ADRIAN – As the final seconds ticked off the clock in the 2019 Division 8 Regional Football Final at Reading, Adrian Lenawee Christian assistant coach Jon Willett started looking for his wife.
Reading would be going on to play the next week, while the LCS’s season was over. Willett desperately needed oxygen. He could barely breath.
Hillary Willett, Jon’s wife, pulled the car as close to the Reading field as she could, and Jon opened the door.
“I got in the car and sat down,” Willett said. “And I looked at her and I said, ‘I just coached my last game.’”
As miracles go, Willett was wrong. Less than two months after that football game that Willett thought was his last, he underwent a double lung transplant at the University of Michigan Hospital. He still doesn’t know how he survived so long, but is certain there was divine intervention.
“I’ve always had a close relationship with Jesus Christ,” Willett said. “And I’ve always been passionate about football. I always thought that if I survived, I would use football as a tool to reach younger people. I’m doing that today.”
Willett helped coach the Cougars to last season’s 8-Player Division 1 championship and is back on the sidelines this season, coaching the Cougars JV team and continuing to serve as an assistant with the varsity.
He even gets in on some drills now and then, such as doing push-ups with the quarterbacks.
“Jon has been with me for seven or eight years,” LCS varsity head coach Bill Wilharms said. “He’s a great man and a great football coach. The kids love having him around, and he loves them. I love coaching with him, and he’s a big part of our coaching family.”
Willett grew up in Sand Creek, about 10 minutes south of Adrian in Lenawee County. He played on some outstanding Aggies football teams for Hall of Fame coach Ernie Ayers. Willett led the 1990 Aggies in rushing, finishing just shy of 1,000 yards his senior season.
He got into coaching when his sons, Noah and Isaiah, began playing flag football.
“I coached them in flag football, then in Pop Warner,” Willett said. “I love coaching football. When Noah was in middle school I coached him one year, then became an assistant for the varsity.”
Wilharms tabbed Willett to be the JV head coach, a position he’s held for the last couple of years. He also coaches varsity wide receivers and defensive backs and will assist the LCS scout team quarterbacks at practice. He jumps in whenever needed.
Sometimes, it’s as a motivational speaker.
“I share my testimony whenever possible,” Willett said. “I tell my players that life is short. You never know how long you are going to have. You truly don’t. You have to live your life to the fullest.”
Willett first was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – chronic, progressive lung disease – in April 2017 when he visited the doctor due to a constant cough and shortness of breath. The prognosis was not good.
“The doctor said at that point I had 65-percent capacity of my lungs,” he said. “They gave me three to five years unless I could get a double lung transplant. They said that would be the only option and that there was no cure.”
Willett believed the doctors, of course, but admits he wasn’t the best patient.
“I figured if I could make it 10 years, my kids would be out of school,” he said.
The disease had other ideas. While he was put on oxygen due to shortness of breath, his LCS football players had no idea.
“I never did it in front of them,” he said. “I should have. I wasn’t a very good patient. I was wanting to be with the team. I wanted to coach.”
In July 2019, he noticed a big change.
“My lung capacity had dropped,” he said.
He continued to coach. He had some doctors’ appointments here and there but remained coaching the entire season.
“It was a mental thing,” he said. “I wanted to get through the season.”
He rode the bus to the LCS-Reading game. When the game was over, he told Wilharms that he had to go home.
“I told Coach Wilharms that I was just getting in the car with my wife,” he said. “She pulled the car up to the gate because it was so hard to walk. I couldn’t get air because of not having oxygen.”
When he told his wife that he thought he would never coach again, she said no.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘(You’ve coached your last game) with those lungs.’”
By Christmas of 2019, Willett had been in and out of the hospital on numerous occasions. He was on oxygen tanks around the clock. He went home at Christmas, believing it was his last.
“I said I want to go home. I think it’s my last Christmas. I wanted to be with my family,” he recalled.
When he returned to the hospital after Christmas, his son Noah sat in the backseat during the car ride changing out oxygen tanks every few minutes just to keep his father alive. Willett’s oxygen levels were dangerously low.
