Family Coaching Tree Grows to 3 Generations

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

September 13, 2018

Like father like son, like grandson.

The Grignon football family continued its progression in the coaching ranks this season when Alex Grignon got his shot at being a head coach. Grignon was hired in June as head coach at Walled Lake Western to replace Mike Zdebski, who resigned to take a coaching position in Arizona.

Alex Grignon, 31, represents the third generation from a family of past and present high school head football coaches. And one can’t talk football in Wayne County communities like Dearborn and Lincoln Park without mentioning the Grignon family.

Ted Grignon was the athletic director and head football coach at Lincoln Park in the 1980s. His two sons, Ted and Jamie, played football at Dearborn Edsel Ford and then in college – Ted, a quarterback at Western Michigan University and Jamie, a safety at Grand Valley State. Jamie Grignon is in his third stint as Lincoln Park’s head coach. He was hired in 1994 and stepped aside after the 1999 season, but never left the sport as he went to Dearborn High as an assistant under Dave Mifsud in 2000. Grignon went back to Lincoln Park in 2013 as the head coach and, after taking another brief hiatus, came back last season and remains in that position.

His two sons, Andrew and Alex, played for Mifsud at Dearborn; and in 2004, Alex’s senior season, Dearborn reached a Division 2 Semifinal before losing to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-0. It marked the first time the program advanced that far in the MHSAA Playoffs.

Andrew switched sports and played lacrosse in college (at Grand Valley), but his younger brother stuck with football. After playing four years at Northern Michigan, Alex was a graduate assistant there working with the offense before joining his father’s staff at Lincoln Park. 

The Railsplitters have had their struggles of late, starting this season 0-3 and last making the playoffs in 2015. But in 2013, with Jamie as the head coach and Alex as the defensive coordinator, Lincoln Park ended a 66-game losing streak by defeating Taylor Kennedy, 34-20.  

After five seasons at Lincoln Park, Alex went to South Lyon last season as the offensive coordinator, and this season he made the big jump. Walled Lake Western is one of the top programs in the Detroit area and a member of the Lakes Valley Conference, and Grignon has the Warriors off to a 2-1 start.

 “He was proud that he was the third generation (of head coaches),” Jamie Grignon said. “When he coached with me, it was a growing process for him. There isn’t anyone who works harder than Alex. Whether it’s watching film, working with the kids after practice or what. He’s full-go.”

Like father like son. Jamie is not one to toot his own horn, but when he was the defensive coordinator at Dearborn people in the Downriver area, and in other football strongholds in the county, knew Mifsud had one of the best coaches calling his defense.

Mifsud is in his sixth season as the head coach at Parma Western after serving 16 in the same position at Dearborn. He was an assistant coach at Dearborn for four seasons before being named head coach in 1997.

Remember those dates. Before Mifsud was able to hire Grignon, the two met as adversaries on the field. Lincoln Park defeated Dearborn, 14-0, during Dearborn’s homecoming, no less, in 1999. That was Grignon’s last season during his first stint at Lincoln Park.

Mifsud didn’t have to twist Grignon’s arm to join his staff at Dearborn. Grignon’s oldest son, Andrew, was set to play for Mifsud in 2000. Alex is two years younger, so Mifsud was secure knowing the Grignons had his back.

“I was in my fourth year when Andrew came through, I hired Jamie and Keith Christnagel, who’s the coach at Woodhaven now,” Mifsud said. “We grew up together, the three of us, as coaches. We racked our brains learning the ropes. I always coached the offense. Keith had the offensive and defensive lines and Jamie the defense. The working relationship with Jamie was excellent. We split up the special teams, though he probably did more there.

“People know of Jamie, and he worked his tail off. On Sundays I’d stop by, you know, just to drop some film off or just to touch base, and his entire dining room would be spread all around with notes on breaking down the other team’s offense and such. Jamie’s a high-energy guy. He’s always thinking.

“Looking at Alex, yeah, I think they are similar. They can’t sit still. They’re always looking for something better. What a great hire (for Walled Lake Western). Alex is so great with the kids. He’s young (31). He’s got great football intelligence. Jamie was like that. He would tweak things in practice. He’d never be satisfied. Alex has that. He’s Jamie but at a different level.”

Mifsud and Jamie Grignon both said that what makes Alex a cut above is his leadership. As good as Alex was athletically as a player, his father said it was his leadership qualities that set him apart.

Mifsud recalled a story, a 2-3 week period, actually, during the 2004 season. The staff had yet to elect captains, and as preseason practices wore on Mifsud and his staff were taken aback by the actions of three seniors, Alex among them. 

The coaches didn’t have to blow a whistle to start practice. Those three would have the players ready.

“I looked at my coaches,” Mifsud said. “And said those are our captains.”

Alex said he never thought about being a leader. It just came naturally. He grew up watching football from the sidelines, and later as a water boy, and then at home watching his father gather notes and dissect film footage.

“I was on the sidelines my entire life,” he said. “The leadership, you see it. You watch the players. You know what it takes to be a leader. I tell my players at Western, people want to be led.

“As a youth you don’t realize what level dad is coaching at, but you remember going to coffee shops exchanging film. I’d have my ninja toys with me, and the next minute I’d be holding dummies. Dad didn’t push us. He wanted us to do what we wanted to do. Heck, I was a big-time soccer player. I didn’t start playing football until middle school. For two years I did both.”

By his freshman year, Alex was all in for football. His was one of best classes the school has had for the sport, and Alex recalls that 40-50 of his classmates showed their dedication by increasing their work in the weight room. 

Playing with his brother for two years and with his father for all four only made Alex more determined.

“I can’t talk football and family without getting emotional about it,” he said. “Watching your dad work 18 hours on the weekend, turning the pages of his legal pad, he was always doing something. I remember eating eggs for breakfast every day and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch to try and get as much protein in our bodies. I’d get up as a child, and he’d be on his third cup of coffee. He never stopped. He saw us wanting to be around the game, and he helped in any way he could to make us better.

“Everything I know, I’ve seen him do.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Walled Lake Western coach Alex Grignon is in his first season as head coach at Walled Lake Western. (Top middle) Alex, left, and father Jamie Grignon when Alex was assisting Jamie at Lincoln Park. (Middle) Current Parma Western and former longtime Dearborn coach Dave Mifsud. (Below) Alex and Jamie Grignon, when both were coaching Lincoln Park, and Alex with his family now as coach at Walled Lake Western. (Photos courtesy of Grignon family; Walled Lake Western photos by Teresa Presty Photography.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)