By Dallas Lintner
Owosso athletic director
Our varsity football team lost last Friday night to St. Johns High School 55-19. It was certainly a tough loss for our team. Often times, players, coaches, and fans may indicate they feel like crying after such a loss; occasionally they may literally shed a tear.
Let me share the story of what brought me to tears following our team’s loss. I will tell you, it was not the loss. … It was the story of two strangers, Logan Turner and Blake Thelen.
Owosso senior Logan Turner was diagnosed with leukemia over a year ago. While still a part of the Owosso football program, Logan’s condition prevents him from participation in football, or even attending school; yet each week, with permission from his medical team, Logan may occasionally attend OHS football activities. I will tell you that his attendance has been an uplift for our players and coaches nearly as much as seeing his classmates has been an uplift for Logan.
Logan has never met Blake Thelen, yet they share a remarkable bond. Blake Thelen is a member of St. Johns varsity football team. Last year while on spring break, Blake had read an online article about Owosso’s Logan and the struggles he was going through. He remarked several months ago to a few family members and friends that he would like to do something for this kid from Owosso.
Many times, our children will make remarks like this and forget the sentiment all together after a short time. Blake did not forget this sentiment. Several months later, Blake kept his word and offered support to a stranger … to a brother of the gridiron … to a friend he has never met. This is why I cried last Friday night.
On the Wednesday before our game with St. Johns, I received a phone call from Blake’s mother, Shannon. Shannon informed me about her son’s awareness of our Logan and his plan to offer support. Blake had mobilized students and parents to “pass the hat” in the stands and to place donation collection tubs at the concession stand area. Blake’s plan had been announced by the St. Johns public address announcer between the first and second quarters. From witnessing the event personally, this story of Logan and Blake had received as strong of an ovation from the spectators in attendance as the St. Johns Homecoming royalty did at halftime. What a display of character, integrity, and love. This is why I cried.
Logan was in attendance at the game and was on the sideline for a short time before the cold weather forced him to leave for home. Following the game, Blake, his mother, and a few other members of Blake’s group met me on the field immediately after the two teams shook hands. St. Johns’ athletic director Chris Ervin introduced me to Blake and his helpers and also to his mother Shannon, the woman I had met on the phone two days prior. Shannon was holding a gift bag filled with plastic food containers. As we greeted each other at midfield, there was an array of emotions. The Redwing players were elated, following a convincing victory; the Trojans were dejected following the defeat, and I was standing between the two groups smiling with tears running down my face as I tried to utter a few inspired works to Blake and his group expressing our gratitude, our surprise, and our awe for him and his generous deed.
I fear that I was only able to mumble a few incoherent syllables to that group. I spent most of the weekend attempting to determine how best to express today what I couldn’t express Friday night. This is why I cried.
When I returned home Friday evening, I sat in my chair with those plastic food containers and began to sort and count the donations from the evening. I was impressed that there was a great deal of pocket change in those canisters. Most likely from children who emptied their pockets into the tubs. At halftime, my own son purchased one less sucker at the concession stand so that he would have a quarter left over to donate to Logan. Shannon Thelen indicated that fans were flagging their people down in the stands with cash in hand. You wouldn’t believe the number of donations that came in denominations of 10 and 20 dollars, all for a stranger.
At the end of the night, I sat in my chair with $923.11 for Logan and his family. This is a remarkable sum that came from strangers … that came from Blake.
While the donations are very impressive, this is not what choked me up then and still. It is the notion that a student was moved by someone else’s story, took initiative, and gave a gift of far more value than $923.11. He gave friendship, he gave compassion, he gave love. School sports are often judged by scores, records, and stats. In this case, no score, record, or stat can do justice to this inspirational story.
It is these types of moments that inspire me to do what I do; to be associated with children who do amazing things. This high school football game transcended high school athletics and became a great human interest story on a very personal level.
This is why I cried after losing a football game.
God Bless you Blake.
God Bless you Logan.
PHOTO: Owosso athletic director Dallas Lintner, middle, stands with (from left) Jake Dorn, Adam Webb, Tyler Luznak and Blake Thelen after Friday's football game between the teams. (Photo courtesy of St. Johns athletic department.)
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.)