By Harry Minium
NORFOLK, Virginia – The first Charity Bowl football game was played on a cold December day in 1969 at the old Union Kempsville stadium in Virginia Beach. About 60 former high school and college football players got together and played a tackle football game.
Proceeds from the game, as the name of the game suggests, went to charity.
Both teams were coached by Ed Booth and Ron Nery of the Norfolk Neptunes professional team. The crowd of around 400 brought in a gate of $580, which was split evenly between the Joy Fund and Catholic charities.
In all but one year since, one Charity Bowl game has been played. About a decade ago, local businessman Dennis Ellmer rescued the game from financial ruin and quickly turned it into a flag football game.
It would seem that too many out of shape weekend warriors get dressed up and swept off the field with an injury. The late George McClelland, then sports editor of The Virginian-Pilot, noted in his coverage of that 1969 game that it was a surprise that “no one was killed or maimed”.
“It was just too dangerous,” said Ellmer, who attended ODU and is president and CEO of Priority Automotive.
The next Charity Bowl transformation will take place on Saturday with the ODU Priority Charity Bowl Spring Game. There will be no flag football match. Instead, the Charity Bowl game will be ODU’s spring football game.
The 2 p.m. contest is not so much a game as it will be on the 15thand spring practice for monarchs.
This will be the first chance for fans to see the attack of this new offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude brings to monarchs. Patenaude comes to ODU after three seasons at Georgia Tech.
ODU is returning 19 starters from the team that won its last five regular-season games last fall and earned the university’s first bowl offer since 2016.
ODU will face its toughest schedule next season, as the Monarchs travel to the Sun Belt Conference. ODU also has non-conference home games against Virginia Tech and Liberty.
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Admission to Saturday’s game is free and fans will be seated on the east side of the stadium.
The focus of the Charity Bowl changed under Ellmer from ticket sales to fundraising. Ellmer used his business connections to accelerate fundraising, and last year the game generated $766,000, all for local children’s charities.
Following the game, there will be an invitation-only reception for major Charity Bowl sponsors at the Priority Automotive Club, as well as a golf tournament at the Virginia Beach National Golf Course on September 20.
At the end of the golf tournament, Ellmer said he hoped to win over $1 million, with all of it going to local children’s charities.
Even in 1969 dollars, that would be a jump from the $580 generated by the first game.
Ellmer congratulated ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., athletic director Wood Selig, Ph.D. and football coach Ricky Rahn for their help in organizing the Charity Bowl.
“ODU has been a great partner,” Ellmer said. “They did everything and anything we asked.
“I am deeply grateful for their help and commitment to helping the children of Hampton Roads. Dr. Hemphill and Wood Selig have been wonderful to work with.”
Ellmer is a Norfolk native who grew up in Ocean View in a poor blue-collar neighborhood. He held three jobs at Norview High School and after briefly attending ODU he started selling cars. Eventually he borrowed enough money to buy a car dealership, which turned out to be successful.
He now has dozens of car dealerships in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia and parts of North Carolina.
The Charity Bowl will help 45 different charities in Hampton Roads, all focused on helping children in need. He won’t say why he’s so focused on helping children, but added that after Norfolk Southern left town several years ago to move to Atlanta, there was a significant gap in local philanthropy.
“We are trying to fill that gap,” he said.
In the long term, he would like to see a flag football game return,
“We would like it to be a real alumni game, with ODU football players and other athletes playing a flag football match,” he said. “But at the moment we don’t have enough old footballers to do that.
“Hopefully we’ll come back to that in the future, if that’s what Wood Selig and Chairman Hemphill also want to happen.”
Ellmer attended a recent practice and said he was blown away by the talent Rahne brought to the field.
“This team is so much bigger, stronger and faster than what we had a few years ago,” he said. “I was so impressed with the camaraderie I saw between the players and the coaches.
“Ricky Rahn did a great job rebuilding this program.”
Just like Ellmer did with the Charity Bowl.