Today’s blog was written by MHSAA Second Half Editor Geoff Kimmerly
The demise of Michigan high school football has been greatly exaggerated – or, at least, recently misreported by one of the U.S.’s most recognizable newspapers that noted as part of a larger story on football decline that Michigan has seen a “net loss of 57 teams in the past five years.”
It’s easy to understand how this error took place – especially when a reporter is not familiar with the football landscape in our state – but that doesn’t make this statement any less misleading, or harmful considering the story since has been picked up by multiple large news organizations. So let’s quickly clear up the misinterpreted information:
The data that led to this error came from an annual participation report released by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Every spring, state associations (like the MHSAA) from every state and Washington, D.C., tally up how many of their member schools have a sport and how many athletes play it.
For 2016-17, the MHSAA submitted to the NFHS a total of 580 schools with 11-player football – that number actually includes all schools that reported having at least one football player, including primary and secondary schools in co-ops. And yes, that 580 is 57 fewer than the 637 11-player schools the MHSAA submitted for 2012-13.
But saying Michigan has lost 57 football programs misses out on something incredibly significant – the MHSAA also submitted 60 schools with 8-player football last year, up from 16 in 2012-13, making that net decrease in football schools over five years 13 – far fewer than 57.
And with a few more brush strokes, the picture of football in our state actually shows a healthy landscape:
The 640 schools in Michigan with at least one football player for 2016-17, 11 and 8-player combined, is actually eight more than we reported to the NFHS four years ago and 10 more than three years ago.
A better picture of Michigan’s football consistency is shown by how many varsity programs are taking the field. This fall, that number is 616 – 555 11-player varsities and 61 8-player – and we also had 616 for most of the 2016 season, 616 in 2015 and 615 in 2014.
We’ve had programs bring back varsity teams this year, and in one case a school has a team on its own for the first time. Benzonia Benzie Central and Suttons Bay were unable to field varsities in 2016, but Benzie Central is back playing 11-player and Suttons Bay is back with an 8-player team. Brimley, an 8-player school going back to 2010, also is fielding a team again after being unable to do so last year. Mount Clemens played only two varsity games in 2016 and forfeited a third, but has seven scheduled for this fall and lost close in its opener last week. And Bear Lake, previously a secondary school in a co-op program, now has a team all its own for the first time and is playing at the 8-player level.
Yes, there has been a decrease in Michigan high school football participation when it comes to the number of players – for reasons we discuss frequently, including more extracurricular/entertainment options than ever for students, more who are specializing in other sports and safety fears that often are misplaced. But we’ve also seen a three percent drop in enrollment at MHSAA member schools over the last five years. And despite that trend, Michigan again had the sixth-highest 11-player football participation in the nation in 2016-17 (and seventh-highest in 8-player) while ranking 10th nationally in number of residents of high school age.
So yes, while a nine percent drop in the number of football players over the last five years in Michigan clearly is troubling, and something we’re working with the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association to reverse, let’s also put those numbers in perspective. At medium-sized to bigger schools, it could mean a roster of 40 might have only 36 players. A roster of 20 at an 8-player school might go down to 18. Neither would signal the need to eliminate a football program.
And that move by so many schools to 8-player? It definitely started as a way for low-participation programs to keep football (and has worked for most of them). While that still may be the driving force as schools move from 11 to 8, others have made the switch because most of their former opponents did and joining them makes scheduling easier and travel shorter. Michigan has a multitude of small towns, and you’ll find most of these 8-player programs in pockets in the thumb, southwest or northern Lower Peninsula, or Upper Peninsula. And keep in mind, only Class D teams remain eligible for the 8-player playoffs – and only two of 61 teams playing 8-player this fall are larger than Class D and its enrollment limit of 203 students for 2017-18.
The story behind “a decrease of 57 schools” clearly is a little complex to explain and explain away, but it’s necessary to do so.
Yes, Michigan’s total number of football players is down a few percent. But the sport’s prominence and importance in our schools and communities remains high.
LAWRENCE — If redshirting was a thing in high school, at least two coaches at Lawrence would stick that label on senior John Schuman.
“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.
Guillean 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.”
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.
Gribler 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)