COMSTOCK TOWNSHIP — Several years ago, Josh Whitfield and his sister, Mandy Hanson, were sitting around a bonfire just chatting when they touched on a subject that fired up the normally easy-going Comstock High School graduate.
Whitfield had started helping coach the girls soccer team and realized that to be involved in sports, Comstock athletes had to “pay to play.”
“It takes a lot to get him riled up, to get him angry or upset,” Hanson said. “He was talking about, ‘Can you believe it? You have to pay to play sports at Comstock.’
“I was like, that’s crazy. He was getting so upset talking about it. Some of these girls paid to play but then couldn’t afford the right equipment.”
Whitfield, a 2000 grad and four-year multi-sport athlete at Comstock, said he wished he had enough money to help out.
That opportunity would come out of the saddest of circumstances. But as his loved ones continue to heal from Whitfield’s untimely death in 2015, they’ve created an opportunity for his memory to impact the Comstock athletic community for years to come.
That May, while playing golf with friends, including Hanson’s husband Mike, Whitfield said he did not feel well and left the group on the second hole.
“Of course, the guys razzed him about it because it wasn’t like Josh to leave in the middle of a round of golf,” his sister said.
When Whitfield’s mother, Becky, called him at home later, he told her he was having trouble breathing. He called 9-1-1 and his dad, Vic, drove to his son’s house just as the EMTs arrived.
Whitfield did not survive, dying from a double lung collapse. He was just 33 years old.
Two of his buddies, Eric Stewart and Chad Howard, wanted to do something to keep Whitfield’s memory alive.
“We were all struggling a lot,” Stewart said. “Josh had an extremely tight-knit group of friends. It was really hard for a lot of us. We were talking about ways to spin positive out of grief.
“We were like, ‘What can we do to honor his memory, to keep his name alive?’
We thought it would mean something to his family. We knew it would mean something to Comstock, because Comstock is in a tough place right now.”
The buddies had the idea for a fundraiser to help a few Comstock athletes pay to play. They were hoping to raise at least $1,500 through an alumni soccer game.
They were stunned to raise $5,000.
‘Spinning positive out of grief’
Over three years, the group – which has gone from the two friends to a committee of 14 – has raised more than $52,000 and so far donated more than $27,000 of it to various athletic causes in Comstock.
“It started with Eric and Chad, who asked how they could help and wanted to set up an alumni soccer game to help offset the pay-to-play fees,” Comstock athletic director Justin Ansel said. “Initially, I wasn’t sure how big this would be or how sustainable this would be.
“Unfortunately, this entire thing was started by a tragedy. It’s a testament how, at Josh’s young age, how people rallied around him for this. It’s just special how the community comes together to remember Josh. We are thankful for what this organization does for our student-athletes.”
The fund has supplied about $5,000 for pay-to-play scholarships, helping more than 350 middle and high school athletes with activity fees and physical exam fees. But those have not been the group’s only focus.
“For example, someone might say I can’t pay the $75 for Rocket Football,” Stewart said. “We will approve that and send the check in to Rocket Football.
“We also do grants to teams and organizations focused on Comstock. We did Eastwood Little League through a $5,000 grant last year. We’re really excited to sponsor the First Day Shoe Fund. We bought all the kids in Comstock shoes. We know that a healthy lifestyle, teamwork, all are bred through athletics.”
This year, the group will have extra money available.
“As it happens, Comstock has a new superintendent this year in Jeff Thoenes,” Ansel said. “One of his first actions as superintendent was to remove our activity fee barrier so we no longer have this fee for the start of the 2018-19 school year.
“They still plan to fund things like athlete equipment, needs like shoes or shin guards along with a variety of other things.”
Without the pay-to-play expenditures, Stewart said, “Our goal now is to really push toward those youth athletic programs: AYSO, Little League, youth football, youth golf camps, soccer camps. We’re creating feeders to the high school that otherwise don’t really exist at Comstock.”
