Ottinger's 'Organ Game' a Slam Dunk

May 23, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Every time Justice Ottinger sees one of the neon green T-shirts he designed on a student in the hallways at Newaygo High, he remembers fondly the “Ball Is Life, Organs Are Too” basketball game he planned this winter as an intern in the school’s athletic office.

Much more frequently, the Lions’ senior gives thanks for the family friend who inspired the event by giving Ottinger a kidney last June.

Ottinger is a recipient of an MHSAA/Lake Trust Credit Union “Community Service Award” for his creation of the “Ball Is Life, Organs Are Too” event on Jan. 20 that raised more than $4,000 for Gift of Life Michigan and provided an opportunity for 13 people to register as organ donors.

As noted, the event started as an assignment from Newaygo athletic director Kristen Melvin to create and organize some sort of benefit game. It turned into an opportunity for Ottinger to not only spread the word about something that’s given him a better life, but also a chance to honor donor “Uncle” Tom Linsley for doing so.

“As soon as she said it, I said ‘organ game.’ There was nothing else. Organs mean so much,” Ottinger said. “There are a lot of people waiting for organs, and I don’t think people know the seriousness of this as much as they should. (I did it) just to get people to be aware of that, that organ transplants are a big deal, organ donation is a big deal, and I’m a believer everyone should be signed up to be organ donors.”

The Community Service Awards recognize contributions by Michigan’s high school student-athletes away from the field. Ottinger, a three-sport athlete, will user the $1,000 award as a scholarship toward his education at Cornerstone University, where he’ll begin studies toward his goal of becoming a doctor. Six honorees total are receiving awards this spring; Second Half is featuring one a day this week.

Just last weekend, Ottinger won Lower Peninsula Division 3 Regional championships in the 110 and 300-meter hurdles, advancing to next week’s MHSAA Track & Field Finals in both events. It was a performance that showed how much the kidney has affected him physically. His 15.43 time in the 110 race was a personal record and 1.4 seconds faster than his best all of last year. His 300 time of 41.38 was his second-fastest this spring and more than three seconds faster than his best in 2016. He’s undefeated in the 300 this season.

Compare that to a year ago, when Ottinger “was doing it, but not doing it very good. I was still putting forth my best effort, and stuff like that, but the closer I got to the transplant date, in basketball and track more I could tell. I’d fall asleep all the time,” he said.

“Once I had a transplant, it was the total opposite.”

Ottinger’s family knew he’s need a kidney transplant eventually since he was 2 years old. Although it was a slow process, his kidneys gradually lost their ability to function over the next 15 years; by last summer, they were down to functioning at only six perfect effectiveness.

He was set to begin dialysis last summer when a donor was found – Linsley, who Justice affectionately calls “Uncle,” his dad’s best friend from when they attended Newaygo a generation ago.

Ottinger returned to play soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter, and set up his event for the Lions’ home game against Grant. Local businesses sponsored the event, and players and coaches wore the neon green shirts Ottinger designed. So did plenty of other people. 

With Justice on the court, his mother Julie Long took over running the fundraiser during the game. But she had to get her son’s OK during warm-ups to order an additional 300 shirts – the first batch had sold out.

Gift of Life also sent a representative to sign up new donors on the spot, and Ottinger said the monetary donation will be used to help people who have had transplants pay hospital bills and for other costs that come with receiving a new organ.

He’s hopeful Newaygo will put on the event again next season, and Ottinger would like to do something similar at Cornerstone, where he’s set to join the track & field team.

His desire to become a doctor is boosted by what he’s experienced medically. But it’s rooted in something he’s already begun to fulfill.

“I’ve been in the hospital a lot, so I’d say that’s partially (the motivation),” Ottinger said. “But partially, I always have this urge to help people, make life better for people, and that’s driven me to do it too.”

The Community Service Awards are sponsored by the Michigan High School Athletic Association and Lake Trust Credit Union to recognize student-athletes' efforts to improve the lives of others in their communities. In addition to the $1,000 award, the Lake Trust Foundation is awarding an additional $500 to each honoree, to be donated to a non-profit, 501 (c)(3) organization of the awardee’s choice.

PHOTOS: (Top) Justice Ottinger (center of photo) and some of his many Newaygo supporters hold up #JustDonate hearts while wearing T-shirts he designed for his “Ball Is Life, Organs Are Too” event. (Middle) Ottinger presents a check to Gift of Life Michigan. (Photos courtesy of Justice Ottinger.)

2017 Community Service Awards

Sunday: Colon "Yard Squad" - Read
Bailey Brown, Brighton - Read

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.