By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
Twenty-five years ago, the story of Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas, was famously told in the book Friday Night Lights written by H.G. Bissinger.
The author recently reunited with various team members as he recalled the book’s silver anniversary in an article for the August 3, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated.
“It took me about 10 to 15 years of working in different groups, different places, different environments, to finally come to the conclusion that I’m not gonna have a group of coworkers and teammates like I had then,” said Jerrod McDougal, recalling his days playing high school football for the Panthers.
That same feeling is certainly shared by groups of former gridders around the state of Michigan.
A chance meeting led me to breakfast with one such group. The members of Grand Rapids Central's 1947 mythical football state champions gather at a Russ’ restaurant in Grand Rapids on a Monday each month.
Central was one of 17 football squads in the state spread across four classifications who could call themselves state champions after that season. Back in those days, the Michigan High School Athletic Association did not sponsor a football playoff, so any team with an unblemished win-loss record could lay claim to the crown. With eight wins and no losses or ties, The Hilltoppers, as they were then known, did exactly that.
Nearly 70 years later, Don Hill can recall the circumstances of all 19 points allowed by the defense that season. The team remembered its coach, Chuck Irwin, who would go on to become Grand Valley State University’s first athletic director, and the days when summer conditioning wasn't 7 on 7 camps, but rather throwing a football around an empty lot, or a city park.
When I noted that Muskegon Heights’ Tigers also laid claim to the state crown that year, I was quickly reminded that both teams had defeated Holland High that season, but that Central had vanquished the Dutchmen 14-0, while the Tigers struggled to defeat Holland 14-12.
For the record, most newspaper writers gave the nod to both Flint Central and Muskegon Heights as the best in the state that season. Orville Peterson recalled that Flint Central had beaten an undefeated but once-tied Flint Northern team to end the year. That was indeed the case, as Coach Harold Auer's Indians downed coach Guy Houston's Vikings 20-6 on Thanksgiving Day at historic Atwood Stadium.
During the Grand Rapids Central gathering, a pair of restaurant patrons, who could overhear our conversation, wandered over to the table to congratulate the teammates on their accomplishment and to share a few memories of their own covering the value of prep sports in a proper education.
Similar gatherings are quite common across the state.
Each fall, the “Leather Helmets Club,” comprised of football players from Muskegon High School gather for a catered dinner at a rental hall on the shores of Muskegon Lake.
“The 1950 season was the first year that the Big Reds moved from leather helmets to plastic,” recalled Bob Ludwig, now 87 yards old and a member of the 1944 mythical state champions. “We started the Leather Helmet about 25 years ago with 65 guys.”
Ray Carlson, who served as starting quarterback for Muskegon’s mythical state champions back in 1940, still can recall the season.
“It was the year the district installed lights at Hackley Stadium,” said Carlson. “That’s when most of the games were moved from Saturday afternoon to Friday night.”
For many years, the event was a perch fry, but as time marched steadily on, the task became too challenging for this collection of gridiron greats from Big Reds teams, as membership in the club has shrunk to 25. The group will again gather in the fall, and debate inviting members from the 1950s to the gathering to expand membership.
Sometimes, such reunions are single one-time events. In 1993, Ann Arbor High School’s team from 50 years back collected to celebrate its 1943 mythical state crown. In 2013, the 1973 Saginaw Arthur Hill team, undefeated and unscored upon over the season, gathered.
Pat Brady graduated in 1950 from Saginaw St. Andrews. For three seasons – 1948, 1949 and 1950 – the Bulldogs lay claim to mythical state titles in Class C. Over the span, the team racked up 27 straight victories.
“We had a pretty good group of kids,” said Brady recalling the days. “Frank Brogger was our coach, and he made sure we took on a good schedule. We played schools in Flint, Detroit, Saginaw, Bay City and Jackson. We played Sunday evenings at our own field. They really took care of that field. During the week, we practiced in the cinders behind the field. On Saturdays we would go through things on the field in our socks.”
Induction into the Saginaw County Hall of Fame in 2005 led to regular gatherings by team members. A group of seven and another former player from Saginaw St. Peter and Paul meets for coffee at an area McDonald’s at least twice a week.
“He was a rival back then, but we’re friends now,” added Brady, laughing. “We’ve lost a lot of the guys; we’re all in our 80s now. Still, it’s a lot of fun to get together and talk about old times and new times.”
“Whether you play in front of a crowd of 900 or 19,000, the experience of high school football is unlike any other,” noted Bissinger in Sports Illustrated, recalling something shared across state lines and across generations.
The beauty of high school competition is found in the friendships made that last a lifetime.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) A report from Pesch's wealth of documents shows most of the undefeated football teams at the end of the 1947 season. (Middle) The Grand Rapids Central group stands together after a gathering last December, from left: Tony Krenselewski, Orville Peterson, Don Hill, Bud Hall, Herb Carpenter, Gordon Osmun and Floyd Hall.
LAWRENCE — While COVID-19 affected many students in different ways, it definitely made an impact on Austin Vasquez.