With Comstock’s entry a few years ago into the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, teams travel more than 40 miles to many games. At first, the school transported athletes to the games, but parents took them home.
“Now the fund pays to bring kids home,” Stewart said. “Parents in poverty can’t drive that far to pick up their kids. That’s not OK, and we wanted to fix that.”
Continuing to grow
Once the original fund hit $5,000, Stewart and Howard did not want the sole responsibility of doling out the money.
“We said we need to vet this through a group of people,” Stewart said.
So they formed the non-profit Josh Whitfield Memorial Athletic Fund.
The board of directors is made up of Josh’s friends and family, and funds are distributed through the Comstock Community Center.
The committee sponsors three fundraisers each year: a golf outing, an alumni soccer game and a holiday party in December. It also accepts donations through its website (www.jwmaf.org).
The golf outing in June includes about “a quarter of the field with Whitfields,” Stewart said. “It’s always bittersweet when we get together for that reason, but I think it’s a good avenue to go through some of those things. Oftentimes it’s like a support group.”
The soccer tournament is set for Sept. 21 at the school.
“It started out as an alumni soccer game, and then we had people who weren’t alumni that wanted to play,” Hanson said. “We said of course.
“It’s just getting out there and having fun. Last year, the oldest was mid-40s and the youngest just graduated.”
Said Stewart: “We usually get about 50 who sign up. It’s a hoot. It’s a good time. Everybody’s getting older, but it’s fun to relive the glory days.”
The holiday party last December was held at Kalamazoo’s Tibbs Brewing Company, which donated a portion of the sales to the fund.
Hanson and brother Matt Whitfield are members of the committee, which meets once a month to review applications.
“A couple committee members work in Comstock schools, so they see what’s going on and they see a need,” Hanson said. “The committee generally takes a vote. If the applicant meets what we’ve set forth in the guidelines, then we do grant them the money.”
Applicants also can apply through the website, but must be connected to Comstock athletics.
All committee members are volunteers, with 100 percent of any money raised going into the fund.
Besides Stewart, Howard, Hanson and Matt Whitfield, board members are
Sara Howard, Alyssa Stewart, Rolly Taylor, Travis and Marie Law, Tyler and Shannon Howard, Loreen Hospodar, Katy Seward and Mason Everett.
“It is amazing,” Hanson said. “It’s truly an honor. I think to myself, my gosh, Josh would be so humbled to know that this is happening because of him.
“I think secretly he’s laughin’ and lovin’ it up there.”
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) Josh Whitfield in 2015, shortly before his death. (Top middle) Friend Eric Stewart, left, and Comstock athletic director Justin Ansel. (Middle) From top, Josh Whitfield playing wiffle ball, Josh and brother Matt Whitfield, and Josh and Stewart. (Below) Mandy Hanson, right, with daughter Madi. (Hanson photo by Pam Shebest; other photos submitted by Eric Stewart or Mandy Hanson.)
Denny White brought quite a bit to the Marysville and St. Clair communities.
In 1961, as a junior in high school, White was part of the first team to bring a football state title to Marysville.
Fifty years later, as an assistant coach, he played a vital role in bringing St. Clair its first MHSAA Finals title in baseball.
During the years in between, and decade after, White brought his knowledge of and passion for those sports to hundreds of student athletes.
But most recently, he brought the two communities together.
This past Friday night, the rival schools played for the Denny White Trophy, an award created to honor the late coach and connect the two communities where he was most revered.
“I’m so happy with all the support that has been around the project,” said Brady Beedon, a family friend who helped to create the trophy and was in the booth calling Friday night’s game for Get Stuck On Sports. “It’s the least we could’ve done for a man who helped so many athletes. His legacy deserves to be preserved.”
In a fitting tribute to White, who died Jan. 22 of this year following a long battle with cancer, the two teams played a hard-fought game at East China Stadium, with White’s alma mater Marysville coming away with a 25-20 victory.
