Five for 50: Record Remains Golden

September 20, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Tom Essenburg remembers one night 50 years ago like it was just last Friday.

Rain had been falling steadily on Sept. 21, 1962, as the Holland and Muskegon Heights football teams took the field at Holland's Riverview Park for their Week 2 game.

Heights was coached by the already-legendary Okie Johnson, and at his disposal were a handful of speedsters who could potentially make for a long night for Essenburg, a senior defensive back – although he had a hopeful hunch the wet weather might hinder the Tigers' passing game.

“I’m thinking to myself, what’s going to go on today?” Essenburg remembered this week. “They threw six passes the whole ballgame, because it was so wet.

“They didn’t complete one to a Muskegon Heights player,” he added. “But they completed five to me.”

Friday marks the 50th anniversary of Essenburg grabbing five interceptions, an MHSAA record for one game that twice has been tied but still stands half a century later.

The next day's Holland Evening Sentinel first told of Essenburg's final interception, which he returned for a touchdown with 13 seconds to play in the 12-0 victory. The report's seventh paragraph explained  that Essenburg “had quite a night with enemy aerials."

Essenburg, by his own estimation, was good but “not anything exceptional” at football. But he'd go on to captain the Western Michigan University men’s tennis team and officiate five MHSAA Football Finals during a 41-year career wearing the stripes. He's reffing still – he will be in the white hat Friday at Zeeland East – and owns and operates a fitness club in Grand Rapids.

It is more for those reasons that Essenburg is known well in the west Michigan athletic community. But the times have come, every few years or so, when someone runs across his name in the MHSAA record book, or recognizes his name from the record board at Holland High.

Doing his job

“I had a job to do. I was a defensive back. My job was to make sure people didn’t get behind me,” Essenburg said this week. “I don’t think I counted (the interceptions) during the game. Not until I got the paper the next day did I think that (five) must have been right.”

When his family headed to Holland to see relatives, Kristin Callis remembers her dad asking her and her siblings if they’d like to stop by the field to see where he had his history-making moments.

“Of course we would groan and act like it would be the end of the world to make the stop. I only recall seeing the field once,” said Callis, the eldest of Essenburg’s three children. “It was really just a funny thing my Dad would say to us. He was proud yet humble when it came to his accomplishment.”

Essenburg also played baseball, basketball, and ran track at points during his high school years. After a standout tennis career with the Broncos, he became a teacher and later athletic director at Allegan High – and as a coach he started a boys tennis program that became one of the state’s elite under successor Gary Ellis.

Essenburg does most of his officiating these days for football and softball, and also has worked at the collegiate level. This spring, Essenburg received his 40-year service award from the MHSAA for his work between the lines.

“Excelling in high school sports charted the course for the rest of my Dad's life,” Callis said.

Essenburg owns Endurance Fitness in Grand Rapids. Previously, he started the Ramblewood Raquet Club in Grandville and managed the East Hills athletic club for nearly two decades. All three of his children got their first jobs at his club, and he taught them to play as many sports as they had interest. Essenburg's tennis skills no doubt passed down to Callis, who played at Hillsdale College. And, of course, the children have a pretty good idea what's happening on the football field when they were kids, Essenburg would quiz Kristin, Heidi and Ryan on football officiating signals.

History lives on

Essenburg's listing is the oldest for a defensive statistic in the MHSAA football record book. (Temperance Bedford's Tony Gill in 1990 and Concord's Zach Brigham in 2010 also grabbed five interceptions in one game to tie the record.)

But in a final ironic twist, recognition didn't come right away. Back then, a local service club sponsored a Player of the Week award for Holland's football team, with the best player each game honored the following Thursday. For the Heights game, Essenburg had to be a shoe-in.

The award that week went to a defensive lineman.

"I was just heartbroken. I said, 'What more could I do?'" Essenburg said. "But that was fine. Later in the year I got it."

“It’s a good thing I’m a referee,” he then joked. “If I was (a back judge), I might be really lenient with pass interference.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Tom Essenburg was mentioned prevalently in the Sept. 22, 1962 Holland Evening Sentinel for his five interceptions the night before against Muskegon Heights. (Middle) Later that season, the Sentinel also ran a photo of Essenburg attempting to haul in a pass. (Bottom) Essenburg has officiated in five MHSAA Football Finals, the most recent in 2004 at the Pontiac Silverdome.

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at 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.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)