By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
VERMONTVILLE – It’s almost with disbelief that first-year coach Marty Martin considers the recent history of his once-feared Maple Valley football program.
“It’s been nine years since we’ve had a winning season,” said Martin, who was part of the team’s first outright league title as a senior in 1983. “It gives me goose bumps to think about that.”
But he’s had similar reactions to the outpouring of neighborly support his program has received as it works to start a revival.
Members of the community, made up of about 3,500 residents, have donated $46,000 to go with $15,000 allocated by Maple Valley's school board for the purchase of new equipment that will be used this fall. Some was necessary to fit an influx of players, but the additional funds allowed the program to update and replace some of its older gear as well.
Confidence. Comfort. Swagger. The players anticipate a little more of all three when Maple Valley opens against Fowler on Aug. 28 outfitted in new uniforms over new shoulder pads and with new helmets topping them off.
Those good feelings come with heightened expectations, of course – which are welcomed by a program that made the playoffs seven of eight seasons and played in an MHSAA Final during the stretch preceding its recent struggles.
“It’s coming back. You can feel it,” Maple Valley senior Isiah Garn said. “On the field, the coaches are expecting more … not letting you short yourself. And the community is jumping in on us; there is so much support there. Everyone wants us to be a success again.”
Dressed to impress
Martin is deeply rooted in the school. His father was a 1953 graduate of the former Vermontville High and started middle school basketball and football and summer league baseball programs in the community before also coaching at the new Maple Valley High School after it opened in 1963. Marty played football for Dan Watson on the Maple Valley varsity after playing junior varsity for Guenther Mittelstaedt, who followed Watson and led the varsity to a 173-70 record over 24 seasons through 2008.
After playing two years of baseball in junior college, Martin came back to the community to work as a postal worker and coach, and under Mittelstaedt helped the Lions to their first playoff appearance, in 1987. He remained on Mittelstaedt’s staff through 2000, then coached a year at Battle Creek St. Philip, four years at Battle Creek Lakeview where he also taught after earning his degree, then with Mittelstaedt again for two years at Lakeview in Montcalm County.
Martin returned to teach at Maple Valley a year ago and became only the third varsity football coach in 30 years during this offseason.
Maple Valley is a little different place than even a decade ago. The school’s enrollment briefly passed 500 during the 2007-08 school year but fell to just over 370 students as of this spring – and Martin said there are fewer than 70 seniors in this fall’s class. The community’s economics also have changed, he added, with fewer families farming or enjoying jobs with General Motors in Lansing or Kellogg in Battle Creek.
Near the top of his to-do list was simply getting more players back into the program. Maple Valley had 40 last year, which at least worked for the amount of equipment the school had in stock.
But 69 students signed up to play this fall and 54 ended up at practice this week – good news, except for the helmet supply.
In addition to new helmets to outfit the new players, Martin also surmised eight more would need to be replaced at the end of this season, followed by 12 more needed after 2016 and 13 after 2017.
Instead, Martin began investigating if his program could get a better price by replacing the entire supply in bulk. After considering two helmets, he worked with his Riddell representative to get a deal on the helmets that included discounts on shoulder and girdle pads as well. The school board responded with its contribution – and then the community came on strong to help the rest of the way.
Martin was called out of class one day to receive a $5,000 check. Then came $1,500 from one family and $3,500 from another. He was at a graduation open house this spring when someone placed a $1,000 check in front of him. Longtime residents, some retired, gave $100; some who had graduated from Vermontville High or the other former school in Nashville, donated a few hundred as well.
Martin’s team spent parts of the summer (and will this Saturday as well) providing muscle to local service projects, but he’s never asked the community for financial help for the program. It just made sense to provide, said 1992 grad and former player and assistant coach Paul Adrianson, whose local business Hickey Electric was among the first to contribute.
“We want people to see the game of football doesn’t just necessarily survive. We think it can thrive if you put safety first or good fundamental education on it,” Adrianson said. “It can be a great sport for our future. … We really feel that if we get all behind and lead as a district and doing safety first, we think that’s going to set a positive trend for the game of football.”
Maple Valley is one of 70 high schools statewide taking part in a pilot sideline concussion testing program sponsored this school year by the MHSAA. The Lions will work with XLNTbrain Sport, which incorporates baseline testing done at the start of the season to assist in return-to-play decisions after possible head injuries at practices and during games.
In addition, the Riddell SpeedFlex helmets Maple Valley purchased include the InSite Impact Response System, a series of sensors that alert sideline staff after a player’s helmet sustains what is considered a significant impact. That player will then be evaluated by training staff; Maple Valley also has a trainer this fall for the first time in 15 years, Martin said.
“That was our initial thing. We want our kids to be the safest kids,” Martin said. “We want to be one of those leaders; we want to get this district, this community, out front so everyone in the state of Michigan and the United States knows in this area that people care about their kids to the extent they’re willing to invest $27,000 in purchasing helmets.”
The helmets require reconditioning each offseason and new batteries for the InSite sensors – to the tune of $2,200. But another donor stepped in with $22,000 – enough to keep the new helmets ready to wear for a decade.
“This community identifies with this football team,” Martin said. “So they were ready for a change, and they were looking for this opportunity. I’m very blessed and humbled to think they’re showing trust in my leadership and my coaching staff and in the fact we can turn things around.”
His players have heard the stories of successes past, some before they were born. They’ll try to extend the “look good, feel good” cliché into their play on the field this fall as they work to write a restart into Maple Valley’s winning history that goes with the other renovation projects that are popping up at the school and on its grounds.
“I think there’s going to be tons of people coming out,” senior Brock Weiler said. “It’s the new coach, everything getting re-done in the school. I think the pride’s coming back.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Maple Valley huddles during offensive drills at Wednesday afternoon’s practice. (Middle) Coach Marty Martin leads the Lions through agility work. (Below) Maple Valley will wear new helmets this fall thanks in part to community donations.
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.)