“When I got to U-M, there was a whole team of people waiting for me. They worked on me and sent me up to ICU. It was bleak,” he said.
The LCS community sent out word via social media to pray for Coach Willett, his wife, two sons and two daughters, Emily and Abigail. Willett said those prayers were answered.
Willett was told by doctors he had to have a double lung transplant within 24 hours, or he would die. Seven hours and 13 minutes later, the doctor walked in, with tears in his eyes, and told the family they found a match.
Willett is feeling better now. In February of this year, about a month after Willett watched from the sidelines as LCS won the championship in Brighton, the medications he had been on took hold and he began to improve.
When the season started this summer, Willett was no doubt going to be part of the Cougars staff.
“Everything is very stable right now,” he said. “My lungs keep getting better. I can tell at football practice, walking from end zone to end zone, I’m feeling better. I’m building up. That exercise helps.”
Some day he plans on reaching out to the family of the person who donated lungs to him. For now, he’s grateful to be alive and thankful for every moment he gets to spend coaching football.
“I’m feeling great and loving the opportunity I have to keep coaching and be with the kids,” Willett said. “The story I get to share with my players is truly a miracle. God took me to the point where it was 100 percent out of my control.
“If I can use football as a tool to keep talking to the youth and help them become better men, I’m going to do that. Football is what drives me.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lenawee Christian head varsity coach Bill Wilharms (holding football) gives assistant Jon Willett a hug after last season’s 8-Player Division 1 Final win. (Middle) Willett returned to the sideline a year after a double lung transplant. (Below) Willett serves as junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant. (Photos by Jeff Jameson/Lenawee Christian Schools.)
We have our first league champions of the 2023 football season, and setups for several deciding matchups to come over the next week or two.
Explanations of many of those make up most of our “Week 6 Review” – but with playoff selection now just three weeks away, you’ll notice our attention has become focused as well on those races for the 32 qualifying spots in our MHSAA 11-player divisions and top 16s that make the 8-player brackets.
The state rankings mentioned frequently below are Michigan High School Football Coaches Association polls. The playoff-point averages are tracked by the MHSAA and used to determine the postseason fields – and discussion of movement on those lists will be prevalent through the rest of the regular season.
Bay & Thumb
HEADLINER Almont 30, Croswell-Lexington 20 Almont set itself up to clinch a share of the Blue Water Area Conference title this week or next by moving into first place alone in this matchup of co-leaders heading into the weekend. The Division 6 No. 2 Raiders (6-0) also tied their win totals of both of the last two seasons as they made another move toward potentially their best finish since 2019. Croswell-Lexington (5-1), No. 8 in Division 4, will be rooting for Richmond this week and Yale next to deal Almont a loss that would set up a possible shared league title. Click for more from the Port Huron Times Herald.
— WXYZ Detroit (@wxyzdetroit) September 30, 2023
Watch list Fenton 40, Linden 32 After sharing the Flint Metro League Stripes title with Linden and Swartz Creek last season, Fenton (5-1) clinched a share of this season’s championship and left Linden (4-2) holding out hope for a share if Flushing can upset the Tigers this week.
On the move Chesaning 28, Ovid-Elsie 19 Chesaning (5-1) can clinch a share of the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference title this week or next after stopping Ovid-Elsie (3-3) in its attempt to reset the standings. Marine City 36, Madison Heights Lamphere 13 Marine City (5-1) clinched a share of the Macomb Area Conference Silver championship with one more league game to play, sending Lamphere to 4-2. Grand Blanc 44, Lapeer 26 The Saginaw Valley Red is a two-team race with Grand Blanc (4-2) and Davison the only teams left undefeated in league play, and Lapeer (4-2) joining Saginaw Heritage with a second league loss and tied for third.
HEADLINER Macomb Dakota 31, Romeo 19 The Macomb Area Conference Red is one of the most monitored leagues in the state every season because of the powerful Division 1 contenders that traditionally emerge – and four have a chance to emerge as league champion this month. Romeo entered the weekend alone in first, but now four teams are 3-1 in league play with one game to go and co-champions guaranteed with those four teams facing off across two matchups this week. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.
