Football Teams Mourn, Regroup, Remember

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

September 2, 2015

CLINTON TOWNSHIP – A rash of deaths of high school football players in Macomb County and elsewhere in the Detroit area has shaken those communities and the football programs within them.

Three football players at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley have died in the past 16 months. This past May, two players from Sterling Heights Stevenson and one from Utica Ford died in a horrific automobile crash at Stoney Creek Metro Park. Another football player at Southfield High drowned in a swimming pool shortly before the start of practice last month.

One player at Chippewa Valley died of cancer, another died from injuries suffered as the result of an accident that took place in a home and the third died Aug. 5, five days before the first official day of practice, in an all-terrain vehicle crash that took place in the northeast region of the Lower Peninsula.

Chippewa Valley coach Scott Merchant played for coach Al Fracassa at Birmingham Brother Rice and then went on to play at Albion College before becoming a coach. Merchant remains shaken by the tragic events that have befallen his program.  

In addition to the deaths of his players, two parents of former players, one only 46 years old, died during this time frame.

“They don’t give out manuals for this,” Merchant said. “It’s taken a lot out of me, personally. I don’t know. I’ve spent so much time away from my family, going to hospitals, going to funeral homes. You’re talking about young people’s lives here.

”I don’t know. I go to church. I believe in God. He has a plan. It’s hard to look a 16- or 17-year-old in their eyes and make sense of it all.”

Coaches coach, but there is so much more they are asked to do. They are expected to be mentors. They are often expected to be father figures. Sometimes they act as counselors, even if it isn’t in their job description. Perhaps most importantly they are leaders. They instruct their coaches and give them responsibilities. Players follow their directives and look to them for guidance.

On top of this, coaches are expected to be successful on the field. And a vast majority accept these responsibilities and a modest financial reward with a smile.

But when one of their players dies while still in high school, coaches must also remain emotionally strong for those who are too young to comprehend the finality.

Words of encouragement and a strong embrace can go a long way in times of trouble.

“We tell them, we’re here for you,” Merchant said. “We love you. We’re all hurting. We tell them there are two options. You can quit and be miserable. Or you can get off the ground and keep their memory alive.”

Nick Ureel was a senior at Chippewa Valley when he died of cancer in April 2014. Ureel played football his first two years but the cancer, which began in his testicles, prevented him from playing his junior and senior years.

Alex Mackmin was 16 years old when he died this May. He played on the junior varsity as a sophomore last season.

Merchant held workouts on Aug. 3 and 4 before letting his players go and enjoy the final few days before the start of practice Aug. 10. Duncan Blair, a senior who would compete for a starting position at linebacker, travelled north on vacation. He died while riding a four-wheel off-road vehicle that struck a tree.

Coincidentally the Mackmin and Blair families attended the same church in Utica. Both funerals were held at that church.

Blair’s parents rode the fan bus to Wayne State University for Chippewa Valley’s opener against Lake Orion. Rhys Blair runs the concession stand at Chippewa Valley.

The circumstances were much different for the players who died in the crash in early May in northern Macomb County – but it was no less tragic.

Jonathan Manolios and Emanuel Malaj from Stevenson and Michael Wells from Utica Ford were killed in a car crash. All three played varsity football as juniors in 2014. Two other high school students were injured in the crash and both survived. All five were 17 years old at the time of the crash.

Last season was Kevin Frederick’s first as head coach at Stevenson. He was the former head coach at Whittemore-Prescott.   

Frederick had never dealt with anything like this before.

“It was devastating,” he said. “We had a meeting with the kids at school and discussed why it happened. There were grief counselors available. I did meet with some of the parents. Some reached out and said their son wasn’t handling it well.

“We warned our kids not to go on social media after. People forget (the students) were very young. There were some very unkind things said on social media. Alcohol was involved. Their mistake cost them their lives. We tell them to think before you get into a car. Think before you take a drink.

“Scott’s circumstances were different. Kids act in a way … it costs them dearly. Some walk away and grow. This time they didn’t walk away.”

Chippewa Valley and Stevenson are members of the Macomb Area Conference Red, and the teams will play Sept. 11 at Stevenson. Both coaches say they will do something to remember those who died. 

Chippewa Valley opens its home season a week later against Warren Cousino. Merchant said his players will wear black jerseys instead of their traditional red to remember those who died.

“Football isn’t an escape,” Merchant said. “It’s a distraction. It takes your mind off of it, but it really doesn’t. We have pictures of all three (students) in our locker room. They are there to remind us.”

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 but also contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Chippewa Valley players are wearing the numbers of three deceased teammates on the backs of their helmets this season. (Middle) Coach Scott Merchant addresses his players after last week's win against Lake Orion at Wayne State University. 

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.)