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.
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)