, Nick Mills and Drew Wilson, received the call in 2013.
“I was close with them,” Vail said. “They all told me about this. That was my goal my freshman year.”
He won’t have to grind out every play on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as was the norm throughout his career. The West coaching staff, led by Mike Hathaway of Leavitt and Stacen Doucette of Oak Hill, has Vail working at nose tackle in practice.
Working and practice being operative words. Since reporting to camp at Foxcroft Academy on Sunday morning, both teams have scheduled triple sessions as they cram for the annual all-star test.
“I’m loving it. Three practices a day, being sore, bruised up,” Vail said. “It’s definitely worth it, especially Saturday. I’m amped up for that. It’s going to be awesome.”
While other Lobster Bowl participants will move on almost immediately to Division I or Division III college training camps after the game, Vail will turn in the pads for good.
He will attend the University of Maine, majoring in health sciences. Vail, who was a guitarist and vocalist for a heavy metal band in one of his other teenage hobbies, has his eye on a club team that seems to fit his personality.
“I might play rugby,” he said. “It sounds pretty fun. A little bloody, you know? It’s kind of my style.”
Vail acknowledged that his football journey was “a lot of stress,” but quickly added that he would endure it all again for the opportunity to play the game.
Telstar went three decades without a varsity football program.
“It’s been an outlet for me with life, I guess,” Vail said. “Getting some aggression out in a positive way, and the dedication. Just being strict on myself. I’ve definitely pushed through. I’ve had to pick people up many times, but having myself already standing, that kind of helps.”
Lending a hand to those who need it is, after all, the overriding theme of the Lobster Bowl.
All proceeds from Saturday’s game go to benefit the 22 Shrine Hospitals for Children in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Vail said he personally knows children who have benefited from their orthopedic and burn care.
His family and friends will provide ample support at the turnstiles.
“I’ve got a big group,” Vail said. “Telstar, we’re building up. It’s growing and going toward a positive direction.”