Both teams featured players who had been coached by White at some point in one or both of the sports, as his time on the bench lasted through the fall of 2022.
That season, he coached the JV B football team at Marysville. Most recently before that, he had been the varsity baseball coach at St. Clair from 2015-21.
“Not much can unify rivals, but Coach White’s influence goes beyond that rivalry,” Marysville football coach Derrick Meier said at a press conference unveiling the trophy. “He’s affected thousands of local athletes. … It is awesome that someone had such an influence across the board with all local athletes (in multiple) sports. I contacted him my first year coaching varsity, and he was not willing to leave where he was at. I called him three subsequent years; he graciously declined. The last year he did accept, we added a JV B team, his wisdom and knowledge went well beyond just coaching on the field. We’re all lucky for his influence.
“Heroes get remembered. Coach White will be remembered.”
White was a 1963 graduate of Marysville, who then attended Ferris State and Central Michigan. His coaching journey did not begin in the area where he grew up, however, as he coached baseball and football at Newaygo High School before coming to St. Clair.
He spent 35 years in the Saints athletic program, coaching baseball and multiple levels of football.
Much of his time was spent as the pitching coach for St. Clair for coaches Richie Mallewitz and Bill McElreath. That included the 2011 season, when his pitching staff included current major leaguer Jacob Cronenworth, who now plays second base for the San Diego Padres.
Also on that staff were Joel Seddon, who was drafted twice – once out of high school and again after college – and would go on to be the closer at South Carolina; and Jared Tobey, who pitched at Wayne State and was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, playing four years in their minor league system.
While White coached nearly 1,000 baseball games in his career, he was involved with more than just high school sports. He also coached a 13-year-old Little League team to a state title and the semifinals of the Great Lakes Regional in 2015.
No matter the level, White poured all he had into coaching, and that included his final season on the sidelines at Marysville, just months prior to his passing.
“Every single kid that he touched with that team, you could just tell, gravitated toward him immediately,” said Travis Disser, who coached with White that final year at Marysville. “His lessons and his light-hearted humor are just something that you can’t replace, or ever hope to. I was lucky enough to learn pitching from Coach White when I was a younger kid, as well. He was the exact same Denny White as he was all those years ago, as he was last year during his battle with cancer. Coach White was a warrior in every sense of the term. His lessons, both on the field and off the field from him, are something that I’ll never, ever forget.”
The idea to create the trophy honoring White came about not long after his death, as Beedon worked with Meier, former St. Clair athletic director Denny Borse and St. Clair assistant football coach T.J. Schindler to create and design the trophy.
The final product is a two-tiered trophy topped with a pair White’s hats – one from St. Clair, the other from Marysville – that have been bronzed. It includes the years in which he won his state titles at his respective schools, and a passage about his life. There is also room to list the yearly winners, as it is planned to represent the rivalry and shared respect for White in the two communities for years to come.
“Whether it was Little League kids over the last 20 years, or some of the football players and baseball players that he coached over the decades that he coached, all of them when they get together have great stories and fondness for all the memories that (White and his fellow coaches) helped them create,” said Sandy Rutledge, the current St. Clair athletic director and a longtime friend and colleague of White. “I think it’s awesome that now as we play for this trophy every year, it will give our coaches a chance to kind of explain who Coach was. The next generation, maybe they didn’t even know him, will know that he is a legend, and he’ll always be remembered.”
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) From left: St. Clair’s Larry Wawryzniak, Liam Nesbitt and Peyton Ellis, Denny White’s wife Karen White, and Marysville’s Bryce Smith, Carter Saccucci and Caz Carty stand with the first-year traveling trophy celebrating Denny White’s coaching career. (Middle) White was a mainstay in the area’s sports community for more than six decades. (Below) The trophy celebrates his contributions to both schools and will list the winners of their annual football game. (Trophy photos courtesy of Brady Beedon. Headshot courtesy of the White family.)