Nurturing Our Lower Level Programs

May 15, 2014

By John E. “Jack” Roberts
MHSAA Executive Director

When I’ve been faced with the most difficult choices as to different courses of action for the MHSAA, I’ve tried to face up to this reframing of the issue: “If we were creating the MHSAA for the first time today, would we do this, or would we do that?”

For example, would we or would we not limit coaches’ contact with athletes out of season? Would we have a 90-day period of ineligibility for transfer students or would it be 180 days?

There are other examples of such “either, or” questions I could provide, but none is as difficult or defining as this: Should school sports under the MHSAA’s auspices provide more opportunities for 7th- and 8th-graders and new opportunities for even younger students?

I won’t be coy about what I think our answer should be. I haven’t always felt this way, and I recognize it is a different opinion than some who are quoted in this publication; but today it’s my belief that if we were creating the MHSAA for the first time in 2014, the MHSAA would allow more contests and longer contests for 7th- and 8th-graders, and the MHSAA would have competition policies and programs for younger middle schoolers too.

I believe this is what parents want for their children and what students want for themselves; and I believe, within reason, that the better we serve these students in their junior high/middle school years, the stronger high school sports will be and the better these programs will support the educational missions of schools.

I believe we must begin to serve middle school students more comprehensively, and that our doing so today is the best hope we have for retaining comprehensive programs for high school students tomorrow. Not only does the lower profile and pressure of lower level programs nurture the highest ideals of educational athletics, they provide our highest hope for preserving those ideals at the high school level.

The Lasting Impact of First Impressions

The over-arching question before us is how to maintain policies that encourage multiple sport experiences for students at the junior high/middle school level while at the same time adjusting those policies in terms of grade level served and the numbers and lengths of contests allowed in order to be more attractive to junior high/middle school parents and to school districts which desire additional competition opportunities in the school setting for students prior to high school.

There is a good healthy discussion in our midst about the scope of junior high/middle school athletics – how much should occur and how young it should commence; and the result of these discussions may have long-lasting effect on students, schools and the MHSAA.

Here are two central issues:

1.  Contest Limits

Many people over many years have contributed to developing the current season limitations for the number of contests permitted by MHSAA member junior high/middle schools. These good people have believed in a philosophy of sports at this level that encourages students to try multiple sports.

“Kids haven’t fully matured yet,” they say. “Kids haven’t been exposed to some sports yet. They don’t know what they might like or be good at. So let’s have policies and programs that encourage new opportunities and experiences at this level.”

The season limits that have been put in place allow some junior high/middle schools, or their entire leagues, to fit four distinct seasons in a nine-month school year, consistent with this over-arching philosophy to encourage these students to try new things and learn.

There is another educationally grounded and equally astute group of administrators and coaches who are concerned that the current limits are too severe in comparison to non-school youth sports programs. For example, community/club basketball or soccer programs may schedule 15 or 18 or more games per season versus the MHSAA limit of 12 at the junior high/middle school level.

These folks think these restrictive limitations create a disincentive for kids to play school sports, and that many of those who have no place in junior high/middle school sports have no interest later in high school sports.

2.  6th-Graders

Historically, the popular opinion among educators has held that 7th and 8th grade is early enough for schools to provide competitive athletics, early enough to put youth into the competitive sports arena, and early enough to pit one school against another in sports.

Today, however, many educators and parents point out that such protective philosophies and policies were adopted about the same time “play days” were considered to be the maximum exertion females should experience in school sports. Some administrators and coaches argue that both our severe limits on contest limits at the junior high/middle school level, and our refusal to serve 6th-graders, are as out of date and inappropriate as play days for females.

Today, in nearly four of five school districts with MHSAA member schools, 6th-graders go to school in the same building with 7th- and 8th-graders. But MHSAA rules don’t allow 6th-graders to participate with and against 7th- and 8th-graders. In fact, the MHSAA Constitution doesn’t even acknowledge that 6th-graders exist.

Today, in many places, 6th-graders have aged-out of non-school, community sports, but they are not permitted to play on MHSAA junior high/middle school teams.

Last school year, 50 different school districts requested this rule be waived for them, and the MHSAA Executive Committee approved 46 of 50 waivers, allowing 6th-graders to compete on 7th- and 8th-grade teams. During 2011-12, 37 of 40 requests for waiver were approved, in all cases for small junior high/middle schools. Many of these schools want, and some of them desperately need, these 6th-graders to fill out junior high/middle school teams.

