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.)

Lawrence's Schuman Sets Example for Well-Rounded Success

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

December 14, 2022

LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.

Southwest Corridor“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.

John GuilleanGuillean 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.”

Great anticipation

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.

Derek GriblerGribler 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 ShebestPam 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 pamkzoo@aol.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.)