By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half
BEAR LAKE — Samantha Mullet lives and breathes football.
Mullet figures to be right in her element then when she takes part in the National Football League’s “Women’s Careers in Football Forum” over Feb. 26-27 in Indianapolis.
The Bear Lake assistant football coach is among a select group of 40 invitees to the event, which is in its third year and includes panel discussions, presentations and breakout sessions in an effort to connect female candidates for positions as coaches, trainers, officials, scouts and front office personnel. The forum was developed as part of the NFL’s interest in expanding diversity and providing opportunities for women in football.
“It’s a really big honor,” said Mullet, who has been the Lakers’ offensive coordinator the last two years. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity to go and learn more about football — all aspects of the game at different levels and be able to bring that back to Bear Lake.”
Bear Lake athletic director Karen Leinaar was contacted by the NFL in November about having Mullet apply to attend the forum. The league then selected the 40 invitees from a collection of nationwide applicants. Leinaar believes the publicity Mullet received from video features done by Fox Sports Detroit and local CBS affiliate WWTV tipped the NFL to extend the offer for Mullet to apply.
“Between those two things, that caught the eye of someone at the NFL front office,” said Leinaar. “I had never heard of this forum. They contacted me and asked if I would give them Sam’s information, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, yes.’ Here’s a young lady who loves the game and has literally sunk her soul into the game. It’s amazing, and this is a great opportunity for her.”
Mullet is a 2013 graduate of Bear Lake, where she played basketball, golf and ran cross country. But the school didn’t get its own football program until an 8-player squad was established in 2017 — just as Mullet was returning home after earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Concordia University-Ann Arbor.
She approached her high school science teacher, John Prokes, who had been named the head coach of the program and asked him if she could help in any capacity. Prokes surprised Mullet by inviting her to help design the new team’s offense. She followed through with so much proficiency that Prokes extended an offer for her to join his coaching staff.
“I said, ‘Here’s an offense I’m thinking of running; can you outline this and tweak it? Let’s go over it and help me organize this offense,’” Prokes recalled. “It started from there. Next thing you know, she took over. She started incorporating her ideas and just running with it. It was a no-brainer. I told her, ‘You’re good at this. You’re hard-working on it. You take it to that 11th level. You run our offense.’”
Mullet has proven to have a great football mind in the two years she’s been with the program, added Prokes.
“I’ve encountered a lot of people, and I’m not just saying this because she’s my assistant coach and working with me, but she’s one of the most knowledgeable people in football that I know,” he said. “When I found out she was selected for this, and she had the opportunity to share experiences and network with other people in the field, I was extremely excited and pumped for her.”
Despite not playing on the gridiron, football has always been a part of Mullet’s life. Her family has had season tickets to Michigan State games for the past 20 years, and she picked up a great deal of knowledge about football along the way.
“We always went to football games as a family,” she said. “Football is something I’ve loved forever, for as long as I can remember. I’m really grateful to be able to turn a passion into a career. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do something they love for work. I’m really grateful that football has become for me something I can do and something I can share with other people because the game means a lot to me.”
Mullet’s passion for football has only deepened through coaching, as has her understanding of the game.
“I spend all my time now watching film and researching different things,” she said. “My knowledge has definitely increased, even more than I thought it could. I just love the game in so many more ways, seeing all the different levels that you don’t see being in the stands.”
Besides coaching football, Mullet also serves as Leinaar’s assistant in the athletic department and is the school’s yearbook advisor. Her dream job, however, would be to become an offensive coordinator in the NFL.
“I think that would be the ultimate thing,” she said. “Just to gain that perspective from that sideline and all the things that happen in a week there. To be completely immersed in football all the time and not have to have a different part-time job, to be completely absorbed in football would be amazing.”
Leinaar thinks the connections Mullet could make at the upcoming forum might open new doors in the world of football, perhaps even allowing Mullet to someday get a position at the highest level of the sport.
“I’m hoping that she gets an opportunity to keep going in football,” said Leinaar. “I think the sky is the limit for her. She would truly like to see what’s there at the next level and how they do some of the things they do. I think if somebody gave her an opportunity to work in one of their front offices, she’d be there in a heartbeat.”
Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
VIDEO: Fox Sports Detroit featured the Bear Lake 8-player football program during its first season in 2017. The above photo is taken from that video.
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)