Watch list Gibraltar Carlson 28, Trenton 23 Carlson (5-1) lined itself up to face Allen Park in Week 8 for some piece of the Downriver League title, as those two teams are left as undefeated in league play – although Trenton (4-2) could break things up a bit as the Trojans face Allen Park this week.
On the move Belleville 35, Westland John Glenn 8 Belleville (6-0) and Week 8 opponent Dearborn Fordson remain alone atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East after the Tigers dealt John Glenn (5-1) this first loss. Clarkston 44, West Bloomfield 36 After an 0-2 start, Clarkston (4-2) has won four straight and set itself up to face Lake Orion this week for a winner-take-all matchup in the Oakland Activities Association Red. The win also pushed the Wolves from 10 spots behind West Bloomfield (4-2) to three ahead on the Division 1 playoff points list. Detroit Voyageur 34, Detroit Edison 32 The Cougars (4-2) bounced back from a Week 5 loss to deal a second straight to Edison (4-2), which entered the week ranked No. 9 in the Division 6 coaches poll. The win also brought Voyageur back into the Division 6 playoff picture at No. 25 on the playoff points list after it had fallen back to No. 34.
HEADLINER Corunna 35, Goodrich 7 This has to rank at or near the top of the wins Corunna (6-0) has piled up over its recent resurgence, as it not only guaranteed the Cavaliers a share of the Flint Metro League Stars title but also handed the first loss to the No. 2-ranked team in Division 4. Corunna, ranked No. 5 in Division 5, led 28-0 at halftime on the way to its first win over the Martians (5-1) since 2016. Click for more from the Flint Journal.
A Flint Metro League-Stars collision! Both teams came in undefeated on the season, but Goodrich had a number on the Cavs since 2016.
Corunna would dominate on home turf, and take first place in the league. Final score, 35-7. pic.twitter.com/SSLb3VkGZz
— Miriam Bingham (@MiriamBingham) September 30, 2023
Watch list Pewamo-Westphalia 27, Fowler 14 After losing its opener to still-undefeated North Muskegon, P-W has won its last five and sits atop the Central Michigan Athletic Conference standings with two league games to play. Fowler (5-1) had defeated the Pirates last season to create a three-way CMAC shared title between those two and Laingsburg.
On the move DeWitt 41, Grand Ledge 38 The last two meetings between these two have come down to seven points or fewer, with last year’s Grand Ledge win helping the Comets (5-1) share the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title and this year’s DeWitt win knocking Grand Ledge out of first place while keeping the Panthers (3-2) in the mix. Beal City 30, Evart 16 The matchup for first place in the Highland Conference went to Beal City (6-0), which can clinch with another win over the next two weeks while second-place Evart (4-2) will need help to get a share. New Lothrop 34, Montrose 8 New Lothrop’s MMAC title hopes dimmed with a Week 2 loss to Chesaning, but the Hornets (5-1) are up to No. 9 in Division 8 playoff-points average with two wins over Division 6 schools and this one over the Division 7 Rams (4-2).
Northern Lower Peninsula
HEADLINER Charlevoix 30, Elk Rapids 7 The Division 7 No. 9 Rayders (5-1) continued to roll through Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders play, clinching a share of the league title with their fifth-straight win overall this season. Charlevoix can finish the championship outright in Week 8 at Tawas, and its final three regular-season opponents are combined 3-15 – making a fourth-straight season reaching eight wins look like a growing possibility. Click for more from the Petoskey News-Review.
Watch list Petoskey 36, Cadillac 21 There’s definitely work to do over the next three weeks for Petoskey (4-2) to make the playoffs, but the Northmen have guaranteed their best finish since 2018 – the last time they’d defeated Cadillac (3-3). They sit No. 23 on the Division 3 playoff points list.
On the move Benzie Central 31, Boyne City 24 The Huskies (3-3) will need Tawas’ help to catch a share of that Leaders title, but in avenging last season’s 51-35 loss to Boyne City (2-4) they’ve moved closer to possibly earning their best finish since 2018. Lake City 28, McBain 22 (2OT) The Trojans (4-2) defeated McBain (4-2) by six points for the second-straight season, this time helping them hold steady at the No. 23 spot on the Division 6 playoff points list. Ogemaw Heights 47, Flint Powers Catholic 9 Ogemaw Heights (5-1) ran its winning streak to five as it heads into this week’s NMFC Legends decider against Kingsley.
