By Tim Robinson
Special for Second Half
If you got the impression that John Dukes has been around Howell football forever, you wouldn’t be far off.
His association with the program began before high school.
“When I was a kid, I used to live near Page Field (Howell’s former athletic complex), and I would go out and watch football practice,” Dukes said. “I was at practice all the time, and the coach said, ‘If you’re going to be here all the time, you may as well get some water for the boys while they’re practicing.’”
That was in 1963, when the Highlanders went 9-0.
A little more than 55 years later, Dukes will be honored tonight when the field at Howell’s Memorial Stadium will be named John Dukes Field.
Howell football coach Aaron Metz began the drive to name the field after Dukes when it was determined the old turf, installed in 2004, needed to be replaced.
“We have a commitment award named for John,” he said. “If you play football for four years, you get the John Dukes Commitment Award. We put a committee together with people who have been around Howell for a long time, and when you ask anybody, they say there’s not a person more deserving than John Dukes.
“So I ran it up the ladder to the athletic director and superintendent, and, to be honest, it was a pretty easy process because no one could find anything bad about John,” Metz added. “We’re excited to have the opportunity to do it.”
Dukes was a three-year varsity player at Howell and then played at Alma College, where his teams won three league championships.
With the exception of six years at Hartland coaching under his son, Marcus, John Dukes has been affiliated with Howell football for 46 years, including 25 as the head coach.
After graduating from Alma in 1972, Dukes got a teaching job at Howell and was an assistant freshman coach for a season and a varsity assistant for two before taking over as head coach at age 25.
“My philosophy at the time was I wanted to help the kids enjoy playing football and help them to be successful at it,” he recalled. “The previous three years our record wasn’t very good. That was one of my objectives, was to make it fun.”
He then talked about his first season with a little self-deprecation, a common thread in most conversations with Dukes.
“I remember my first game,” he said. “Because I played defense in college (Dukes was a linebacker), I thought we were going to be a really good defensive team. We played Fenton in my first game, and we lost 32-19, so my defensive prowess wasn’t good at the time.”
The Highlanders lost six of their first seven games that season, but won the last two and went 8-1 three seasons later.
In all, Howell had winning records in 15 of his 25 seasons, but one group of players stood out for an entirely different reason.
“We had a period of time (1989 and 1990) where we weren’t very good, and we lost 17 games in a row,” he said. “But those kids were wonderful kids to coach. They came to practice with energy all the time, and from a coaching standpoint, it was wonderful to coach them during the week. Now, Fridays were a different story, because we didn’t play very well on Fridays, ever.
“But the real thing that stands out with that group was the very last game of their senior year we beat (Waterford Kettering), and you’d have thought we’d won the Super Bowl,” Dukes continued. “Those kids who were seniors, that was their first football victory in high school. It was an amazing time. We had several teams with good players, and I really enjoyed coaching them, too, and I don’t want to leave them out. But that really stood out in my mind, in that they came out to work every day.
“Over a period of time of losing that many games, sometimes, it’s not fun and it’s not fun for them or the coaches. But we had a very enjoyable time over that two-year period, regardless of the fact we didn’t win any games.”
His perspective is consistent with the principles by which he ran his program.
“These weren’t original to me,” he says, “but the three things I always told our kids was your faith should be your number one priority, your family should be your number two priority. Football, when school hadn’t started, should be number three. And when school started, school became three and football became number four. We tried to base everything we did on these priorities in our lives. Sometimes those things cross over and mix and match. When they do, then you have to step back and say what is really important here?”
Dukes resigned after the 1999 season.
“There were a lot of things and I don’t know if anything in particular,” he said of his decision. “I had been doing it for 25 years, and we had a string of years where we were 6-3. So we were OK, but I felt it was time to be done with it.”
His self-imposed exile lasted one season. He had a couple of stints as an assistant coach when he finally decided to retire for good in 2006.
“No sooner had I done that, my son (Marcus) called me up and said he just got the Hartland job,” Dukes recalled. “He said, ‘Dad, you have to come here and help.’ So I went there for six years. Then he resigned, and I thought I was going to be done again.”
After another stint as a Howell assistant, John Dukes took the last two years off before agreeing to rejoin the program as a junior varsity assistant this season, as the offensive coordinator.
As it turns out, one grandson, Jackson Dukes, plays on the Howell JV, and John Dukes also is helping coach another grandson, Colin Lassey, on his junior football team.
