Brighton Baseball, Community Rally as Coach Comes Back Strong from Health Scare

By Tim Robinson
Special for

July 13, 2022

At first, Charlie Christner thought it was a case of heartburn. 

It was Jan. 12. He had taught social studies at Scranton Middle School for five hours and now was beginning his prep hour by preparing for his other job as baseball coach at Brighton High School. 

“I was actually … in my last hour (of) the day, and just started having heartburn,” he said.

So he made a quick trip to a nearby store to get an over-the-counter heartburn remedy. 

“I wanted something to help me before I went to (offseason) hitting,” he recalled. 

But the feeling didn’t go away, and about 4 p.m. Christner told his coaches he wasn’t feeling well and was going home. 

He didn’t get there.

“I made it about a mile down the road and had to pull over and just started throwing up,” he said. “(I) felt better and started back down the road and stopped, (and) just started throwing up again, and I said ‘I’ve got to get to the hospital.’”

He called his wife, Jackie, who was at home working, and she rushed to the hospital. 

Once he was admitted, Christner was diagnosed with pancreatitis. 

Waiting out a serious situation

The pancreas is a gland located under the stomach which secretes hormones, including insulin, to aid in digestion. 

In Charlie’s case, gallstones had blocked the ducts connecting his pancreas to his small intestine. This, in turn, was leading to part of the tissue in his pancreas beginning to die. 

Over the next several weeks, the Christners made several trips to the hospital while he dealt with pain and a gradual buildup of fluid due to a cyst that had formed around the inflammation in his pancreas. The cyst made him feel full all of the time and made it difficult to eat or drink.

The pain medication affected him, too.

“It messed up his thought process a little,” Jackie said. “Some days he didn't know what day it was or, you know, he doesn't remember those days.”

Although the diagnosis was fairly swift — the Christners knew from the beginning what was wrong and what needed to be done — surgery was delayed for nearly two months to let the inflammation in his pancreas go down.

But it was still a serious situation.

“It’s a most sobering experience to have a surgeon come out and tell you your son is very sick and it’s a very serious situation and has a 70 percent chance of survival,” said Dan Christner, who coaches with his son after a long career as a basketball coach at Brighton. “I’ve seen enough missed free throws to know that if you make 70 percent of your free throws, that means 30 percent aren’t going in. It gives you pause, and (you) say let’s make sure we’re a part of that 70 percent.”

Brighton baseballThe delay was to help increase those odds.

“They didn't want to do surgery (right away) because of all the inflammation and everything that's going on inside your body,“ Charlie said. “If you have to do it soon, then you end up being in a position where the odds of surviving are less if we have to do emergency surgery. So they delayed it.”

Charlie and Jackie made several trips to and from the hospital during the six weeks after the initial diagnosis.

When he felt up to it, Charlie was working on lesson plans along with administrative tasks while his coaches ran offseason workouts.

“He really wanted to make sure things were coordinated,” Jackie said. “And you know, that's Charlie to a T. He wants to make sure that everything runs smoothly and in that, you know, he's informed of any decisions or changes or things that are happening with the team.”

A veteran coaching staff, led by former Pinckney baseball coach Matt Evans, stepped into the breach. 

“​​I think the big thing on our part was making sure that it was business as usual,” Evans said. “We weren’t going to let Charlie not being there through the winter be an excuse for why we performed or didn’t perform. He’s been a stable force and head of the program for a number of years now. We knew what we needed to do, and so it was about executing a plan that's pretty familiar to us.”

Christner went to a few offseason workouts, watching from a chair. 

“(Jackie) would drive me up to hitting and I'd sit in there and watch the guys for as long as I could, 30 minutes or an hour, just to give me something to do," Charlie said. “Otherwise it was, you know, a lot of daytime TV and naps. I did do some stuff with baseball during that time, even if it was just to go watch hitting for an hour and talk to the coaches on how kids are doing. ... It gave me definitely something to do and something to look forward to.”

In the meantime, the Christners were flooded with cards, texts and phone calls of support, prompting Jackie to post regular updates on her Facebook page to lighten that load. 

Their families were supportive, as was the community.

“Everybody was so gracious and heartwarming and opened their arms to us and said, ‘anything you need,’” Jackie said. “There's nothing that we really needed that the community could help us with too much because we were just stuck in a hospital, just kind of sitting there waiting for medicines, waiting for diagnosis, waiting for the doctor to progress the treatment, etc. And that was kind of what we needed.”

“​​I’m proud of the way that everybody came together and did what had to be done, and how excited people were to see him," Evans said. “That speaks to the time that Charlie’s put into this program over the last however many years as a coach, Any time you’re a coach, you look for those moments you can point to as having a positive impact on kids and the baseball community and all those things, and I would say the willingness of everyone to pitch in is a testament to how much he’s appreciated as part of the Brighton baseball community.”

On the way back

Surgery was March 3. Christner’s gallbladder was removed, along with the dead tissue on his pancreas. A pair of cysts were drained, and he went home a few days later. 

Christner, always slender in physique, had lost 40 pounds – 10 of which liquid that had been building up in the cysts. 

