By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
Rob LaMielle’s first attempted field goal was a memorable one, and frankly, a bit amazing.
For starters, his track record on extra points, at least to that point in the season, was less than stellar. Flint Holy Redeemer entered their third game of the 1963 slate with a 1-1 record. The Flyers were defeated by Bad Axe in Week 1, then trounced Imlay City the next week. The senior had been successful on only 3 of 9 extra-point placements on the year.
“You had to bring that up,” said LaMielle over 55 years later, laughing at the statistic. “That’s probably so. Bad Axe was rated No. 1 in the state in Class ‘B.’ We were a ‘C’ school. They beat us 13-12 that night, because I missed two extra points. They scored in the very last couple minutes.”
The fact that his field goal was on the mark is all the more impressive considering it traveled 50 yards, clearing the crossbar by three feet, according to observers. Even more remarkable, it was a mere three yards shy of Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza’s best effort for the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns, and just six yards short of the NFL record, set by Bert Rechichar of the Baltimore Colts in 1953. Rechichar held the mark until it was famously topped by New Orleans Saints kicker Tom Dempsey in 1970 against the Detroit Lions.
“We practiced behind our football field,” said LaMielle, recalling how he got the job. “Behind our football field was two baseball fields with a backstop at each end. Well the coach lined everybody up on second base and said, ‘OK, we’re going to find out who can kick a field goal.’ So we started kicking the ball over the backstop. One of the times I kicked it, and it went a long ways.”
St. Redeemer’s coach Dick Clark stopped the drill and named LaMielle the team’s kicker.
“Before my senior year, I’d never kicked off, never attempted an extra point.”
At the time, the 220-pound LaMielle, who, like Groza, played tackle, was asked if he was surprised by the success of his kick.
“I was more surprised Coach Clark asked me to try it,” he said.
The field goal helped Flint Holy Redeemer top Bay City St. James, 29-6.
It also prompted another question from sports reporters. Was LaMielle’s kick a Michigan high school record?
The publicity surrounding the kick sent sportswriters around the state scurrying for the archives.
Initial inquiries indicated that Jim Yore of Battle Creek Central held the state mark, with a 56-yard field goal about 10 years prior, but a recheck of records by Dick Kishpaugh, “sports publicity director at Kalamazoo College and a close observer of Michigan prep football records,” indicated that Yore’s longest had been a 38-yard field goal, kicked on the last play of the game to beat Ypsilanti 3-0 on Oct. 3, 1952. It was thought to be the longest in state history.
Additional digging found that Port Huron High School’s Alfred Davis, a 212-pound fullback, had drilled a flawless 46-yard field goal in a 19-14 win over Hazel Park in 1953.
“The word ‘tremendous’ is probably one of the most overused words in sports lexicon,” wrote Port Huron Times reporter Fred J. Vincent, “but it should be used in describing this kick.”
Vincent called it “perfect, splitting the uprights and clearing the bar by about six feet.”
Impressively, Davis also had kicked a 36-yarder earlier in the contest. “Bob Boyd held on both kicks,” added the sportswriter. “Not since Oct. 8, 1930 had a Big Red player kicked a three pointer. Hank Ceasor did it then to best Ferndale, 3-0.”
Word came that Cheboygan Catholic’s Joe Poirier had kicked one “reported to have traveled at least 53 yards from the point of the kick to the goal posts” in a 10-0 victory over Alcona in 1957. Since the MHSAA didn’t keep records at the time, Kishpaugh added it to his listing of unofficial state records.
The Ironwood Daily Globe unearthed a nugget. While it wasn’t considered by Kishpaugh for his record book, it did bring back memories of changes seen in the game.
Ironwood’s John ‘Cutz’ Cavosie made a “tremendous boot on Oct. 10, 1925 in the final seconds of a game at Oliver Field here in which Ironwood swamped Menominee 41-0. Cavosie apparently was back to punt, but instead he dropkicked the ball squarely through the goal posts 55 yards away. He was in his senior year that fall and was captain of the team. He played a big role in the rout on Menominee by scoring on runs of 42, 51 and 67 yards.”
