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.
“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.
Senior 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.)
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.)