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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 — 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 email@example.com 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.)