Five for 50: Record Remains Golden

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

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.

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.)