Young people are starting sports much younger today than 100 years ago when the MHSAA was created. Younger than even 50 years ago when the MHSAA was incorporated. If the MHSAA were created today to serve any students before 9th grade, I’m certain it would not leave out 6th-graders who are walking the same halls with 7th- and 8th-graders, and who have been playing competitive sports almost since the first day they started walking at all.

Eyes on the future

The most important thing we can do to enhance high school sports is to grow junior high/middle school sports programs. The earlier we disconnect young people from non-school sports and engage them in school-sponsored sports, the better our chances are of keeping high school athletic programs healthy, and the better our prospects are of keeping both participation rates and conduct standards high.

School sports are in competition for hearts and minds of young people. Our competition includes movies, jobs, cars, video games, boyfriends and girlfriends and club sports ... especially club sports. School sports needs to market itself better, and part of better is to be available earlier – much sooner in the lives of youth. More contests at the junior high/middle school level and more opportunities for 6th-graders should be parts of our marketing strategies on behalf of educational athletics generally.

For at least 50 years there have been predictions by people outside of our member schools that the system of school-sponsored sports that is almost unique to the United States would someday give way to the system of most countries where youth sports is provided by non-school community groups and private athletic clubs. Some people challenge school-sponsored sports on a program basis – for example, that competitive athletics creates a distraction to the core educational mission of schools. Others may challenge school-sponsored sports on a financial basis – that interscholastic athletics compete for the limited resources communities have to support their schools.

Today there also exists among our member schools a small percentage of administrators who have come to their leadership roles without involvement in school sports and who either desire and believe that interscholastic sports will be moved from schools to communities or who do not want but predict that such will occur as resources for schools continue to shrink.

I believe this is more likely to happen, or to happen sooner, if we do not change our approach to junior high/middle school sports. If we continue to restrict 7th- and 8th-graders to so few contests of such limited length compared to what those students have in non-school sports, and if we continue to offer nothing for younger students, we essentially and effectively force these students to non-school sports.

It is an often cited statistic that between 80 and 90 percent of all young people who ever begin playing competitive athletics stop playing before they reach the age of 13, meaning the vast majority of young people never, ever are involved in school programs. Thus, it is no mystery why people question the future of school sports. We’re doing nothing to make programs available to them. They have no experience in them.

Our restrictive and possibly outdated policies and procedures regarding contest limits and lengths and the age at which we begin to serve junior high/middle school students may assure that the dire predictions about school sports’ future will be accurate. We are doing too little, too late. It is marketing at its worst.

In my mind there is little doubt that we are doing too little too late with junior high/middle school students. Now the challenge before us is to think beyond “we can’t afford it” and make some necessary changes, while still avoiding a system that allows or even encourages schools doing too much too soon.

Retired Official Gives Alpena AD New Life with Donated Kidney - 'Something I Had to Do'

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 3, 2024

TAWAS CITY – Jon Studley woke up Feb. 20 with a lot of fond memories on his mind, which turned into a collection of 47 photos posted to Facebook showing how he’d lived a fuller life over the past year with Dan Godwin’s kidney helping power his body.

There was Studley at the beach, taking a sunset shot with wife Shannon and their 5-year-old daughter Maizy. In others Dad and daughter are at the ice rink, making breakfast and hitting pitches in the yard. Studley made it to Ford Field to cheer on the Lions, supported his Alpena High athletes at MHSAA Finals and traveled to Orlando for a national athletic directors conference.

Their faces are beaming, a far cry from much of 2021 and 2022 and the first few months of 2023 as the Studleys and Godwins built up to a weekend in Cleveland that recharged Jon’s body and at least extended his life, if not saved it altogether.

“People that saw me before transplant, they thought I was dying,” Studley recalled Feb. 21 as he and Godwin met to retell their story over a long lunch in Tawas. “That’s how bad I looked.

“(I’m) thankful that Dan was willing to do this. Because if he didn’t, I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

By his own admission, Studley will never be able to thank Godwin enough for making all of this possible. But more on that later.

Studley and Godwin – a retired probation officer and high school sports official – hope their transplant journey together over the last 23 months inspires someone to consider becoming a donor as well.

For Studley, the motivation is obvious. Amid two years of nightly 10-hour dialysis cycles, and the final six months with his quality of life dipping significantly, Studley knew a kidney transplant would be the only way he’d be able to reclaim an active lifestyle. And it’s worked, perhaps better than either he or Godwin imagined was possible.

For Godwin, the reasons are a little different – and admittedly a bit unanticipated. He’d known Studley mostly from refereeing basketball games where Studley had served as an athletic director. He’d always appreciated how Studley took care of him and his crew when they worked at his school. But while that was pretty much the extent of their previous relationship, some details of Studley’s story and similarities to his own really struck Godwin – and led him to make their lifelong connection.

