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.
Kingsley football fans have become pretty familiar with VIP parking for home games over the last couple of seasons.
They may just start looking for a Kingsley VIP lot at Ford Field. The Stags just captured the MHSAA Division 6 championship trophy with a 38-24 victory over Almont, their second Finals championship and first since 2005.
The road to the Finals started with Kingsley hosting two playoff games, allowing great use of the VIP Parking of Trina’s Touchdown Club. The lot is adjacent to the school’s Rodes Field and provided in loving memory of Katrina “Trina” Kay Schueller, who passed away Oct. 21, 2021, at Munson Medical Center.
Those playoff games filling Trina’s Touchdown Club’s parking lot featured wins over Mason County Central 61-12 and Manistee 37-18, and 51-27 over Gladstone in the Regional Final. Kingsley then traveled down the road and defeated Reed City 37-7 in the Semifinal.
There may not have been designated VIP parking in Cadillac and Ford Field for the Stags’ followers, but there were a lot of VIPs at both stadiums with Schueller on their minds. Pretty much everyone with an affiliation with the highly-successful program or familiarity with the community’s struggles have become VIPs to the Kingsley coaching staff and many others.
Most certainly among the VIPs are head coach Tim Wooer, assistant coach Conner Schueller, his brother Carter Schueller, and his father Mike Schueller.
Conner was set to play the biggest regular-season game of his career the day after his mom passed. It was the regular-season finale against rival Traverse City St. Francis.
Wooer vividly remembers the moments leading up to that matchup, noting how difficult it was for Conner. But his then-fullback and now-assistant coach demonstrated amazing strength and maturity he stills exhibits today.
“He’s in his senior football season, and his mom is in the hospital for four weeks — he’s balancing that playing football and going to school,” Wooer recalled. “And then she passes, and he has the strength to come back to school and deliver the news to our team.
“I am sobbing watching this kid, and I’m just amazed,” Wooer continued. “The next night is Parents Night, and he’s on the field with his dad and brother without his mom.”
Conner still played, making a 4th-down goal line tackle to prevent a St. Francis touchdown. The Gladiators won the game, but Conner won the day, conquering much just to dress for the game.
The Stags went on to playoff wins over Kingsford 28-10 and Clare 32-6. They bowed out with a 33-18 Regional loss to Frankenmuth.
Conner’s junior year of 2020 had been cut short as the Kingsley was forced to forfeit its District Final to Reed City because several players and coaching staff tested positive for COVID-19. The Stags had Ford Field in their minds that season too after playoff wins over 38-13 Standish-Sterling 38-13 and Gladwin 63-16.
Conner, who celebrated his 20th birthday at Saturday’s Final, remembers his playing days and the challenges presented him.
“At the time it was ‘she’s not there,’ especially my senior year she wasn’t there to watch me and finish it out, but I know she’s watching above,” he said. “We were about to go play Reed City my junior year for Regionals, and everyone got sick and it ended our season unfortunately.”
Those challenges were on his mind at Ford Field, and running through his mind when he saw his brother and father in the stands. Carter, now a senior at Kingsley, had been unable to play football due to injuries.
“I thought about my brother – he unfortunately didn’t play this year due to his injuries, and I don’t really blame him for that,” Conner said. “I thought about him as well because it was just me and my dad and my brother now.
“It was very emotional,” Conner continued. “I got a glimpse of him in the strands.”
Carter also was filled with gratitude for the coaching staff for welcoming and mentoring him. He had become keenly aware of the amount of time coaches spend away from family at practices and going through film.
In addition to his family, Conner was thinking about many others in the Kingsley community – and other senior classes like his that didn’t get the chance to celebrate a championship.
He also was thinking about Justin Hansen, a 2003 graduate of Kingsley. Hansen was a captain on the 2002 conference championship team. He went on to become a special-operations Marine sergeant and was killed in action July 24, 2012, while deployed in Afghanistan. Hansen was on patrol as part of an operation in search of a high-value target when his team was hit with small arms fire.