As a freshman at Lawrence High School during the pandemic, Vasquez lost his grandmother Theresa Phillips to cancer on March 25, 2021.
Two days later, on March 27, his father Tom Vasquez, died of complications from COVID. And on April 19 that spring, his grandfather Darrell “Gene” Phillips also lost his fight against the coronavirus.
“There is no way (to cope). You just have to keep on moving,” Austin said. “It’s what (my dad) would want me to do.
“He was my biggest (influence) in sports. He talked to me about never giving up – leave everything you’ve got.”
That is just what Vasquez is doing in the midst of his three-sport senior year.
He is the top wrestler at the school, competing at 175 pounds with a goal of making the MHSAA Tournament. He was a versatile contributor on the football field this past fall, and he’s planning to join the baseball team this spring.
He’s 8-3 with six pins on the mat this winter after a busy summer of camps and tournaments. Those experiences helped lessen the nerves he’d felt during matches previously, and now he’s wrestling with an outlook of “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
And Vasquez said he feels his dad’s presence as he prepares for competition.
“Before every match, before every game, I just think about what my dad would be telling me,” he said. “Everything he’s always told me has taught me to get better.
“In life, I still remember everything he taught me. He was definitely a great man, and I want to be like him someday.”
Wrestling also has made Vasquez more in tune with his health.
His sophomore season he went from 230 pounds to 215, and by his junior year was down to his current 175.
“I just wanted to be healthier, not just for wrestling,” he said. “I started going to the gym every night, watched my calories, and from there grew (taller).
“Now I’m at 6-(foot-)2, and I don’t know how that happened,” he laughed.
Lawrence coach Henry Payne said Vasquez always has a positive attitude and helps the other wrestlers in the program.
“When he notices a kid next to him doing a move wrong, he’ll go over and show him the right way,” Payne said. “We have a lot of young kids that this is their first year, and he’s been a good coach’s helper.”
The coach’s helper gig will continue after graduation.
"Next year we’re hoping to open up a youth program here, and I got him and an alumni that graduated last year and is helping the varsity team this year (Conner Tangeman) to take over the youth program for us,” Payne said.
On the football team, Vasquez was a jack of all trades.
“He started at guard, went to tight end, went to our wingback, went to our running back. He was trying to get the quarterback spot,” football coach Derek Gribler laughed.
Vasquez said there is no other feeling like being on the field, especially during home games.
“Wrestling is my main sport, but I’d do anything to go back and play football again,” he said. “I just love it.”
Although the football team struggled through a 1-8 season, “It was still a really fun season,” Vasquez said. “Everybody was super close. Most of us never really talked before, but we instantly became like a family.”
Vasquez had the support of his mother, Heather, and four older sisters: Makaylah, Briahna, Ahlexis and Maryah. He also found his school family helped him get through the end of his freshman year.
“(My friends) were always there for me when everything was going on,” he said. “I took that last month off school because it was too hard to be around people at that time.
"Every single one of them reached out and said, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through a rough time.’ It really helped to hear that and get out of the house.”
The family connection between Vasquez and Lawrence athletic director John Guillean goes back to the senior’s youth.
“I was girls basketball coach, so I coached his sisters,” Guillean said. “I remember him when he was pretty young. I knew the family pretty well. I knew his dad. He was pretty supportive and was there for everything.”
Vasquez said that freshman year experience has made him appreciate every day, and he gives the following advice: “Every time you’re wrestling, it could be your last time on the mat or last time on the field. Treat every game and every match as if it’s going to be your last. If you’re committed to the sport, take every chance you have to help your team be successful.”
Gribler has known Vasquez since he was in seventh grade and, as also the school’s varsity baseball coach, will work with Vasquez one more time with the senior planning to add baseball as his spring sport.
“When we talk about Tiger Pride, Austin’s a kid that you can put his face right on the logo. His work ethic is just unbelievable,” Gribler said. “Everything he does is with a smile. He could be having the worst day of his life, and he’d still have a smile on his face. He pushes through. It’s tough to do and amazing to see.”
The coach – who also starred at Lawrence as an athlete – noted the small community’s ability to rally around Vasquez and his family. Lawrence has about 150 students in the high school.
“It goes beyond sports,” Gribler said. “Austin knows when he needs something he can always reach out and we’ll have his back, we’ll have his family’s back. It’s not so much about winning as it is about the kids.”
Vasquez is already looking ahead to life after high school. He attends morning courses at Van Buren Tech, studying welding, and returns to the high school for afternoon classes.
“I’d like to either work on the pipeline as a pipeline welder or be a lineman,” he said, adding, “possibly college. I would like to wrestle in college, but let’s see how this year goes.
“I’m ready to get out, but it’s going to be hard to leave this all behind.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence senior Andrew Vasquez, right, wrestles against Hartford this season. (2) Vasquez works on gaining the advantage in a match against Mendon. (3) From left: Lawrence wrestling coach Henry Payne, athletic director John Guillean and football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (4) Vasquez also was a standout on the football field. (Wrestling and football photos courtesy of the Lawrence athletic department. Headshots by Pam Shebest.)