It wasn’t the right time for an interview because John Schwartz didn’t want to be the center of attention. Besides, he had said all he wanted to say in February when he announced his retirement.
More than anything else, just a few minutes prior to the Mendon varsity football team opening the 2016 season against Bridgman, he wanted to address his attire.
Swiftly moving through the parking lot toward his car, Schwartz looked up, made eye contact with me, and his voice boomed through a shop broom of a mustache, “I put my shirt on backwards.”
Of course he did. His routine was off after more than four decades.
Schwartz exchanged pleasantries as he stood bare-chested about 30 parking spaces from the entrance to the field named after him. He checked to make sure the tag of his T-shirt was at the back of his neck this time.
We walked back to the stadium and talked about his kids and his grandchildren, whom he adores, and for whom, along with his wife, he retired from the game he treasures. When he turned in his letter of retirement to the Mendon school board in February at the age of 66, he said it was time to make more time for them.
He then climbed the bleachers to the press box, where he plans to watch the Hornets and provide advice when requested. Of all places, most of our interaction these days is on Facebook, where he’s quick to like a family photo.
I never took John Schwartz, a man who enjoys crafting things out of wood in his spare time, for a social media fan. But I learned over the years he’s full of surprises.
For a long time, Schwartz boasted the all-time best winning percentage in Michigan prep history. At the end of the 2014 season, his record at Mendon was 269-43 for a .862 percentage. That would have been a good time to retire. He knew, however, the Hornets were in for a rough 2015 season with low numbers in terms of bodies, and, as it turned out, victories. Mendon went 5-5, making his career record 274-48 and his winning percentage .851 — second all-time behind former Schoolcraft coach Larry Ledlow (.853).
He took one for the team.
It’s Bobby Kretschman’s team now, and you’re not going to find anyone in the small town of Mendon who would disagree with Schwartz concerning Kretschman’s worthiness to continue a tradition that includes 13 MHSAA championships — 10 of which were with Schwartz at the helm.
Kretschman, a former star linebacker for the Hornets and an assistant coach with the program for 10 years, was groomed for this role. In the same week in March when his first child, Connor, was born, Kretschman officially accepted the job.
Ranking third all-time in program history with 360 career tackles, including 11.7 stops per game as a senior on the 2005 Division 8 championship team, Kretschman fully understood the significance of becoming the school’s 23rd head coach.
“I’m excited,” he said at the time. “It’s going to be fun. We’re replacing a legend here. This is why I went into coaching and teaching. I didn’t think it was actually going to be at Mendon.”
The Hornets are 1-1 this season under his watch, with a loss to an excellent Cassopolis team in Week 2. But after the Hornets topped the Bridgman Bees in Kretschman’s debut, the new ball coach sounded an awful lot like the old one.
He asked the players gathered around him in the west end zone if they wanted to win a state title this year — perhaps a reach to some after Mendon went .500 last fall. They all believe they can. So did every kid who put on the green jersey since 1989.
Schwartz would always tell you that the Mendon staff coached the kids the same from the Rocket level to varsity. The plays, the verbiage and the expectations were consistent.
And it was all underscored by a sense of responsibility.
“There’s a great sense of pride at Mendon and I’ll be damned if that’s going to be lost,” Kretschman said. “That’s why you want to put the time into things and make sure you’re putting the best product out there you can. Your name is on it and you want it to be done right.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTO: Former linebacker Bobby Kretschman takes over the Mendon program this season from longtime coach John Schwartz. (Photo by Wes Morgan.) VIDEO courtesy of JoeInsider.com.
Ben Jones always had the same, simple message, even if it was 100 degrees and sunny or 35 degrees and raining sideways, and whether he was playing for a powerhouse like Muskegon Catholic Central or coaching a program trying to establish itself at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.
“We get to play football today,” Jones would say, as many of those around him were complaining and grumbling.
It was never “have to” for Jones, but always “get to.”
Jones, who was about to start his second year as head coach at Cranbrook, had his life tragically cut short by a drunk driver who crashed into his vehicle as he was traveling home from work in Detroit on Aug. 19, 2020. He was just 30 years old.
While Jones is gone, leaving a hole as large and painful as the 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame he carried as a tight end in his senior year at Hillsdale College, that “Get To” mentality is alive and well, and thriving and growing – thanks in large part to the efforts of his football teammates from Muskegon Catholic and later at Hillsdale.
The Get To Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed in Jones’ honor and has grown exponentially in less than three years, providing grants to sports organizations and scholarships to student-athletes.
“There is a core group of about 10 of them that have worked on (the foundation), and it’s been amazing,” said Theresa Jones, Ben’s mother, who with her husband Bruce has worked with the foundation. “It started small, and then it caught fire.”