“When Jackson gets home, I ask him, ‘Did you get yelled at by Grandpa today?” Josh Dukes says. “And when he says yes, I say, ‘Good. You should be getting yelled at.’ So nothing has changed in the 30 years since high school.”
Josh Dukes, the oldest of John Dukes’ three children, joined Marcus in playing football for their father.
“There was never an expectation that we had to be this or that,” Josh Dukes said of himself, his brother and sister, Carrie. “Now maybe he was a little harder on me, but that’s something we were thankful for. I’d rather him be harder on me than any kid on the field, because then the other kids left me alone. They knew it was the same for everyone across the board. He wasn’t going to take it easy on me, my brother or my sister.”
John Dukes coached his daughter, Carrie, when she played middle school basketball.
“The first time he coached me, he came home to my mom and said, ‘I don’t know how people do this,’” she recalled. “‘They’re all crying, half of them don’t think I like them. I don’t know how to do this with girls. It’s a totally different ballgame.’ But he was a great coach. I know some people don’t like their parents coaching them, but I loved having him coach.”
Like her brothers, Carrie Lassey stayed involved with sports. She is now the athletic director at St. Joseph Catholic School in Howell.
“He coached my freshman team a couple of years ago,” she said. “It was third and fourth-grade girls. It’s amazing. He can coach pretty much anybody.”
Indeed, Dukes also coached baseball and wrestling at the varsity level at Howell, and, for a couple of weeks, filled in as a competitive cheer coach when the Highlanders had a temporary vacancy.
“I was more a supervisor,” he said, but serving that role illustrated his commitment to the athletic program as a whole. He was needed, and he stepped in.
Having stopped and started his career so many times, Dukes, now 68, laughs when asked about what he will do when he retires in the distant future.
“I’m sure he’ll be coaching when he’s in his 90s. Maybe triple digits,” jokes Bill Murray, the former Brighton coach who matched up with Dukes’ teams during the second half of Dukes’ Howell tenure. “The guy loves the game, he’s out there and he has a lot to offer. His teams were always well-prepared, they played great defense, were fundamentally sound and when you went nose-to-nose, they were consistent as to what they were going to do. It was a matter of whether you could stop them or not.”
Dukes still keeps up with the Howell varsity, still offers advice when asked, and still enjoys the competition.
“For me, as a head coach, it’s great having a coach (on staff) who has been there and done it to talk to and mentor, even me,” Metz said. “What makes a successful coach, I don’t think, changes, whether it’s been 50 or 100 years ago to the current day. He steered the ship to have an outstanding record (130-95) and also have a huge impact on kids in our community.”
“When people talk to me about my dad, they say he was a dad to them, or like a second dad,” Josh Dukes added. “Or, ‘I wanted to be a teacher because of him.’ These are the things that for us,” referring to his siblings, “is the most impressive part. The kids of players he’s coached, or the grandkids.”
Dukes has the unusual distinction of having coached more congressmen (Mike Rogers and Mark Schauer, who started on the offensive line for Dukes in the late 1970s) than pro football players (Jon Mack, who played for the Michigan Panthers of the USFL in 1984).
John Dukes will give a short speech before tonight’s ceremony, which will take place before Howell’s home opener against Plymouth.
“They’ve given me five minutes, but it will probably be shorter because they want to get the game started on time,” he joked.
“It’s an incredible honor,” Josh Dukes said. “Everyone in our family feels the same way. I don’t think he ever went into this with any intentions of being singled out. It’s a great lesson for our community and our athletes, to see what hard work and effort and care for your community can do, you know?”
During the ceremony, the letters “John Dukes Field,” which were sewn into the artificial turf in Howell’s Vegas Gold, will be unveiled.
“Aaron showed it to me last week when they were putting it in,” John Dukes said, then joked, “I thought (the lettering) was going to be a little trademark sign (sized), and my goodness, it’s bigger than the numbers. It’s a little bit ostentatious for me, I think; wow, that’s quite a tribute. I’m very humbled by it and honored by it and very appreciative of what people have done to make this happen.”
A few days later, Dukes posed for a picture next to his name on the field and chatted with a reporter as they left the stadium.
Then, he turned a corner to the JV football office and kept walking.
Before he became a living legend, John Dukes was a football coach, and there’s a game coming up and his team to prepare.
PHOTOS: (Top) Howell coach John Dukes celebrates his team’s 38-0 playoff victory over Wayne Memorial in 1992. (Middle) Dukes, during the 1991 season. (Below) Dukes stands next to the lettering that will be unveiled Thursday when the school’s field is named in his honor. (Photos taken or collected by Tim Robinson.)
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.)