One question posed to the Shrine Bowl players is to name their sports idol or someone they admire.
Most responses are well-known pro athletes or college sports heroes.
Many select football players because the Shrine Bowl is a football all-star game.
One of this year’s responses was more unusual as one player named as his sports idol a late Kansas high school player from his hometown, someone he knew personally and whose life has had a profound effect on him.
Pittsburg’s Spencer Bernhardt will represent his school in this year’s Kansas Shrine Bowl, July 27, in Topeka.
Bernhardt has great memories of the late Dylan Meier, the former Pittsburg all-state quarterback who played in the 2002 Kansas Shrine Bowl.
Meier quarterbacked Kansas State and two European pro teams before dying in a hiking accident in Arkansas in April of 2010.
He was planning to teach in Korea when the accident occurred.
Bernhardt’s relationship with Meier began when he served as a ball boy for the Pittsburg High School football team when he was only a first-grader.
Bernhardt’s grandfather, Larry Garman, was the head coach of the Dragons and Meier the star quarterback.
“I got to see him play, got to see him lead the team to a state championship appearance,” Bernhardt said.
“We didn’t win the game, but I still thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
It would be easy for the local hero (Meier) to overlook the little guy. But that wasn’t the case, according to Bernhardt.
“Even though I was only in the first grade and he was getting ready to play games, he’d still talk to me and play catch with me whenever he could and made me feel special at a young age at a time when he had so much going for him,” Bernhardt said.
Meier died when he was a high school freshman and Bernhardt said the death was devastating.
The two had maintained a friendship through the years and Bernhardt still remembers talking with Meier not long before the accident.
“He would take time out of his day to talk to me about my freshman football games, my freshman basketball games, stuff that really didn’t even matter, but he would make me feel like the most important person in the world,” Bernhardt said.
His relationship with Meier helped motivate him, both on and off the field.
He quarterbacked Pittsburg to a 5-4 record in 2012, amassing nearly 1,500 total yards, including nine rushing touchdowns before an injury in the next-to-last game sidelined him for the rest of that game and the season finale.
As a punter, he averaged 39.9 yards per kick, and on defense made 21 tackles.
As for college, Bernhardt plans to stay at home and play receiver for Pittsburg State.
“I’ve had close connections with Pitt State my whole life, and it’s just home, the natural place for me to be,” Bernhardt said.
He’ll be able to continue many of the off-the-field activities in which he’s been engaged in. Bernhardt is active in his church and is a volunteer for the Special Olympics, the Humane Society and youth football and basketball.
When it comes to kids, he remembers what it was like as a youngster looking up to Meier.
“They look up to you like I looked up to Dylan,” he said.
And he pays his idol the ultimate compliment.
“If I could get half the life in 80 years that he got in his 26, I’d live a great life,” Bernhardt said. “As much as I can do and be like him, I want to do.”