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 [email protected] 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. 

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.)