Singing the Praises of Unsung Heroes

July 2, 2013

By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor

“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is a documentary released in 2002 celebrating a group of musicians who called themselves the Funk Brothers.

Never heard of them?

All this unheralded group did was rack up more No. 1 hits than the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis – combined – during their unparalleled run as the musicians who drove the Motown sound.

Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, et al, took the bows; but it was this group of selfless, tireless, talented artists which thrust the vocalists to the front of the stage.

How quickly we recognize those songs from the first notes of that signature bass; the vibrant siren of horns, and rhythmic snapping of fingers before a single lyric is introduced.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, we introduce to you the Funk Brothers (and Sisters) of school sports: the athletic administrators.

The profession calls for selfless, tireless, talented individuals who trumpet the efforts of students, orchestrate harmony among coaches and parents, and set the stage for local, affordable entertainment within their communities.

In Michigan, the group assumes this responsibility with unwavering ambition and enthusiasm, setting a solid foundation for the futures of roughly 300,000 athletic participants annually.

As MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts notes, “They don’t try to be the stars of the show, but they are indispensable for letting the stars shine – the student-athletes and their coaches.”

It is a role they cherish, taking nearly as much pride in their school family as their own. It’s both a byproduct and a prerequisite for such a job that commands long hours and a knack for interaction with a wide array of personalities and age groups.

Mostly, it’s the young people who make it all worthwhile. They are, after all, the reason the job exists.

“Just watching so many students grow up from immature kids to young adults who now are very successful, and how they appreciate all the extra time you spent with them is rewarding,” said Marc Sonnenfeld, the district athletic director and dean of discipline at Warren Fitzgerald.

“And most important is the, ‘Thank You,’ you get five or 10 years later for pushing them and teaching them life lessons they will never forget.”

In a position largely devoid of gratitude, it’s little wonder that the smallest displays mean the most.

“Having a coach thank me for supporting them, and watching student growth through athletics mean a lot to me,” said Eve Claar, in her fourth year as athletic director and assistant principal at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School.

Brian Gordon, less than a year into his post as director of athletics and physical education for Novi High School/Middle School after 22 years as a coach and teacher in Royal Oak, also enjoys the impromptu reunions.

“One of the things I most enjoyed was having kids come back to the programs either as a coach, parent, or simply as a fan,” Gordon said. “Nothing is better than when I would look behind the backstop and see some former players watching and laughing while listening to me say the same things I had said 10 years earlier.”

Lessons learned along the way

The typical path taken to the administrative office usually includes a stop or two in the coaching realm, which assists in the transition to life outside the playing boundaries.

“The experiences you bring from coaching are a huge help. I made plenty of mistakes as a coach that I see my own coaches make to this day,” said Chris Ervin, in his seventh year as the activities director at St. Johns High School. “You make mistakes, learn from them, and then make sure not to make them again.

“My philosophy – although not realistic, but certainly something to strive for – is this: we would have much better coaches if these three prerequisites were in place. 1) Coaches must be a parent first; 2) must be an official, and 3) must be an athletic director. If coaches had to have these three experiences before being allowed to coach, they would have a whole new perspective when working with students, parents and officials.”

Having been coaches first, however, lends an appreciation to the task of working with students on a daily basis and an understanding as to how an athletic director can best assist his or her coaches.

“Being a coach helped me to learn time management, and I became better at making relationships. In my job now, it helps me to look at things from the coaches’ viewpoints,” said Christian Wilson, the athletic director and assistant principal at Gaylord High School for 11 years. “As a coach, you have an immediate impact on students; administration involves more interaction with adults.”

A coaching background also can cause an athletic director to re-examine his or her days as a coach, and how they might have had a greater awareness for a former administrator’s tasks.

”The learning curve as the athletic director is massive,” said Gordon. “The job itself is huge. As a coach, you just worry about your own sport. As athletic director, I have more than 70 teams to tend to and over 100 coaches to worry about. Coaching and teaching only scratch the surface of what happens in any athletic office every day, but doing that for more than 20 years has helped the transition significantly.”

It is a viewpoint shared by Ken Mohney, a 14-year director of student activities for both the high school and middle school at Mattawan Consolidated Schools.

“Athletic administration opens up the big picture of the department and school mission. Instead of only focusing on the sport that one coaches, administrators must coordinate a program so that all sports collectively enhance the academic success of the entire school,” said Mohney, who also coached three sports at Mattawan for eight years prior to assuming his current duties. “I miss the connection to players and students that I had as a teacher and coach, as it is much more difficult to create and maintain positive relationships with kids in an administrative role.” 

The majority of administrators who have had experience coaching admit to missing the close interaction with students and the opportunity to watch them develop into successful adults.

