Piggee Leans on Big Reds After Dad's Death, Lifts Team with Dazzling Play

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

November 3, 2021

Watching Destin Piggee do his thing on the football field – drawing collective gasps from the crowd with an array of moves, bursts of amazing speed and dramatic stops and starts – is nothing short of pure joy.

What a contrast from the tragedy the quiet, humble, 15-year-old Muskegon High School sophomore suffered two months ago.

Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said his young sensation has the heart of a lion, but that heart was ripped out of his chest on the afternoon of Sept. 3 – just hours before the Big Reds hosted Detroit Cass Tech in the biggest game in the state that weekend.

Piggee learned that his previously healthy father, 43-year-old Dereko Piggee, had died from complications after a short bout with COVID-19.

He then did what his dad would have wanted that night and played for the Big Reds, ripping off a 43-yard run (appropriately, one yard for every year of his dad’s life), giving a packed house at Hackley Stadium a preview of what was to come over the next eight games.

“I played that game, but I wasn’t in my right mind,” admitted Piggee, a 5-foot-6, 160-pound slot back and return man.

“My teammates and my coaches have helped me like you wouldn’t believe. If I didn’t have football, I probably would have gone out and done something stupid.”

The next game at Zeeland West was even more challenging, as earlier that day was his father’s funeral service – and then the young man who is too young to drive a car had to lay his father and best friend to rest at the cemetery.

He responded once again, scoring the winning touchdown on a 32-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Piggee hasn’t slowed down since, rolling up 705 rushing yards on a mere 30 carries, for a staggering 24 yards per attempt, with nine touchdowns. He also has caught nine passes for 201 yards and a touchdown, giving him 17 plays of 20-plus yards on only 39 offensive touches.

Muskegon football“He is a gifted natural athlete, but you should see the way this young man works,” said Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, who has led his team to nine straight wins after the humbling Week 2 loss to Cass Tech. “His love for the game and for his teammates is contagious.”

Muskegon (9-1) hopes to win its 10th-straight District championship at 1 p.m. Saturday when it hosts Cedar Springs (8-2).

The Big Reds, who have also won five straight Regional titles, are aspiring to make it to Ford Field for the eighth time in the past 10 years. Muskegon has won a state-best 878 games and 18 state titles, including six in the playoff era, with the latest coming in 2017.

It has been the emergence of super sophomore “smurfs” Piggee and his good friend, running back Jakob Price (5-7, 165), which has keyed this team’s resurgence.

Exhibit A was Muskegon’s 49-28 win over crosstown rival and two-time reigning Division 2 champion Muskegon Mona Shores on Oct. 8. With the Sailors keying on senior quarterback Myles Walton, the sophomores stole the show – Price with six carries for 217 yards and TD runs of 70 yards and 99 yards and Piggee with six carries for 123 yards and two TDs, along with two catches for 71 yards and another score.

Against Wyoming earlier this year, Piggee touched the ball twice all game and scored touchdowns both times, on an 82-yard run and an electrifying 50-yard punt return.

Although he makes it look easy on the field, it’s been a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute battle off of it for Piggee and his family, especially his mother, stepmother, grandparents and siblings.

“One day after school, I just started crying and I couldn’t stop,” said Piggee, who is the youngest of his father’s five children.

That was when his Big Red family stepped in.

Muskegon footballSenior Damari Foster hugged him and held him for a long time, before passing him off to freshman coach Corey Bibbs, who then handed him to Fairfield.

“Coach Fairfield finally got me to stop crying,” said Piggee, who wants to study electrical engineering in college. “He told me about some of the hard things he dealt with growing up, and I learned some things from him.”

Piggee said he draws motivation from his friend Dametrius “Meechie” Walker, a towering, 6-5 senior defensive lineman who was diagnosed last fall with osteosarcoma in his left leg, a rare bone cancer most often seen in teenage boys. The cancer has ended the playing career for Walker – who already had six Division I scholarship offers including from Michigan State, Minnesota and Kentucky – but he remains a positive, smiling force on the Muskegon sideline.

