A Hero Comes Home to Vassar

October 17, 2012

By Alex Leveille and Tyler Langley
Vassar High School seniors

(Editor's note: Nothing short of incredible describes the story of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills. He is continuing a successful recovery from losing all four limbs after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in April during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. His story turned a national spotlight on Vassar, a town of 2,700 people located in Michigan's thumb. Mills was an athletic standout for the Vulcans before graduating in 2005, and returned for Homecoming earlier this month. Vassar seniors Alex Leveille and Tyler Langley give us the story and explain its impact from a student point of view.)

Homecoming is about many things to high school students. But this year it got a whole lot bigger when word got out that Travis Mills, paratrooper of the 82nd Airborne, was coming home.

When the students at Vassar learned that Travis was coming back for Homecoming, everyone was excited to see him. A couple of students said they were really happy they would finally be able to meet the hero they heard all about.

“Seeing and meeting Travis was a really neat experience for me personally, so I can only imagine the effect he had on the community," said Vassar football player Brik Rupprecht, one of the team captains this fall. "When Travis showed up, you could really feel the positive energy coming from the crowd, supporting him, and the positive attitude Travis brought with him. When it came to the game, we just gave it our best for him. He told us he wanted to see a win, and that’s what we gave him. (Vassar defeated Unionville-Sebewaing that night 22-16.)”

Many things were changed to accommodate Travis’s homecoming. The Homecoming parade, of which Travis was the grand marshal, was moved to Thursday, Oct. 4 instead of Friday before the game. It was followed by a bonfire at which Travis spoke to a crowd of more than 3,000 people, thanking them for everything they have done for him and his family.

On that Friday, the day’s events included a block party sponsored by many local businesses plus Pepsi and Frito-Lay. This was a chance for the community to come together to celebrate Vassar’s Homecoming, as well as welcome Travis home. The pregame festivities included a ceremony to thank all of the area’s veterans, including Travis.

Travis then took center stage before the game to again express his sincere thanks for the community’s love and support throughout his recovery. The community continued that support with various gifts to Travis and his family to further show their love for them.

He then led a special coin toss during which both Vassar and Unionville-Sebewaing players lined up intermixed on both 45 yard-lines to show their united support for Travis. He also spoke to the Vassar team before the game, encouraging them to "play every down like it’s your last, because you never know when it’s going to be your last.”  

With Travis coming back to Vassar, our town was put in the spotlight of national news, which was something new to almost all of the students in Vassar. They all had different opinions about it too. Some didn’t like the thought of being in the eye of the country, but others did. Draven Muller, a sophomore and junior varsity football player, said it was a cool thought to be recognized nationally as a town and to be associated with a hero like Travis.

Jim Baker, a former paratrooper himself and teacher at Vassar High School, said, “Travis Mills is a true representative of what a paratrooper is all about. He makes me proud that I was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division.”

Vassar Chief of Police Ben Guile said he remembers Travis when he was in high school. “Only a person like Travis would have been able to survive something like this, and be as positive as he is," Guile said. "He is very charismatic, and him coming back home to thank the community is one of the best things he could have done. This town loves him, and I never have felt any more positive energy at a parade than the one that Travis led.”

Travis came back the following Friday, Oct. 12, to speak to the students at Vassar High School. Travis, being the upbeat guy he is, kept the crowd awake and laughing the entire assembly, cracking jokes and telling the crowd about his experiences in the Afghanistan war.

He also offered advice on high school and college experiences and talked about his plans after getting out of Walter Reed Medical Center, where he's undergoing occupational therapy.

As he put it, “Hopefully the Army will want me back after I’m done at Walter Reed. I might not be able to do all of the physical stuff anymore, but I still have everything they taught me in my head.”

He also plans to go back to college and get a degree in teaching, and hopefully become a teacher and a football coach some day.

Having Travis home was great for the community and the area. He is an all-around great guy and can uplift anyone’s spirits.

Click on links below for Mills' web site and some of the national coverage of his recovery and return home.

TravisMills.org - Fox News - USA Today - Detroit News - Saginaw News

PHOTOS: (Top) Travis Mills served as the grand marshal of Vassar's Homecoming parade Oct. 5. (Middle) Mills returned to his former high school Friday to tell students about his experiences in Afghanistan. (Top photo by Vassar High senior Sarah McKenney; middle photo by English and journalism teacher Jamie Strauss.)

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)