By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
The media were fixated on La’Darius Jefferson, and who can blame them?
The senior quarterback validated his recent selection as the MLive statewide Football Player of the Year by rushing 32 times for 245 yards and all four of Muskegon’s touchdowns in a 28-10 victory over Farmington Hills Harrison in the MHSAA Division 3 Final on Nov. 25 at Ford Field. He followed that up by giving the dejected Harrison players a classy postgame pep talk.
If it wasn’t Jefferson, the cameras were focused on eighth-year Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, who overcame four losses in the title game by finally taking the final step and hoisting the championship trophy,
But the best story coming out of Muskegon’s recently-won title belonged to senior cornerback Willie “Bo” Shanks – a tale that started with heartbreak, which morphed into an ongoing nightmare, which had to be confronted and converted into motivation, then mixed in with relentless hard work before finally culminating with redemption. Sweet redemption.
“It felt great; it felt right,” said Shanks, the soft-spoken leader of the Big Reds’ secondary. “I guess the lesson in my story is that with focus and hard work, you can overcome anything.”
The heartbreak occurred one year ago, when Shanks was playing cornerback on the final play in Muskegon’s heartbreaking 2016 Division 3 Final 29-28 loss to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Shanks was running with receiver Ky’ren Cunningham, who abruptly turned in at the goal line. Before Shanks could react, the ball was in Cunningham’s arms on the ground in the end zone with six seconds showing on the clock, courtesy of a perfectly-timed pass from quarterback Caden Prieskorn.
Even though player after player, coach after coach, fan after fan, and family member after family member pointed out that it wasn’t just one play which cost Muskegon the championship, Shanks couldn’t shake it off.
"I think about it every play," the soft-spoken Shanks said earlier this season. "I think about it every day in practice. I think about it every time we go out and play a game. I even think about it when I`m asleep. I have nightmares about it, so it just motivates me a lot to not let it happen again."
Fairfield decided right away that the best way to deal with the pain of that loss was to bring it out in the open – confront it and then work to overcome it.
“We got beat with six seconds left, so everything ever since has been six more reps, six more sprints, six more drills,” said Shanks, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior who is also a starting guard on Muskegon’s basketball team, which opens its season Friday at home against Rockford.
The hard work by Shanks and fellow seniors Clinton Jefferson and Marvin Harwell and junior Lamarion Sherrill turned Muskegon’s perceived Achilles heel – pass defense – into a strength.
In both of Muskegon’s losses in 2016, against visiting Chicago Lincolnshire Stevenson (38-35) in Week 2 and the Final against St. Mary’s, the Big Reds were torched through the air. Led by Shanks in the secondary, the Big Reds fielded a defense for the first time in years this fall that was equally good against the run and the pass – with only Muskegon Mona Shores having even a modicum of success passing.
“He was our solid rock all year back in the secondary,” Fairfield said of Shanks, who is now hoping to play defensive back at the college level.
Shanks had his individual highlight in the Regional championship game against DeWitt on Nov. 10 at Grand Haven, when he intercepted three passes (including one he took back for a touchdown) as Muskegon rolled to a shocking 49-0 victory. Those three interceptions gave him 10 for the season, breaking the school record of eight held by three players, including ex-Southern Cal standout and NFL player Ronald Johnson.
If the story ended right there, it would have been a much happier ending than most ever get in the sports world. Sports Illustrated and others have told countless stories of wayward kickers, not to mention recognizable figures like Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman, who never quite recovered from a single play during a game.
But this story had a perfect ending not only for Shanks, but for the Muskegon football program as well.
After dispatching overmatched Battle Creek-Harper Creek, 42-0, in the Semifinals, Muskegon returned to the familiar confines of Ford Field, almost one year to the day of its last-second defeat.
No worries this time around. When the scoreboard clock reached :06 this year, the Big Reds were comfortably in celebration mode.
6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …0.
For Jefferson, Fairfield and the entire Muskegon football family, it was a dream come true.
And for one Big Red in particular, it also was a nightmare vanquished.
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) Muskegon senior cornerback Willie Shanks tackles Farmington Hills Harrison receiver Joe Stevens during the Division 3 Final. (Middle) Shanks defends Grand Rapids Christian's Duane Washington during last year's Class A Regional at Grand Haven. Muskegon entered the game undefeated, before falling to the Eagles. (Below) Muskegon football coach Shane Fairfield, left, and Muskegon basketball coach and athletic director Keith Guy pose with the Class A District championship trophy after the Big Reds defeated Zeeland West this fall. Fairfield and Guy sharing great athletes like Shanks has put Muskegon’s programs among the state's elite in both football and basketball. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)
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.)