Southeast & Border
HEADLINER Michigan Center 32, Grass Lake 27 Michigan Center’s next two weeks will be massive, but the Cardinals earned that billing. By avenging last season’s 36-29 loss to Grass Lake (4-2), Michigan Center (5-1) upped what’s at stake in this week’s matchup with Napoleon as those share the lead in the Cascades Conference East – and with third-place Manchester waiting in Week 3 with its only loss to Napoleon. Click for more from JTV.
Watch list Parma Western 21, Battle Creek Harper Creek 6 The Panthers (6-0) also have set up a matchup of league co-leaders, downing third-place Harper Creek (4-2) on the way to this week’s meeting with Hastings for first in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference.
On the move Jackson Northwest 23, Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard 14 Northwest (3-3) has made massive strides the last two seasons, and this win has to rank up there as AAGR (5-1) had dominated its first five opponents. Adrian 22, Jackson 9 This Adrian win, along with Chelsea’s over Tecumseh, gave Chelsea a share of the Southeastern Conference White title – although if Jackson (4-2) defeats Chelsea this week, those two and possibly Adrian all could share the championship. Saline 43, Ann Arbor Huron 7 Saline (6-0) held onto its one-game lead in the SEC Red and sent Huron (3-3) into a third-place tie. The Hornets finish the league schedule with the seventh and eighth-place teams as they look to claim what would be a ninth Red title over the last decade but after finishing second a year ago.
HEADLINER Constantine 50, Allegan 14 Five of six teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore are .500 or better, and Constantine is leading the way at 5-1 and as one of three contenders that have started league play 2-0. The Division 6 No. 7 Falcons scored their season high in bringing some separation to the league standings by sending Allegan to 4-2. Click for more from the Kalamazoo Gazette.
— FOX 17 Blitz (@FOX17Blitz) September 30, 2023
Watch list Niles Brandywine 30, Dowagiac 7 Brandywine may be only 2-4, but the Bobcats moved up from No. 46 to 33 on the Division 7 playoff-points list by stunning Division 5 Dowagiac (4-2). Brandywine has another Division 5 opponent next in Benton Harbor.
On the move Berrien Springs 35, Buchanan 14 This win, combined with Brandywine’s over Dowagiac, put Berrien Springs (3-2) alone in first place in the Lakeland Conference – and after a 20-14 loss to Buchanan (3-3) last season cost the Shamrocks the league title. Richland Gull Lake 27, Benton Harbor 16 Gull Lake (4-2) already has bettered its record from a year ago, and with two wins over the next three weeks would post its best finish since 2009. Paw Paw 35, Edwardsburg 0 The Red Wolves (6-0) ended a 15-game losing streak against the rival Eddies (3-3) sending them out of first place in the Wolverine Conference while maintaining a tie for the top spot with Niles.
HEADLINER Menominee 44, Gladstone 26 One down, two to go as Western Peninsula Athletic Conference leader Menominee began a difficult three-game run against the three teams that entered the weekend tied for second in the league. Following Landan Bardowski among others, the Maroons (6-0) scored the most points Gladstone had given up in a game since 2017 – although Gladstone (4-2) also did some fine work offensively against a Menominee defense that had allowed just six points total over the first five weeks. Click for more from RRN Sports.
Trevor Theuerkauf passes to Aaron Brunelle for the Menominee touchdown tonight against Gladstone. pic.twitter.com/u1XZ8PGE4I
— Jack Hall (@JackHall600) September 30, 2023
Watch list Marquette 38, Escanaba 20 After playing an old rival as part of a new league, Marquette (3-2) is tied for second in the Big North Conference but more notably has equaled last season’s win total and sits among the top 32 on the Division 3 playoff-points list for the second-straight week.