The president of the foundation is Tim Hornak, Jones’ best friend and teammate in the trenches at both Muskegon Catholic and Hillsdale. Hornak returned to deliver a pre-game speech before the Crusaders’ home game on Sept. 15 against Kalamazoo United, where he talked about the man who is the inspiration behind the rapidly-growing Get To movement.
“You don’t have to, you get to – that simple difference can change your lives,” said Hornak, who teamed with Jones when both were seniors to help the Crusaders to a 14-0 record and the Division 8 championship in 2008. “You get to play football tonight and continue the tradition that started here in the 1950s.
“You get a chance to line up and play a great game with your best friends.”
Inspired by Hornak’s words and Jones’ legacy, the Crusaders downed Kalamazoo United 27-7 that night, the team’s second-straight win after an 0-2 start, which put them back in the Division 8 playoff picture.
A tailgate party was held before the game as a fundraiser for the Get To Foundation, and it happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Crusaders’ 2008 championship team – arguably one of the best teams in the school’s storied history. MCC has won 12 state championships, trailing only Farmington Hills Harrison in state playoff history.
The phrase “get to,” according to Hornak, goes back to the whiteboard in the MCC locker room his sophomore year and perfectly captures Jones’ approach to life and to football, whether his team was unbeaten like at MCC or struggling like the Chargers did just after he and Hornak graduated.
Jones, who wore No. 62 at MCC, was a two-way starting lineman who also played on the Crusaders’ 2006 championship team as a sophomore. His best friends on the team were the Hornak twins, Tim and Jon, whose father Mike was an assistant coach.
After his funeral service on Aug. 24, 2020, Jones’ hearse made a stop at MCC’s Kehren Stadium on the way to the cemetery, taking a lap on the track around Mike Holmes Field.
He went on to play on three teams which won or shared Great Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles at Hillsdale, where he wore No. 91 and played tight end and H-back.
“He had an inner self-confidence that you could tell right away when talking to him,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein. “He was very positive. He encouraged his teammates.”
Jones graduated from Hillsdale in 2013 with a degree in financial management and a minor in mathematics, moved to Royal Oak and took a job as a portfolio manager and financial planner at Schwartz & Co. Investment Advisors.
In his free time, he worked as an assistant varsity football coach at Cranbrook from 2015 to 2018, before being elevated to head coach in 2019 at the age of 28.
One of his first actions as head coach was getting Cranbrook football T-shirts printed with the message “Get To” on the back. Jones guided the Cranes to a 6-4 record and a Division 4 playoff berth in what would prove to be his only season as head coach.
He died nine days before Cranbrook’s scheduled season opener in 2020, which ended up being delayed six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the immediate aftermath of Jones’ shocking death, the Hornak brothers and other former teammates vowed to do something to honor Ben and to help out his family. Out of that mission, the Get To Foundation was born.
Get To has awarded scholarships for the past three years. In 2023 alone, the foundation awarded $16,000 in scholarships to 22 student-athletes from around the state.
In addition, Get To has awarded $55,000 in grants to 17 organizations – including $3,000 to the Eaton Rapids High School football program for new shoulder pads and helmets and $2,500 to the Detroit Tigers Foundation’s Gloves for Kids program.
The next event on the foundation’s busy calendar is a speech by best-selling motivational author Jon Gordon at Lawrence Tech University on Oct. 17.
The foundation’s board has trademarked the phrase “Get To” and hopes to continue to grow the organization’s size and scope – in a way mirroring how big and impactful Ben’s life could have been if it wasn’t cut short.
For more information or to make a donation, go to the organization’s website at www.gettofoundation.org.
The relentless efforts of Ben’s ex-teammates to keep his memory alive means the world to his parents, as well as his two younger siblings – Alissa, a standout swimmer at Hillsdale who is now the school’s assistant women’s swimming coach; and Nate, who also played football for the Chargers and is now a foreign currency trader for Barclay’s, based in New York City.
Theresa Jones said coming together with all of Ben’s closest friends for Get To Foundation events has been a continuous blessing for the family.
“Every time we have an event for the foundation, it’s all of Ben’s friends and family members dressed up and having a good time,” his mother said. “It always feels like Ben’s wedding reception that he never got to have.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Ben Jones is shown before the 2008 Division 8 championship game at Ford Field during his senior year at Muskegon Catholic Central. The Crusaders defeated Crystal Falls Forest Park, 40-0. (Middle) Jones works with his linemen during his first year as head coach at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in 2019. (Below) A plaque honoring Jones has been placed in the tunnel leading from the home locker room to the football field at Hillsdale College. (Top photo by Tim Reilly. Additional photos courtesy of the Get To Foundation.)