“It’s been rewarding for me. I have told Jon, and I’ve said this to anyone who would listen, that I’m grateful and feel lucky that I’ve been part of this process,” Godwin said. “I don’t feel burdened. I don’t feel anything except a sense of appreciation to Jon that he took me on this journey. I didn’t expect that, but that’s how I feel.”   

Making a connection

As of March, there were 103,223 people nationwide on the national organ transplant waiting list, with 89,101 – or more than 86 percent – hoping for a kidney, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN). More than 46,000 transplants were performed in 2023, including the sharing of more than 27,000 kidneys.

Godwin giving one to Studley was among them.

Studley, 43, has served in school athletics for most of the last two decades since graduating with his bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University. After previously serving as an assistant at Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, he became the school’s athletic director at 2009. He moved to Caro in 2012, then to his alma mater Tawas in 2015 for a year before going to Ogemaw Heights. He then took over the Alpena athletic department at the start of the 2020-21 school year, during perhaps the most complicated time in Michigan school sports history as just months earlier the MHSAA was forced to cancel the 2020 spring season because of COVID-19.

He's respected and appreciated both locally and statewide, and was named his region’s Athletic Director of the Year for 2019-20 by the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. Concurrently with serving at Sacred Heart and earning his master’s at CMU, Studley served as athletic director of Mid Michigan College as that school brought back athletics in 2010 for the first time in three decades. He also served four years on the Tawas City Council during his time at Tawas High and Ogemaw Heights.

Studley cheers on Alpena athletes during last season’s MHSAA Track & Field Finals at Rockford High School.Toward the end of his senior year of high school in 2001, Studley was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. For the next two decades, he managed his diabetes primarily with insulin and other medication. But during that first year at Alpena, his health began to take a turn. Studley had been diagnosed with a heart condition – non-compaction cardiomyopathy – which led him to Cleveland Clinic for testing. A urine test in Cleveland indicated his kidneys might not be working like they should – which led to a trip to a specialist and eventually the diagnosis of kidney failure and the start of dialysis, with a kidney transplant inevitable.

Dialysis long has been a standard treatment for people with kidney issues. But it can take a toll. In Studley’s case, that meant being tired all the time – to the point of falling asleep at his desk or having to pull over while driving. He wasn’t receiving enough nutrients and was unable to lift things because of the port for the dialysis tube. Extra fluid building up that his body wouldn’t flush made him constantly uncomfortable.

The next step was transplant, and in July 2021 he was approved to receive a kidney.

The Studleys thought they had a prospect early on, as an aunt on Shannon’s side was a candidate for a paired match – her blood and tissue types weren’t a match for Studley, but matched another person on the waiting list whose donor would be a candidate to give Studley a kidney. But that didn’t work out.

Others showed interest and asked about the process, especially after Studley’s 20-year class reunion in 2021, but nothing concrete came about. Amid the early disappointment, Studley took some time to consider his next move – and then put out a plea over Facebook that fall to his close to 1,000 connections hoping that someone, anyone, might consider.

“I took a week to really think about it – this is what I’m asking for someone to do. I had to get over it in my mind that it was OK to ask,” Studley said. “I’m going to ask someone to make a sacrifice for me, and that’s not me. I always want to help everybody else.”

Godwin is that way too. And immediately after reading Studley’s post, he knew he needed to consider making a call.

Strong match

Godwin had moved to Tawas City from Midland in 2014, and after a few years off from officiating decided to get back on the court that following winter.

He thinks he and Studley may have crossed paths at some point during Studley’s tenures at Sacred Heart and Caro, but it was at Tawas where they got to know each other. Although Studley stayed at Tawas just one school year, Godwin continued officiating for him at Ogemaw Heights – and in fact, Godwin’s final game in 2018 was there, during the District basketball tournament. That night, during the first quarter, Godwin tore the plantar fasciitis in his left foot. He didn’t know if he’d be able to finish the game – the officials from the first game that night stuck around to step in just in case – but thanks in part to Studley connecting Godwin with the Alpena trainer during halftime, he was able to get through the final two quarters and finish his officiating career on his feet.

They’d become Facebook “friends” at some point, so Godwin had seen Studley’s posts over the years with Shannon and Maizy. And when he saw Studley ask for help, something hit him – “immediately.”

Godwin and Studley meet for the first time after the transplant, and again six months later. “I have a 5-year-old granddaughter, almost exactly the same age as Jon’s, and I’m the dad of one child, a daughter, so there were those connections,” Godwin said. “It almost didn’t feel like there was a choice. It felt like it was something I had to do.”