On the move Calumet 17, Houghton 16 The Copper Kings (2-4) broke a three-game losing streak and now have 10 spots to climb to qualify for the Division 6 playoffs, but with some valuable opportunities to do so. Iron Mountain 55, Manistique 14 The Mountaineers (6-0) clinched a share of the West-PAC Iron championship with another big performance; they have won all of their games by at least 40 points. Sault Ste. Marie 50, Maple City Glen Lake 7 Sault Ste. Marie (4-2) bounced back from a Week 5 loss to Marquette to hold steady among the top 32 on the Division 4 playoff-points list, while Glen Lake (3-3) remains among the qualifying group in Division 8.
HEADLINER Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 20, East Grand Rapids 0 There was notable reshuffling in the Ottawa-Kent Conference White over the weekend, as the league has six teams 4-2 or better and four tied for first thanks in part to FHC’s shutout of the Pioneers. The Rangers (5-1), No. 2 in Division 3, now share the top spot with EGR (5-1), Lowell and Byron Center. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.
Check out the moments from Forest Hills Central's win over East Grand Rapids on September 29th, 2023! JT Hartman's performance led to a rushing touchdown and an fumble return for a touchdown in the 20-0 victory. Powered by @lawrencetechu. Visit https://t.co/Uq6Fmk66eG pic.twitter.com/1Yp6eDpknW
— STATE CHAMPS! Michigan (@statechampsmich) October 1, 2023
Watch list Spring Lake 35, Allendale 28 The O-K Blue has five teams at 4-2 or better, with Grand Rapids West Catholic alone at the top after Spring Lake (5-1) rebounded from a Week 5 loss to GRWC to hand Allendale (5-1) this defeat. But Spring Lake also just became Allendale’s biggest fan – Allendale gets West Catholic this week.
On the move Lowell 38, Byron Center 28 Matching Forest Hills Central, Lowell also fought back into the O-K Blue race as these two join FHC and EGR as 3-1 in the league and 5-1 overall. Muskegon 49, Zeeland East 14 The Big Reds (4-2) have won four straight to start the O-K Green schedule and set up this week’s meeting with co-leader Zeeland West. Impressive as well, Muskegon’s last three opponents, including East, are 4-2. Caledonia 30, Hudsonville 0 Division 2 top-ranked Caledonia (5-1) has followed up its loss to Rockford two weeks ago with two power-packed wins, in this one handing Hudsonville (4-2) its first shutout since 2012.
HEADLINER Adrian Lenawee Christian 73, Mendon 20 Lenawee Christian (6-0) put up 63 of those points in the first half, fully justifying its top ranking in Division 2 – and the Cougars could be considered the top team in all of 8-player as Division 1 top-ranked St. Ignace joined No. 2 Mendon (5-1) in losing for the first time over the weekend. Sam Lutz ran for four touchdowns and threw for four more for the Cougars, while Jack McCaw ran for 210 yards and three scores for Mendon. Click for more from the Adrian Daily Telegram.
Watch list Newberry 46, St. Ignace 40 Newberry (5-1) has won a playoff game each of the last three seasons and is hardly an unknown – but St. Ignace (5-1) had won all but one of its games this fall by double digits, making this an even more impressive result.
On the move Brown City 60, Mayville 0 This was another matchup of undefeated teams, and Brown City now sits alone atop the North Central Thumb League Stars with Mayville (5-1) and Kingston a game back. Crystal Falls Forest Park 36, Lake Linden-Hubbell 28 With Lake Linden-Hubbell (3-3) dealing Powers North Central a loss two weeks ago, the Great Lakes Eight Conference West has a different look at the top for the first time in a while with Norway leading the way but Forest Park (5-1) also in the mix if the Knights trip up. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart 25, Fulton 18 The Irish (6-0) have a one-game lead on Portland St. Patrick in the Mid-State Activities Conference with this win over Fulton (4-2) joining a Week 3 one-pointer over the Shamrocks as key reasons why.
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PHOTOS (Top) Grand Blanc's Jimmy Lacy (13) applies pressure as Lapeer takes to the air Friday. (Middle) Negaunee's Ian Engstrom (5) tries to catch a pass just a little bit out of his reach. (Top photo by Terry Lyons, middle photo by Cara Kamps.)