Terrieon Robertson had a choice to make this spring. The Burton Atherton senior could leave his school for an opportunity to play football elsewhere, or he could stay and risk the chance that Atherton’s low numbers would lead to a cancellation of his final season.
After meeting with new Atherton coach Randy Young, that decision was easy.
“I was planning on leaving toward the end of my junior year, because I didn’t know if football was going to be a thing,” said Robertson, who noted that he didn’t want to leave. “In my head I was like, ‘We’re not going to have enough kids.’ I was working out and getting better, and I planned on transferring. (Young) came in and he graduated from Atherton, he was like ‘Everything is going to be different and better, just trust me.’ I did, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Robertson was one of just four players who planned to play football when Young took over the program in June. That number doubled through the summer, and eventually the Wolverines were able to get to 11 players for their first game of the season against Kinde North Huron.
Now, after a 2-1 start, the locker room is overflowing.
“We’re actually out of helmets and uniforms for the kids,” Young said. “I can’t sustain any more new kids.”
Football success has been scarce at Atherton, with the program winning just two games over the previous four seasons. The program has one playoff appearance (2014) and seven winning seasons during the playoff era (since 1975). Young was part of one of those winning seasons during his junior year in 1987.
“I’ve forever followed Atherton," Young said. "Since I graduated, I’ve always kept up with them. It was disheartening to see my school falling by the wayside. My senior year, we were 2-7 and we lost our JV program. It kind of fell down from there.”
Despite that, Young jumped at the chance to take a job at his alma mater.
“The chance to go back to your high school and possibly change it around – I'm blessed to be back there,” he said. “It felt like with me and my staff, we were up for the task. I’ve worked with most everybody on my staff before. We mesh well. Even through the summer, ever since I left Bentley (as an assistant), we’ve been working toward something like this. We were confident in the work we were going to put in.”
Young’s excitement did not reflect the situation he was entering. As wins dried up and numbers dropped, Atherton moved to 8-player football in 2019, despite having more than 215 students enrolled and hence not being eligible for the postseason. (Only schools with 215 or fewer can qualify for the 8-player playoffs, and Atherton’s count is 254.) That year, the Wolverines were 1-8, and in 2020, they started 0-2 before forfeiting their final two games and ending the season early.
“Oh my goodness, the image has been terrible,” senior Tra’Jen Adams said. “I had a terrible image of it before I even went there. When people play Atherton, they knew it was going to be an easy win. Even before this season, there were so many jokes around Flint. Now, it’s quieted down a little bit, but it’s still there.”
Before changing minds in the area, Young and his players had to change minds in the school. That included Adams, a basketball player the Atherton staff recruited out of their own gym. Like many of the athletes in the school, Adams was also contacted by Robertson, who himself had turned into a recruiter.
“Every single kid that I knew wanted to play or looked like they could play, I contacted them,” Robertson said. “Probably 80 percent of kids on the team right now got a text from me to come out for the team. Some people were like, ‘OK, we’re on the way.’ Most kids didn’t even know football was happening. Some kids were still against Atherton saying that Atherton isn’t good and we shouldn’t play. Once we won the first game, more kids came out. We won the second game, and more kids came out.”
The Wolverines lost their opener against North Huron but impressed their coach and opened some eyes by playing tough against the returning Division 2 semifinalist in the 30-20 defeat.
Atherton has rolled in its past two games, defeating International Academy of Flint 44-18 and New Haven Merritt Academy 49-14. As the team racks up wins, the players are putting up huge numbers.
Junior receiver and running back Romiel Clausell is averaging 16.8 yards per touch (386 yards on the ground, 134 receiving) and has seven touchdowns. Robertson has hauled in 12 catches for 143 yards and three touchdowns, and sophomore quarterback Demontrey Davis is 18 of 27 passing for 297 yards and six touchdowns, and has rushed for 215 yards and four scores.
Defensively, the Wolverines are causing plenty of havoc, led by Adams’ seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Clausell (six TFL) and Te’Shawn Stevenson (five TFL) have chipped in as well.
“Every day (they surprise me),” Young said. “Not because they’re not talented, but they’ve grown up. They’ve grown up so much before our eyes. It’s almost like having a child and having them outdo what your expectations for them are. I’m surprised, and every day there’s something new that brings a smile to my face.”
They’re also surprising their classmates and creating an excitement around the program that hasn’t been present for a long time.
“People were really doubting us at first all over social media,” Clausell said. “After our first three games, I haven’t heard anybody talk since. We love to see it, and we hope we can continue it.”
With no postseason available to them, the Wolverines have different goals than most. They play in the North Central Thumb League Stars division, so a league title is a possibility. Of course, to do that, they would need to overcome 8-player powerhouses Morrice and Deckerville, who have each won a Finals title.
But games against that type of competition do give Atherton a chance to prove how far they’ve come.
“We have a lot to prove,” Young said. “We want to prove that we’re worthy of being in a playoff situation. We want to show everybody that we’re not the Atherton you think we are. We’re going to play with something to prove.”
A longterm goal is to get the program back into 11-player football and postseason eligible. Young said that’s probably a couple years away, but with the early success and growth in participation among his underclassmen, that feels attainable.
While Robertson and his classmates won’t be around to experience that, they’ll certainly be remembered as the ones who made it happen.