While Piggee is motivated to play hard for Walker, he is also determined to follow in the footsteps of his father, a 1996 grad who was a three-year varsity player and all-area defensive back for the Big Reds. He played running back, but was better known as a dangerous return man and lockdown cover man in the secondary.

“I remember Dereko was a nice, nice kid,” said Dave Taylor, Dereko’s head coach at Muskegon, who led the Big Reds to Class A championships in 1986 and 1989. “He did what I told him to do, and he was one of my favorites.”

This year’s Muskegon team is the youngest in Fairfield’s 12 years as head coach, with as many as eight freshmen and sophomores starting in some games.

The turning point in the season came after the 49-14 defeat at the hands of Cass Tech, when Fairfield challenged Piggee and his underclassmen teammates to rise above their youth and start playing “big boy football.”

“Big boy football means being confident and being in control of yourself at all times,” said Piggee. “We got on a group text and talked about that after our loss.

“We support our brothers here even when no one else does. These guys have helped me to get through every single day since my dad passed; you have no idea. I just want to go out and play as hard as I can for them.”

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’s Destin Piggee (3) eludes the grasp of a Lowell defender during the Big Reds’ District Semifinal win Saturday. (Middle) Piggee takes the field with his teammates before the Sept. 3 game against Detroit Cass Tech. (Below) Piggee makes his move upfield against East Kentwood. (Top and below photos courtesy of Local Sports Journal. Middle photo by Tim Reilly.)  

Constantine Football All-Stater, Wrestling Champ Aiming for Grand Finale

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

April 30, 2024

CONSTANTINE – Bennett VandenBerg has earned many accolades over the last four years as a three-sport athlete at Constantine.

Southwest CorridorBut the awards aren't what the 6-foot-3, 240-pound standout will remember most when reflecting on his memories as an all-state football player, state champion wrestler and record-breaking throwing specialist on the Falcons' track & field squad.

"I'll remember how I represented our school and pushed myself to be the best I could be in each sport that I played," said VandenBerg, who has earned 12 varsity letters.

VandenBerg has evolved into one of the most accomplished athletes in the state this school year as a senior, especially standing out among those from smaller communities.

This past fall he was named first-team Division 5-6 all-state at defensive end in football before winning the Division 3 Individual Finals wrestling title at 285 pounds in early March at Ford Field.

VandenBerg's final goal is to win the discus title at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals on Saturday, June 1, in Kent City to end his Constantine career all-state in all three sports.

He broke the school record in the discus his junior year with a throw of 158 feet, 1 inch; the previous mark of 156-6 had been held by Doug Polasek since 1986. VandenBerg has eclipsed his school record twice this spring, most recently with a personal-best toss of 170-9 in a Southwestern Athletic Conference double dual meet with Schoolcraft and Kalamazoo Christian. He ranks No. 4 statewide in the event regardless of enrollment division. Lawton junior Mason Mayne at 175-4 is the only Division 3 competitor with a better throw than VandenBerg.

"It's really cool to have your name up on the school record board, but I'd like to make that mark more untouchable before I'm done," VandenBerg said. "My goal is to be a state discus champion. I've put in the necessary work for it. It would be nice to end my career that way."

Kyle Rimer, Constantine's veteran boys track & field coach, is most impressed with VandenBerg's leadership and presence in working with the Falcons' younger athletes.

VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. "Bennett loves to compete. Ever since he was a freshman, we've also had him on our 400-meter relay team. That's something he really enjoys doing. He's not just a thrower, but a good overall athlete with lots of drive,” Rimer said. “There's a lot of individuality in track & field, but I think he does a great job of leading the younger kids. He has the drive, accountability and technique to achieve his goal of being a state champion in his throwing events.”

VandenBerg is already a two-time Finals placer in the discus, earning sixth as a junior and seventh his sophomore year. He admits being a little disappointed with his distance at the 2023 state meet.

"In that particular event (discus) you need lots of focus and determination because there are a ton of tiny things you can mess up on that affect your throw. To become better you need to be consistent, show up every day and be willing to put in the work," VandenBerg said. "Right now I'm working on my speed in the circle and quickness in my follow-through."