But, albeit from a chair, he was at tryouts March 15.

His voice was weak at first, but he made his presence known. 

“When he was back at tryouts, those first couple times, he would cut loose and let out a yell,” Evans said. “And it was ‘OK, Charlie’s back, and he’s in it,’ and that made everyone feel good. Same old Charlie. He’s locked in. Same old competitor.”

A frustrated competitor, at one point, irritated because fungos weren’t being hit by his coaches in the manner he prefers. But he coached from third base, albeit from his normal spot a step or two from the dugout. 

He progressed from liquids to solid food (his first solid food was pizza), and returned to the classroom April 12, three months to the day his medical odyssey began.

After an 8-8 start, the Bulldogs won District and Regional titles before falling in a Division 1 Quarterfinal. 

The healing continues, but things are back on schedule for Christner, who turned 40 on Saturday. 

He’s not outwardly emotional. He appreciates the love and support he and his family have received, but also wishes he could have accomplished more for his team during the time he was critically ill.

Jackie Christner is not as reserved.

“I just thank God every day that he is healthy,” said Jackie, who married Charlie in 2019. “And yes, our bond has strengthened. I think everything for us just knowing that we need each other and we need people in our lives as everybody does. But especially to know that we had each other and he had me. He often said, ‘I don't know what I would do if you weren't here. I don't know what I would do. If I hadn't met you, this would be 10 times harder to go through if you weren't here.’"

PHOTOS (Top) Brighton varsity baseball coach Charlie Christner, fifth from right, addresses his team. (Middle) Charlie and wife Jackie Christner enjoy a moment on the lakeshore. (Photos courtesy of Jackie Christner.)

For Coach: Powers Completes 1st Title Run for 42-Year Leader Dutkowski

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 15, 2024

EAST LANSING — On behalf of this current Flint Powers Catholic baseball team, Saturday’s message was loud and clear to past players, alumni and school officials:

We finally did it for Tom. 

Tom would be longtime head coach Tom Dutkowski, who after 42 years and 872 wins finally got to coach in a state championship game Saturday. 

Not only did Powers get there for Dutkowski, but the Chargers delivered win No. 873 and his long-awaited first title as coach with an 11-0 defeat of Spring Lake in the Division 2 Final at McLane Stadium. 

“We just made Flint Powers history, and to be a part of that is amazing,” Powers senior Fischer Hendershot said. “We have a lot of alumni and a lot of alumni on the coaching staff. To do it for the coaching staff, everyone here, everyone in Powers, every alumni and everyone who cares about us is a great feeling.” 

The Chargers’ Fischer Hendershot delivers a pitch.After accepting the championship trophy and raising into the air triumphantly, Dutkowski reflected on the journey and long wait.

It was the third title for Powers baseball, joining the 1974 and 1980 championships. Dutkowski was an assistant on the 1980 team. 

“I played in ’73 here, and my joke for that was that I taught the ’74 guys everything they knew and then they won a state championship the next year,” Dutkowski said. “We won it in ’80 with just a gritty team. My third year as a head coach we got to the final four in Class A, and I figured this was going to happen every three years. And then it was a 39-year drought in terms of that.”

The game ended after five innings via the run differential rule and capped off a fairly dominant season for Powers — or at least as dominant as a baseball team can be for a season.

The Chargers finished 37-6 and outscored opponents by a combined 57-13 during the MHSAA Tournament.

The only close call during the playoffs came in Friday’s Semifinal, when Powers blew a 3-0 lead to Trenton before prevailing in the bottom of the eighth inning, 4-3, on a walk-off single by senior Gavin Darling. 

“These guys, they never flinched and they never wavered,” Dutkowski said. “They developed into being a great team, not just individual talent.”

Powers wasted no time against Spring Lake, taking a 2-0 lead with one out in the top of the first inning on a two-run double to the gap in left-center by Darling. After a ground out, Darling scored on a Spring Lake throwing error to give Powers a 3-0 lead. 

Powers added another run in the second inning on a bases-loaded walk to make it 4-0. 

Teammates congratulate Michael Klein (6) as he returns to the dugout.In the third, Powers scored four runs to take an 8-0 lead on an RBI single by Hendershot, a walk with the bases loaded and a two-run single by freshman Connor Kelly. 

Powers then put three more runs on the board in the fourth inning to take an 11-0 lead. 

Hendershot was the winner on the mound, allowing two hits and striking out five in five innings of work. 

Spring Lake also was attempting to win its first Finals title, but had to settle for its third runner-up finish (to go with those from 1995 and 1978). 

The Lakers finished 32-10. 

“They are a good team, and this was their year,” Spring Lake head coach Bill Core said. “We just couldn’t keep them off of the bases, and our pitching wasn’t as sharp as it’s been. We gave them a couple of free passes, and they mixed in some good hitting. That’s a good team, and that’s why they’ve been ranked No. 1 in the state all year.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Flint Powers Catholic raises its championship trophy to complete the 2024 baseball season Saturday evening at McLane Stadium. (Middle) The Chargers’ Fischer Hendershot delivers a pitch. (Below) Teammates congratulate Michael Klein (6) as he returns to the dugout.