“Me knowing that I’m a part of that – in 20 years when they say, ‘In 2021, that class, they were the game-changers,” Robertson said. “I’ll keep it as an achievement in my life.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Atherton quarterback Demontrey Davis readies for the snap during this season’s win over New Haven Merritt Academy. (Middle) Davis makes a move as a defender approaches. (Below) Terrieon Robertson (6) and Romiel Clausell (10) enjoy a celebratory shoulder bump. (Photos by Mandi Withey.)
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“We don’t want to lose this kid ever,” said Derek Gribler, the Tigers’ first-year varsity football and baseball coach.
“If we could put a red shirt on this kid every year, we would.”
Athletic director John Guillean, who also coaches varsity basketball, agreed.
“He is what we strive to have all our student-athletes achieve: high GPAs, multi-sport athletes, good, overall well-rounded human beings,” Guillean said.
Schuman has participated in five of the seven boys sports Lawrence sponsors.
As a freshman and sophomore, Schuman played football, wrestled, ran track and played baseball.
He had wrestled since he was 4, and went from the 119-pound weight class as a freshman to 145 the following year. That sophomore season he qualified for his Individual Regional. But as a junior, he traded wrestling for basketball.
“My older brother wrestled at Lawrence, so I would come to practices,” he said. “I quit for a couple years (in middle school) because I liked basketball, too. It was hard to do both. Obviously, in high school, I still struggled with choosing,” he added, laughing.
Guillean is thrilled Schuman made the switch.
“He’s 6-(foot-)4, he’s super athletic, defensively he’s a hawk, offensively he can put the ball in the bucket. But really, aside from his skills, just that positive attitude and that positive outlook, not just in a game, but in life in general, is invaluable,” the coach said.
Last season, Schuman earned honorable mention all-league honors in the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, averaging 9.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Lawrence left the BCS for the Southwest 10 Conference this year, joining Bangor, Bloomingdale, Hartford, Decatur, Comstock, Marcellus, Mendon, Centreville, White Pigeon and Cassopolis. Schuman and senior Tim Coombs will co-captain the Tigers, with Guillean rotating in a third captain.
At a school of fewer than 200 students, Schuman will help lead a varsity team with just nine – joined by seniors Andy Bowen and Gabe Gonzalez, juniors Christian Smith, Noel Saldana, Ben McCaw and Zander Payment, and sophomore Jose Hernandez, who will see time with the junior varsity as well using the fifth-quarter rule.
“I attribute a lot of (last year’s successful transition) to my coach, helping me get ready because it wasn’t so pretty,” the senior said. “But we got into it, got going, and my teammates helped me out a lot.”
Gribler is one coach already looking ahead to spring sports after seeing what Schuman did during football season.
In spite of missing 2½ games with an injury, the wide receiver caught 50 receptions for 870 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I just like the ability to run free, get to hit people, let out some anger,” Schuman laughed.
Gribler said the senior is “an insane athlete.
“On top of his athletic ability, how smart he is in the classroom (3.88 GPA), he helped mold the culture we wanted this year for football. He got our underclassmen the way we wanted them. He was a big asset in many ways.”
Schuman earned all-conference honors for his on-field performance in football as well.
“I would say that my main sport is football,” the senior said. “That’s the one I like the most, spend the most time on.”
In the spring, Schuman competed in both track and baseball, earning all-conference honors in both.
“Doing both is tough,” he said. “I have to say my coaches make it a lot easier for me. They help me a lot and give me the ability to do both, so I really appreciate that.
“Throughout the week you’re traveling every day, it seems like. Baseball twice a week and track, but it’s worth it.”
Schuman’s commitment is so strong that he made a special effort not to let his teammates down last spring.
“He qualified for state in the long jump and did his jumps up in Grand Rapids, then he drove all the way to Kalamazoo to play in the District baseball game,” Guillean said. “That speaks volumes about who this kid is. He did his jumps at 9 a.m. (but did not advance) and made it back to Kalamazoo for a 12:15 game.”
Big shoes to fill
As the youngest of four children of Mark and Gretchen Schuman, the senior was following a family tradition in sports.
Oldest brother Matthew played football, basketball and baseball as well as competed in pole vault and wrestling.
Middle bother Christopher competed in football, wrestling and baseball.
Sister Stephanie played basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I like to say they blazed a pretty good trail for me at this high school,” Schuman said.
As for feeling pressure to live up to his siblings, “I used to when I was younger, but now I feel like I’ve made my own way and done enough things to be proud of that I’m happy with it.”
His own way led him to achieve something none of the others did.
He was named the Tigers’ Male Athlete of the Year, just the third junior to earn the boys honor over the last 25 years.
“I was very honored to win that as a junior,” Schuman said. “There were good athletes in the grade above me. I guess hard work pays off.”
Guillean said while Schuman is “darn good at every sport here,” an athlete does not have to be a “top dog” in every sport.
“Learn how to take a back seat,” he said. “Learn how to be a role player. That will make you a better teammate and a well-rounded human being.
“Johnny has that work ethic, in the classroom, on the field, on the court, on the track. It doesn’t go unnoticed and, obviously, he’s reaping the benefits now.”
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@example.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Lawrence’s John Schuman has participated in five varsity sports during his first 3½ years of high school. (Middle) Lawrence athletic director John Guillean. (Below) Lawrence football and baseball coach Derek Gribler. (Action photos courtesy of John Schuman; head shots by Pam Shebest.)