But, in some respects, the number of lives one can reach as an administrator is multiplied, and the scrapbook moments just take on slightly different poses.

Mike Thayer, athletic director and assistant principal for the past six years at Bay City Western High School following a decade at Merrill, recounts one of his proudest days in the business.

“In 1999, Merrill Community Schools had two MHSAA Scholar-Athletes Award winners,” Thayer said. “The senior class that year had approximately 80 students; yet, they produced two winners of this prestigious award. I miss the student interaction and school pride associated with team-building in coaching, but I do not miss the travel.”

Many duties call

Some ADs, however, might rather board the buses than schedule them, another of the many duties carried out on a weekly basis. In some cases, the position is responsible for school-wide transportation, not just athletic transportation.

Where once being the AD meant just that, the title for many in the profession today also includes a “/” before or after the words “athletic director.” It’s a trend which threatens the growth and quality of athletics in the educational mission of schools.

Even in schools where athletics are well entrenched and participation numbers soar, the people leading the charge are being asked to do more with less, often taking on responsibilities once doled out to two, and even three, individuals.

“Some of the larger challenges for me include the budget, balancing a very large work load, and just having enough time to evaluate coaches and programs effectively,” said Claar, who estimates that 60 percent of Pioneer’s 1,893 students participate in at least one sport.

Figuring conservatively, that’s more than 1,000 students deserving of her utmost attention in their extracurricular pursuits. But Claar also is assistant principal to the entire student body.

“Given the additional responsibilities, ADs are often spread too thin,” she said. “The time constraints make it difficult to complete all of the assigned tasks.”

Sonnenfeld, like so many others, attempts to split the time down the middle, but it rarely works out that way by the time he’s also done monitoring the cafeteria during lunch for a couple periods most days.

“I see between 35-60 kids every morning for various discipline issue,” said Sonnenfeld of one portion of his title. “I usually get to athletics by 1:00. I do as much as I can in the time that I have and then stay late on game days and catch up. And in my free time I’m responsible for renting out the athletic facilities. I make myself leave at a normal time on non-event days so that my family sees me.”

Additionally, he oversees the middle school athletic program, and feels guilty that he can’t devote more time to that level. He needn’t feel that way. If it weren’t for Sonnenfeld, the middle school would not have athletics at all.

“The middle school suffers because I cannot get down there to watch over stuff, but this is better than not having any middle school sports at all. They canceled them for a year, and got rid of the middle school athletic coordinator position and put the duties on me,” he said.

Sonnenfeld is not alone. Duties seem similar across the board.

“I am also responsible for coordinating all building facility usage, fundraising and transportation as well as lunch/hallway supervision before, during and after school,” Mohney said. “Athletic administration alone for grades 6-12 in a Class A school is a full-time, 14-hour-a-day job.  It is extremely difficult.”

While not included in his title of activities director, Ervin, too, is expected to mete out discipline and supervise lunches on a regular basis.

“Time is a major obstacle,” Ervin said. “When our assistant principal is out of the building I take on most of the discipline in his absence, which leads to days where athletics and activities get zero attention.”

Rewarding pursuit

While frustrations can mount, the leaders of school sports programs also tend to be tough self-critics. Somewhere along the line, these folks noticed sacrifices being made by people like them while they were the same age as today’s students. They now carry those lessons forward. 

“I had a very positive experience as a three-sport athlete in high school. My coaches all motivated me toward excellence while providing positive lessons and guidance,” said Mohney. “After graduation and upon returning to Michigan after four years of active military duty, my high school football coach offered me a JV football coaching position and strongly suggested that I may have what it takes to be a good teacher and coach. That guidance inspired me.” 

Ditto for Gordon.

“When I hired into Royal Oak, there were several people who impacted me as a professional,” Gordon said. “Chuck Jones was our district AD, and he along with Frank Clouser (varsity baseball coach) really made a difference in where I am today. Chuck was always the constant professional who is arguably the most organized and efficient man I have ever met. Frank is the best coach I have ever been around. I have never met a coach who would break down skills and have the unique ability to teach every facet of the game.”

Creating similar moments for countless student-athletes in their hallways is the ultimate goal for today’s athletic directors. Being told they’ve done just that is enough to make all the cafeteria supervision worthwhile.

“The most rewarding part of athletics is when I observe a student who has come from a tough home environment, and through his or her involvement in athletics, they shine,” said Ervin.

“I always love it when graduated student-athletes come back to visit the school,” Mohney said, “so I can meet their children and hear of their successes in life.”

PHOTO: Greenville athletic director Brian Zdanowski points out features of the home lockerroom at Legacy Field, which opened for his school's football teams last fall. 

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.)