Godwin is 66 and always has been in good health. He’s also always been an organ donor on his driver's license and given blood, things like that. But he had never considered sharing an organ as a living donor until reading Studley’s post.

He read it again to his wife Laurie. They talked it over. He explained why he felt strongly about donating, even to someone he didn’t know that well. After some expected initial fears, Laurie was in. Their daughter had the same fears – What about the slight chance something could go wrong? – but told Laurie she knew neither of them would be able to change her dad’s mind.

“It took me a while to get on board with it, even though I knew in the vast majority of cases somebody who donates an organ is going to be absolutely fine. It’s still major surgery,” Laurie said. “I guess he was just feeling so much like it was something he wanted to do, and he is a very healthy physically fit person. So I felt the odds were really good that he was going to be fine.

“And really, probably, the deciding factor was Maizy. We have a granddaughter the same age, so we were just thinking she needs a dad.”

After a few more days of contemplation, Dan called Cleveland Clinic to find out how to get started.

Then he texted Studley.

“I was nervous saying yes. At first, I didn’t know what to say – I just kept saying, ‘You don’t have to do this, but I appreciate it,’” Studley said. “I never want to have somebody do something for me unless (the situation is dire) … so I told him thank you and I appreciate it, and no pressure.”

Generally, Studley said, the donor and recipient don’t receive information on how the other person is progressing through the process. Godwin, however, kept Studley in the loop, which was a good thing. “But then you’re wondering if it’s going to happen,” Studley said, “if it’s truly a match.”

The initial blood test showed that Godwin wasn’t just a match, but a “strong” match, meaning they share a blood type – the rarest, in fact – and Godwin also didn’t have the worrisome antibodies that could’ve caused his kidney to refuse becoming part of Studley’s body.

That was amazing news. But just the start. “There was so much more we had to go through just to get to surgery day,” Studley said.

Long road ahead

Studley relates the transplant process to a job interview. After meeting with a potential boss, the candidate must wait for an answer – and it could come the next day, or the next week, or months later.

There were several more tests for both to take to make sure the transplant had not only a strong enough chance of being successful, but also wouldn’t be harmful for either of them.

“Right up until the time of the donation, (things) can happen. Like they did blood work on me the Friday before the kidney transplant on Monday, and if that had showed something they were going to send me home,” Godwin said. “So I just kept thinking, is this going to work? It seemed that there were more things that could go wrong than the possibility that it could go right. And that sets everybody up for disappointment – me, because I was invested in doing it, and of course Jon and his family because it was important to them.”

Godwin made a trip to Cleveland Clinic in November – about three months before the surgery. It wasn’t a great visit. His electrocardiogram showed a concern, and a few suspicious skin lesions were an issue because donors must be cancer-free. Almost worse, he couldn’t get in for a follow-up appointment for six weeks.

The wait felt longer knowing not only that there was a possibility for disappointment for Studley, but also the potential something could be unwell with Godwin. But then came good news – at his follow-up, Godwin aced his stress test, alleviating any heart concerns, and the dermatologist said the lesions were basal cell carcinoma and not considered risky to the transplant.

Over the next three months, both Godwin and Studley continued to do whatever they could to keep the transplant on track. To avoid COVID, Godwin and his wife isolated as much as they could, and Studley began wearing a mask frequently at work. Godwin cut out alcohol and coffee and began walking regularly to keep in tip-top shape.

In January 2023, both got the final OK, and the surgery was scheduled for Feb. 20.

But that wasn’t the end of the anxiety.

Studley also had undergone a series of tests and doctor visits, and two days before the transplant he had to get a tooth removed to avoid a possible infection.

Then, on the way from Alpena to Cleveland, Studley’s vehicle hit a deer.

“How is this going to go now?” he recalled thinking. “This is how it started. What’s going to happen now?”

Both arrived in Cleveland safely, eventually. The families stayed apart all weekend, Studley and Godwin communicating briefly by text to check in. There were a few more stop-and-go moments. Godwin’s Friday blood work showed something unfamiliar that ended up harmless. On the day of the surgery, Studley was wheeled to just outside the operating room – and then taken back to his hospital room for another 15 minutes of suspense. Once Studley made it into the operating room, his doctors had to pause during the surgery to tend to an emergency.

But finally, the transplant was complete. And seemingly meant to be. Godwin’s kidney was producing urine for Studley’s body before the surgeons had finished closing him up.

