The interscholastic football season comes to an end this weekend with the MHSAA Finals at Ford Field, but the most talked about sport in high schools today will continue to make headlines for many months into the future.
Some of the headlines will introduce topics that are merely footnotes compared to what is really most important, that being the efforts to keep school-sponsored football the safest and sanest brand of football in America.
At the center of these efforts has been a task force appointed by the MHSAA to work throughout 2013 to advance these two objectives: “To promote the value of interscholastic football and to probe for ways to make the sport safer in Michigan.”
The tangible results of the task force’s four meetings are these:
- A proposal to the MHSAA Representative Council to revise football practice policies to improve acclimatization of players and to reduce head trauma. The proposal goes to the Representative Council Dec. 6 for discussion, then to the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association and MHSAA Football Committee in January and to the MHSAA League/Conference meeting in February, before returning to the Representative Council for action on March 22.
Three proposals to the NFHS Football Rules Committee to modify playing rules to promote player safety.
- A variety of print, online and broadcast promotions on behalf of the value of interscholastic football and its safety record and to encourage healthier out-of-season activities by students in all sports.
MHSAA research informs us that participation in 11- or 8-player football in member high schools this fall was down 3.0 percent compared to 2012, and down 7.63 percent since the 2008 season. The biggest reasons cited by those surveyed are, in declining order, safety issues, declining enrollment, athletes playing other school or non-school sports, cultural changes and pay-to-participate.
It is important to note that participation is not declining everywhere, not even everywhere where enrollments are down and participation fees are up. It is important to note also that some other sports are in much greater decline than football in terms of high school participation.
It is difficult for me to imagine my life without football as a part of it. It’s difficult to imagine schools and communities without football. I very much doubt that the absence of football would have improved my life or the schools and communities I’ve been a part of. It’s a sport that needs our attention, not its extinction.
Ben Jones always had the same, simple message, even if it was 100 degrees and sunny or 35 degrees and raining sideways, and whether he was playing for a powerhouse like Muskegon Catholic Central or coaching a program trying to establish itself at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.
“We get to play football today,” Jones would say, as many of those around him were complaining and grumbling.
It was never “have to” for Jones, but always “get to.”
Jones, who was about to start his second year as head coach at Cranbrook, had his life tragically cut short by a drunk driver who crashed into his vehicle as he was traveling home from work in Detroit on Aug. 19, 2020. He was just 30 years old.
While Jones is gone, leaving a hole as large and painful as the 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame he carried as a tight end in his senior year at Hillsdale College, that “Get To” mentality is alive and well, and thriving and growing – thanks in large part to the efforts of his football teammates from Muskegon Catholic and later at Hillsdale.
The Get To Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed in Jones’ honor and has grown exponentially in less than three years, providing grants to sports organizations and scholarships to student-athletes.
“There is a core group of about 10 of them that have worked on (the foundation), and it’s been amazing,” said Theresa Jones, Ben’s mother, who with her husband Bruce has worked with the foundation. “It started small, and then it caught fire.”
The president of the foundation is Tim Hornak, Jones’ best friend and teammate in the trenches at both Muskegon Catholic and Hillsdale. Hornak returned to deliver a pre-game speech before the Crusaders’ home game on Sept. 15 against Kalamazoo United, where he talked about the man who is the inspiration behind the rapidly-growing Get To movement.
“You don’t have to, you get to – that simple difference can change your lives,” said Hornak, who teamed with Jones when both were seniors to help the Crusaders to a 14-0 record and the Division 8 championship in 2008. “You get to play football tonight and continue the tradition that started here in the 1950s.
“You get a chance to line up and play a great game with your best friends.”
Inspired by Hornak’s words and Jones’ legacy, the Crusaders downed Kalamazoo United 27-7 that night, the team’s second-straight win after an 0-2 start, which put them back in the Division 8 playoff picture.
A tailgate party was held before the game as a fundraiser for the Get To Foundation, and it happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Crusaders’ 2008 championship team – arguably one of the best teams in the school’s storied history. MCC has won 12 state championships, trailing only Farmington Hills Harrison in state playoff history.
The phrase “get to,” according to Hornak, goes back to the whiteboard in the MCC locker room his sophomore year and perfectly captures Jones’ approach to life and to football, whether his team was unbeaten like at MCC or struggling like the Chargers did just after he and Hornak graduated.
Jones, who wore No. 62 at MCC, was a two-way starting lineman who also played on the Crusaders’ 2006 championship team as a sophomore. His best friends on the team were the Hornak twins, Tim and Jon, whose father Mike was an assistant coach.
After his funeral service on Aug. 24, 2020, Jones’ hearse made a stop at MCC’s Kehren Stadium on the way to the cemetery, taking a lap on the track around Mike Holmes Field.
He went on to play on three teams which won or shared Great Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles at Hillsdale, where he wore No. 91 and played tight end and H-back.
“He had an inner self-confidence that you could tell right away when talking to him,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein. “He was very positive. He encouraged his teammates.”
Jones graduated from Hillsdale in 2013 with a degree in financial management and a minor in mathematics, moved to Royal Oak and took a job as a portfolio manager and financial planner at Schwartz & Co. Investment Advisors.
In his free time, he worked as an assistant varsity football coach at Cranbrook from 2015 to 2018, before being elevated to head coach in 2019 at the age of 28.
One of his first actions as head coach was getting Cranbrook football T-shirts printed with the message “Get To” on the back. Jones guided the Cranes to a 6-4 record and a Division 4 playoff berth in what would prove to be his only season as head coach.
He died nine days before Cranbrook’s scheduled season opener in 2020, which ended up being delayed six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the immediate aftermath of Jones’ shocking death, the Hornak brothers and other former teammates vowed to do something to honor Ben and to help out his family. Out of that mission, the Get To Foundation was born.
Get To has awarded scholarships for the past three years. In 2023 alone, the foundation awarded $16,000 in scholarships to 22 student-athletes from around the state.
In addition, Get To has awarded $55,000 in grants to 17 organizations – including $3,000 to the Eaton Rapids High School football program for new shoulder pads and helmets and $2,500 to the Detroit Tigers Foundation’s Gloves for Kids program.
The next event on the foundation’s busy calendar is a speech by best-selling motivational author Jon Gordon at Lawrence Tech University on Oct. 17.
The foundation’s board has trademarked the phrase “Get To” and hopes to continue to grow the organization’s size and scope – in a way mirroring how big and impactful Ben’s life could have been if it wasn’t cut short.
For more information or to make a donation, go to the organization’s website at www.gettofoundation.org.
The relentless efforts of Ben’s ex-teammates to keep his memory alive means the world to his parents, as well as his two younger siblings – Alissa, a standout swimmer at Hillsdale who is now the school’s assistant women’s swimming coach; and Nate, who also played football for the Chargers and is now a foreign currency trader for Barclay’s, based in New York City.
Theresa Jones said coming together with all of Ben’s closest friends for Get To Foundation events has been a continuous blessing for the family.
“Every time we have an event for the foundation, it’s all of Ben’s friends and family members dressed up and having a good time,” his mother said. “It always feels like Ben’s wedding reception that he never got to have.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Ben Jones is shown before the 2008 Division 8 championship game at Ford Field during his senior year at Muskegon Catholic Central. The Crusaders defeated Crystal Falls Forest Park, 40-0. (Middle) Jones works with his linemen during his first year as head coach at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in 2019. (Below) A plaque honoring Jones has been placed in the tunnel leading from the home locker room to the football field at Hillsdale College. (Top photo by Tim Reilly. Additional photos courtesy of the Get To Foundation.)