So it was quite the event when, nearly 19 years later, junior Derrick Underwood broke Poirier’s mark on a cold October Friday at Inkster.
A week earlier, Underwood had made his first field goal of the season, a 23-yard boot in overtime to give Ecorse its first victory of the year in five starts, 9-6, over River Rouge. This time, his kick gave Ecorse a 3-0 victory over the Vikings, although in decidedly less dramatic fashion as the kick came in the second quarter.
“The strange thing is I didn’t even know that I was kicking it from the 44-yard line. To be honest, I wasn’t paying that much attention and it didn’t look that long,” Underwood told the Detroit Free Press in 1976. “But I got a real good snap on it and an excellent hold.
Red Raiders coach Patrick Kearney believed the kick would have been good from another five or 10 yards out.
“It felt good when I hit it,” added Underwood, “but because I was in front of the goal posts, I couldn’t tell whether it went over or under the crossbar. But I saw my teammates jumping up and down on the sidelines and I knew it made it.
“I was pretty loose because I figured that if I missed, we still had another half to come back and win it.”
Underwood’s accomplishment garnered national attention in the June/July ’77 issue of Joe Namath’s National Prep Sports magazine. At the time, Jerry Spicer of Hobart (Ind.) High School held the national record with a kick of 61 yards in 1975.
Exasperation to Jubilation
Underwood, who also served as the Red Raiders’ quarterback and defensive end, guided the team to Inkster’s one-foot line in that same game as the clock wound down. But with the lead, instead of pushing for the end zone, they let time expire.
A year earlier, in 1975, the Ecorse players watched their season disappear after a single game.
“The school millage was defeated just prior to the start of that season,” said Underwood, recalling his high school days some 45 years later. “I was the starting QB for the Red Raiders through my senior year ('78). We were heartbroken that our season was over after the first game against Muskegon Heights. No energy for that game.
“We were foaming at the mouth to be playing organized football. Some of us played flag football to stay active.”
“I was just practicing holding for a teammate,” Underwood had told the Free Press back in October 1976. “Eventually I thought I’d try and I got to be pretty good at it.”
“I didn’t take kicking seriously at all,” he states now. “I wasn’t a dedicated kicker. My stars were aligned in my head as being the next Thomas Lott.”
Lott, a Parade All-American out of San Antonio, Texas, played quarterback at Oklahoma, where his coach, the legendary Barry Switzer, once called him the greatest wishbone quarterback in Oklahoma history.
“Went down to Tennessee State University and found out how much football I didn’t know,” Underwood said.
Reminiscing he added, “Looking back, wouldn’t change a thing growing up in Ecorse.”
Equaled, then Topped – in the Same Game
Underwood’s mark would hold in Michigan until 1979, when junior Harold Moore of Dearborn equaled, then topped the mark in a season-ending game against Plymouth Canton.
Moore, a left-footed, straight-on kicking specialist, matched Underwood’s record with a 54-yard boot in the game’s first half, and then topped the record with a 55-yard field goal during the second half.
“I’ve never seen anyone with the leg power he has,” said his coach, Dick Ryan. “His 55-yard field goal cleared the bar with 20 feet to spare.”
Over the next two seasons, three players – Mike Prindle of Grand Rapids Union (1980), Bob Hirschman from Sterling Heights Ford (1980), and Dave Blackmer of Farmington Hills Harrison (1981) – would match Moore’s longest kick.
Since then, only five players have matched or exceeded 55 yards. John Langeloh of Utica shattered the mark in 1985 with a 58 yarder. Doug Kochanski of Warren Woods-Tower is the state’s current record holder, with a kick in 1994 that traveled 59 yards before splitting the uprights. The successful kick came in his final high school contest.
In these days of more and more specialization, one wonders, will Michigan ever see one of 60 yards or more?
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Detroit Free Press told the story behind Derrick Underwood’s record field goal for Ecorse in its Oct. 30, 1976 edition. (2) Battle Creek Central’s Jim Yore was one of the earliest record holders for longest field goal in Michigan high school history. (3) Alfred Davis also was a standout fullback for Port Huron. (4) Underwood also played quarterback and defensive end for the Red Raiders. (Photos gathered by Ron Pesch.)
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.)