Port Huron Scores with 'Victory Day'

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

August 14, 2018

PORT HURON – The first touchdown of the football season has already been scored at Port Huron High School’s Memorial Stadium.

In fact, nearly 60 were scored two weeks before the Big Reds are set to take the field in Week 1 against Flint Carman-Ainsworth, and it will be tough to find any that mean more this season.

Port Huron hosted its fourth annual “Victory Day” this past Friday, giving special needs students in the community a chance to experience a Friday night atmosphere in the stadium.

“You have kids from all around that have special needs and they give them one day, and to see them smile and see their faces, to me it’s priceless,” said Aaron Sigafoose, whose 6-year-old son Wesley participated. “To me, it’s priceless as a parent. It’s really cool.”

Wesley was one of a record 67 participants who pre-registered for the event. Individuals ages 5 to 26 are eligible to sign up, but Port Huron football coach Ryan Mullins said his program wouldn’t turn anyone away.

Each participant is matched with a varsity football player or cheerleader as a mentor, runs through the band onto the field after being announced as part of the starting lineup, and participates in one offensive play which ends in a touchdown.

As Wesley and his fellow participants made their way to the goal line, the junior varsity football team provided a skeleton offense around each ball carrier, and the freshman team served as the defense. An announcer boomed and the crowd roared during each run, and when a touchdown was scored, everyone celebrated like it was a game-winner.

“It was awesome,” said Port Huron sophomore Jace Mullins, Ryan Mullins' oldest son, after helping his buddy Ranger score a touchdown. “Just working with them for the hour we had with them, it was just awesome. It was a blessing. It was fun.

“I think it means a lot. … Just for him to know what it’s like to score, to reach the end zone especially in this stadium, it’s awesome.”

Victory Day was started at Trenton in 2010 by coach Aaron Segedi, a former teammate of Ryan Mullins at Saginaw Valley State University. Segedi was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, and as he battled the disease, his sister Rhonda donated 70 percent of her liver to him. Inspired by his sister’s selflessness, Segedi vowed to make his community a better place and started Victory Day. The event has spread, not only to Port Huron and other parts of Michigan, but into Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota and New Jersey, according to the Victory Day website. This year’s Victory Day in Trenton will be Sept. 15.

Port Huron High School counselor Tracey Hopp – Ranger’s mother – brought the idea to Mullins, who didn’t hesitate to start one at their school. That first year, Segedi came to Port Huron to help the Big Reds get the event off the ground.

“Aaron actually goes across the United States and does it,” Mullins said. “He does it at the university level, he does it at the high school level, and along the way he’s been able to get sponsorships to help with uniforms and the medal, so there’s really no cost to participate.”

While the event is meant to bring joy to special needs students in the community, Mullins said his players look forward to it just as much.

“The guys who have done it already, they’re looking to see the player they were paired up with last year,” Mullins said. “We give them a little background information about the player, and they want to know that stuff. We really try to make that connection. They’re taking them through the locker room, playing catch with them, there’s agility bags. There’s a lot of things going on just to try to make a connection and make a friend with them.”

Seeing the joy on the faces of the participants also helps the players appreciate the opportunity they have to play each week.

“Some of us play for kids like that,” Port Huron sophomore Noah Kindle said. “Just seeing them after the game, giving them a hug, things like that.”

Kindle said he’s looked forward to this part of being a varsity football player at Port Huron, and he’s excited to get to work with Wesley Sigafoose at Victory Day for the next two years. Wesley showed his appreciation immediately after scoring, turning and giving Kindle a hug after he crossed the goal line.

While the players certainly get a lot out of the event, they also know that this one time, the Memorial Stadium bleachers aren’t filled to see them, and they’re perfectly fine with that.

“This event, it’s not about us; it’s not about the Port Huron Big Reds,” Jace Mullins said. “It’s about the kids, it’s about the participants – just for them to get this experience.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Port Huron “Victory Day” participant runs toward the end zone while Port Huron players give chase Friday. (Middle) A Big Reds cheerleader carries her partner and the ball toward the goal line as defenders pursue. (Below) A participant looks back to see Port Huron teammates charging down the field with him. (Photos by Jeremiah May.)

Nightingale Embarking on 1st Season as College Football Head Coach

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

July 10, 2024

CJ Nightingale's family values, small-town upbringing and Christian faith steered the Mendon native into a career coaching college football.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosNightingale, a 2010 Mendon High School graduate, is busily preparing for his first season as Belhaven University's eighth football coach. He was officially named the Blazers' head coach seven months ago, on Jan. 1.