On Saturday, Wooer was wearing a red T-shirt with the letters “USA” on the front and the name “Hansen” on the back. It also featured the number 54, Hansen’s in high school.
Wooer, who turned 54 in July, wore the shirt in Hansen’s memory knowing Hansen would be on the veteran coach’s mind and symbolizing Hansen’s presence with the team at Ford Field.
Wooer wants to make sure Hanson is never forgotten and reminds the soldier’s family the entire community remains behind them.
“I believe it is part of our job as a community to show our love to this family and help in any way possible to help them get through this process,” Wooers said. “After the funeral, we all went about life.
“We certainly still think about Justin and feel the pain,” he continued. “But nothing like a family does.”
Hansen’s tragic passing led to the creation of the annual Patriot Game in Traverse City in 2012 while Wooer was coaching Traverse City West. The game features crosstown rivals West and Traverse City Central every year and strives to honor veterans, first responders, active duty military, and area heroes who died while serving their country.
Saturday’s win over Almont left Wooer emotionally exhausted after all the preparations to do it right for the senior class, the school, the Kingsley community, the Schueller family and Hansen. Collectively, they’ve really become more like a family to the Stags coaching staff and many, many others.
“In terms of emotions, there is no doubt Justin was on my mind throughout the game,” Wooer said. “Trina and Conner have been – those are two huge pieces.
“And, a lot of my thoughts are with the seniors,” he continued. “You want to win the game, but also it is your last time with them.”
Wooer has learned a lot from his former players and coaches over the years. He’s become close friends with many of them, going back to his early days of coaching as a student-teacher at Elk Rapids. He also coached at Farewell and Traverse City West, the latter from 2008-2017 after a first tenure at Kingsley. He returned to Kingsley in 2018.
Schueller is among several former players and coaches who have been on Wooer’s coaching staffs over the years. Several continue today.
“I could give you lots of other stories about kids I have had,” Wooer said. “There comes this transition where they turn into such amazing men, you catch yourself every once in a while saying, ‘I want to be like him.’
“You get this huge smile on your face because you’re so proud of them, just like a mother or father would,” Wooer continued. “A coach always looks at his players like they’re part of his family.”
In addition to Conner, current assistants with long-term relationships with Wooer are Tom Kaleita, Kyle Smith, Ryan Zenner, Dan Goethals, Josh Merchant, Jordan Bradford, Steve Klinge, Connor Schueller, Mike Arlt, Larry Mikowski, Bobby Howell, Rob Whims and Jason Morrow.
This year’s seniors were Jon Pearson, Eli Graves, Skylar Workman, Gavyn Merchant, Max Goethals, Evan Trafford, Bode Bielas, Grant Kolbusz, James Person, Caleb Bott, Trenton Peacock, Noah Scribner and Gavin Dear. They and the coaching staff will be the center of attention as the community celebrates the football team at 7 p.m. this evening in the high school gymnasium.
The seniors probably won’t need VIP parking tonight. But if it would help, Conner would surely make arrangements to utilize Trina’s Touchdown Club. He’d have to add a shuttle though as Rodes Field is about a mile away from the school.
“It feels amazing — I don’t think it really hit any one yet, but I am sure it will,” Conner said. “After we won, it is truly something – it is something else I can’t explain.
“The seniors finally won it the way they were supposed to,” he continued. “It was a good class of seniors.”
Tom 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 [email protected] 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) Kingsley students support their classmates during Saturday’s Division 6 Final at Ford Field. (2) Stags assistant coach Conner Schueller watches from the sideline during an Almont run back. (3) Kingsley coach Tim Wooer, in red, prepares to present the championship trophy to his team including Schueller, far right. (4) Trina’s Touchdown Club welcomes members to the VIP lot adjacent to the Kingsley stadium. (Ford Field photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos; touchdown club photo courtesy of the Kingsley football program.)