VandenBerg also has been pleased with his improvement this spring in the shot put. He's increased his distance by over five feet and hopes to break the school record in that event as well. John Kampars (1967) holds Constantine's shot put record at 54-8¼, and VandenBerg's personal best is 48-10 in a double-dual meet this season against Parchment and Centreville.

"Shot put is a difficult event. You need power, but your form has to be top-notch – otherwise it's tough to move that 12-pound ball," VandenBerg said. "I would love to qualify for state in both the discus and shot put and be all-state in each. That would be amazing if I could be a state champion in either of those events."

VandenBerg has put in extra work in the offseason with special instruction from Bill Griffey of Next Throw in Plainwell, along with working with Constantine assistant track & field and head football coach Shawn Griffith.

"Bennett puts a lot of time into working on his throwing. He spends a lot of time in the weight room, and he's a bigger kid who is not afraid to be coached and listens to what other people tell him," Griffith said. "We're excited to see what he can do now that we've had warmer weather recently."

VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft.VandenBerg's motivation this spring follows a tremendous wrestling season that saw him finish 54-0 and capture the 285 championship with a 3-0 win in the title match over Reed City junior Wyatt Spalo.

"I gained 20 pounds of muscle and did everything you need to do to become a better athlete to wrestle the heavyweight division. Winning the title was overwhelming. It was everything I ever wanted, and the first 20 minutes after winning it was relief, especially after losing in the Finals as a junior. I just went into that last match and wrestled smart and confident," VandenBerg said. "My speed and strength gave me an advantage over the bigger heavyweights I faced this year."

Vandenberg, 188-22 with 104 career pins, became the 10th Finals champion in Constantine wrestling history and the first to achieve the feat since Kevin Watkins won a 152-pound crown in 2000.

VandenBerg competed at 189 as a freshman and sophomore. He was a Regional qualifier as a freshman and finished sixth in Division 3 as a sophomore before ending his junior campaign as the Finals runner-up at 215. 

"Bennett is a competitor who hates to lose, and if he does he learns from it. He had a lot of good practice partners on the team his first three years, and he wasn't going to be denied after losing in the Finals as a junior," said Constantine wrestling coach Dale Davidhizar Jr.

VandenBerg played on Constantine's varsity football team for four years. He got a lot of extra playing time as a freshman when Constantine reached the Division 6 Semifinals during in the COVID-shortened season. He led the Falcons in rushing as a sophomore before switching to tight end as a junior. Out of necessity, VandenBerg returned to lead Constantine in rushing and scoring again as a senior.

"Bennett learned a great deal from the older guys on the team his first three varsity seasons. He learned leadership qualities and is a very unselfish kid who is willing to do what's best for his team," Griffith said.

VandenBerg is most proud of Constantine winning a District crown last fall, especially after his senior class went 0-5-1 as eighth graders. VandenBerg posted 164 solo tackles at defensive end during his final high school season and was Constantine's main offensive weapon with 1,354 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing on 186 carries.

"Winning Districts as seniors in football was a special moment. As eighth graders, we weren't exactly the most athletic team, but we put in the work as we got older to become successful," VandenBerg said.

VandenBerg has been invited to play for the West team at the annual Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's East-West All-Star Game this summer.

College coaches have shown interest in VandenBerg in all three sports, especially football and wrestling. VandenBerg, who carries a cumulative GPA of 3.989 and scored 1110 on his SAT, is weighing his options in athletics but knows he wants to study either ecology or forestry in college.

"I love being outdoors and doing what I love to do," VandenBerg said.

Scott HassingerScott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Constantine’s Bennett VandenBerg competes in the discus during a home meet his junior season. (Middle) VandenBerg, top position, battles Wyatt Spalo in their Division championship wrestling match at 285 pounds in March at Ford Field. (Below) VandenBerg (34) carries the football during a 2023 regular-season home game against Schoolcraft. (Photos by Brandon Watson/Sturgis Journal.)