Belhaven, a Division III school located in Jackson, Mississippi, competes in the USA South Athletic Conference.

Nightingale credits his love of coaching to his father Chris Nightingale and grandfather Charles Nightingale.

"It all started with my dad and grandfather. At one time they were both involved in coaching, and their general love for sports wore off on me," CJ Nightingale said.

Once CJ reached high school, his interest in athletics only intensified thanks to several people who made a big impact on him.

"I had the most wonderful experience attending school and participating in Mendon athletics,” Nightingale said. “We didn't always have the better athletes, but we were successful because of all the time and commitment put in by our coaches, teachers, administration along with parental and community support. Success is the result of many people who focus on the same cause."

Nightingale lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Mendon, earning four varsity letters in all three sports. He was named the St. Joseph Valley League's MVP in all three sports his senior year, and Mendon earned league titles in all three during Nightingale's senior year as well.

As a starting quarterback and defensive back his sophomore year, Nightingale led Mendon to the 2007 Division 7 football championship with the Hornets' 20-0 win over Traverse City St. Francis. Nightingale still holds the state record for career interceptions with 27.

Mendon had finished the 2006 season 3-6. A losing season remains rare in Mendon, and Nightingale stated it fueled the Hornets' title run the following season.

"I think losing is more difficult in football than in any other sport because of how much work goes into preparing for a season,” Nightingale recalled. “We were a very young team in 2006 and got punched in the mouth. It wasn't the best feeling, but it was a real learning experience and served as a big driving force that next season.

"All the hard times we endured the previous year served as a byproduct for our success in 2007. That team was unselfish, and not one player on the team cared who got the stats or accolades."

At Mendon, Nightingale played for legendary coach John Schwartz in football, David Swanwick in basketball and Glen Samson in baseball.

Lessons from Schwartz – a member of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame – and Samson have especially stuck with Nightingale into adult life and his own coaching career.

"Coach Schwartz had a way of getting everyone on the same page not just on the field, but he taught you how to be the best version of yourself off the field in every-day life. Coach Samson knew how to get his players in the right positions on the diamond to make us successful," Nightingale said.

"The environment at Mendon solidified my desire to become a coach and teacher. The best leaders are also the best teachers, and when you are surrounded by people like that it makes a big difference."

Nightingale attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he lettered in football four years as a defensive back and return specialist. During Nightingale's career, the Thunder posted a combined record of 34-8 and qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs when he was a freshman.

After graduating college, Nightingale taught history and spent two years as the varsity football coach at Richmond High School in Indiana. In 2016 he secured his first collegiate coaching job at Greenville University (Ill.) as a defensive backs coach, where he spent one season. He then served as special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Indiana Wesleyan University beginning in 2017 before returning to his alma mater Wheaton in 2019 as the Thunder's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. Nightingale coached 24 all-conference players, 10 all-region performers and seven All-Americans over his four seasons at Wheaton, and the Thunder made the Division III playoffs all four years.

The head football coaching position at Belhaven became available in December 2023 when previous coach Blaine McCorkle moved on to Division 1 Northwestern State (La.). Nightingale applied and went through a three-week interview process before being selected as the program’s next head coach.

"I truly feel like God has called my wife Shanel and I and our family here for a reason. We are going to pour into Belhaven as deeply as we can and see what life brings us,” CJ Nightingale said. “As a college football coach, you have the unique chance to pour into your players spiritually, academically, athletically and socially. That's what is really special about this profession."

Belhaven's program has enjoyed a lot of success, especially the past three seasons with a combined 24-7 record, including a 9-2 finish last fall.

"I am very fortunate to be taking over a strong program here at Belhaven. You don't sustain success, but rather you must be able to build on it," Nightingale said. "We are excited about this season after a great spring. This group of coaches and players got a lot done these past six months. We have had a lot of guys here on campus all summer working to get better. There are lot of goals in front of us that haven't been achieved yet. Two of those goals are to go undefeated in conference play and host a playoff game.”

CJ and Shanel have three children, including 5-year old daughter Charlotte, 3-year old son Trey and 14-month old daughter Coco. They are expecting a fourth child in mid-September.

2024 Made In Michigan

June 28: E-TC's Witt Bulldozing Path from Small Town to Football's Biggest Stage - Read

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Mendon’s CJ Nightingale (2) celebrates during his team’s 2007 championship win over Traverse City St. Francis at Ford Field; at right Nightingale is pictured with his wife Shanel and children Charlotte, Trey and Coco. (Middle) Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. (Family photo courtesy of CJ Nightingale.)