Back on his feet

Studley said he knew he’d be fine once he could start walking the hallways at the hospital; he started doing so the next morning. Later that same day after transplant, on the way back from one of those walks, he saw Godwin for the first time since they’d both arrived in Cleveland. “It was absolutely emotional,” Godwin said.

Godwin went home four days after the surgery. Studley stayed the next month with appointments and labs twice a week. Shannon remained with him the first week, then friends Mike Baldwin and Josh Renkly and Studley’s father Larry took turns as roommates for a week apiece.

For the first three months, including his first two back in Alpena, Studley couldn’t go anywhere except for the trip to Cleveland every other week – which has now turned into every other month with virtual appointments the months in between. Total he missed about six months of work – and thanked especially assistant athletic director and hockey coach Ben Henry for shouldering the load in his absence.

Studley’s checkups are full of more good news. His body is showing no signs of rejecting the kidney. And as long as he keeps his diabetes under control, that shouldn’t affect his new organ either.

Shannon sees the difference while comparing a pair of family trips. The Studleys went to Disney World while Jon was on dialysis, and she said he made it through but got home just “depleted.” This past spring break, the family went to Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Jon had visibly more energy for hiking and other activities. The last six months of dialysis, Jon was sleeping a lot, but this spring he’s helping coach Maizy’s T-ball team and overall is able to spend more quality time with her.

“Most of (Maizy’s) life she’s only known him as sick Dad,” said Shannon, a counselor at Alpena’s Thunder Bay Junior High. “He wasn’t able to do a lot of things with her, and I’ve seen a lot more of that, and I think she notices.”

Studley, his wife Shannon and daughter Maizy enjoy a moment after Jon had returned to good health.Jon will be taking anti-rejection medicine and a steroid every 12 hours for the rest of his life, but that and some other little life adjustments are more than worth it. All anyone has to do is look at those 47 photos from the Facebook post to understand why.

Godwin said he feels better now than he did even before surgery. He does his checkups with Cleveland Clinic over the phone. He also said that if Studley had been found at some point late in the process to be unable to except the kidney, Godwin still would’ve given it to someone else on the waiting list. “I was so invested at that point,” Godwin remembered. “That kidney was going.”  

The two families got together for a reunion in August in Tawas, where they had lunch and walked the pier and the Godwins met Maizy for the first time. She doesn’t really get what’s transpired, but definitely notices Dad doesn’t have a tube coming out of his body at night anymore.

And it’s clear the two men value the connection they’ve made through this unlikely set of circumstances.

“His attitude has been inspiring,” Godwin said. “Because you’ve been through the mill (and) I’ve never heard a negative thing, ‘poor me’ or anything. And I think maybe that’s what helps keep you going.”

“You talk to people who know Dan, and they said, ‘That’s Dan. That’s what Dan does,’” Studley said, speaking of Godwin’s gift and then addressing him directly. “The hardest part for me, the biggest struggle … is there’s no way I’m going to ever be able to thank you for this.

“It’s like the post I posted yesterday on Facebook. I posted pictures of everything I had done in the last year, and a lot of it was stuff that I hadn’t done in a long time. My way to thank Dan is just living my life the best I can, enjoying my family. … For me, it’s changed my perspective.”

As lunch finished up, Godwin did have one ask in return – not for one of Studley’s organs, but to be part of a special moment that helped drive him to donate 12 months earlier.

“This isn’t the venue, but I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve never asked for anything and I don’t want anything,” Godwin said, “but I would like to go to Maizy’s wedding.”

“Yeah, you … yes. Yes,” Studley replied. “You can go to anything you want to go to with my family.”

“I’d like to be there.”

“You will definitely be there.”

“I was at my daughter’s wedding,” Godwin said, noting again that connection between the men’s families, and the importance he felt in Studley being there for Maizy like he’d been there for his child.

“You say that, but there were times I didn’t know if I’d make it to Maizy’s wedding. I might not make it to see her graduate. So …” Studley trailed off, ready to take the next step in his life rejuvenated.

Studley emphasized the continuing need for kidney donors and refers anyone interested in learning more to the National Kidney Registry.

PHOTOS (Top) Alpena athletic director Jon Studley, left, and retired MHSAA game official Dan Godwin take a photo together on the shore of Lake Huron one year after Godwin donated a kidney to Studley. (2) Studley cheers on Alpena athletes during last season’s MHSAA Track & Field Finals at Rockford High School. (3) Godwin and Studley meet for the first time after the transplant, and again six months later. (4) Studley, his wife Shannon and daughter Maizy enjoy a moment after Jon had returned to good health. (Top photo by Geoff Kimmerly; other photos provided by Jon Studley.)