By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
Joe Brodie played basketball for legendary River Rouge coach Loften Greene in the 1940s, he coached Olympic Trials swimmer Ray Martin in the 1950s and coached University of Michigan quarterback Dennis Brown in the 1960s.
Brodie was the third winner of the MHSAA’s prestigious Vern Norris Award in 1994 for his service as an official.
So it should come as no surprise that Brodie, 87, is enjoying his retirement in Flat Rock with his wife of 62 years, Margo, their son and daughter and eight grandchildren.
There is, however, an impressive twist: Brodie still has an active connection with high school sports as he occasionally serves as a referee for swimming meets in the Downriver area. Forever humble, Brodie has a simple reply to the question, “Why are you still doing that?”
“I just want to give back,” he said. “Maybe it’s in my genes, I don’t know. Maybe it’s my heredity. I think it’s like playing cards; you have to go with the cards you’re dealt with. I still work out about three days a week.”
Greene built one of the greatest dynasties in the history of Michigan high school basketball. He coached 41 seasons and won 12 MHSAA Finals championships, including five in a row from 1961-65 and four in a row from 1969-72. Brodie, who also played football and ran track in high school, played on Greene’s third team in 1945-46.
Maybe sensing his calling as a coach, Brodie also helped the program by starting a summer league for younger players.
“There was a park that had an asphalt court, and when he won his first state championship team, those were kids I started in seventh grade dribbling around in circles,” Brodie said, “and the eighth-grader on that team was Blanche Martin, who played football at Michigan State. DeWayne Smith was on the team, too, and he ended up succeeding Greene as the coach.”
After graduating from River Rouge, Brodie went into the service and ended up in Japan. When he returned, Brodie enrolled at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University), where he played football for three years and basketball for two.
It was while at Michigan State Normal that Brodie became certified in Red Cross life-saving, and that not only led to a job at Torch Lake near Traverse City but paved the way for his involvement with swimming.
Brodie’s first job came as head basketball, head baseball and assistant football coach at Sebewaing High School in 1952. He wore many hats at Sebewaing.
“I made $2,800 and taught seventh-grade geography and eighth-grade science, two ninth-grade biology classes, a study hall and a phys ed class,” he said. “I didn’t get anything extra for coaching, but I met my honey up there. I fell in love and married her and came back downstate. It was instant love.”
In 1953, Lincoln Park High School hired Brodie as a physical education teacher and assistant coach in football, basketball and baseball. Lincoln Park had no idea what it was getting. In 1955, the athletic director asked Brodie to coach the swimming team because of his background with life-saving.
Within a couple of years, Lincoln Park had its first conference championship in swimming, so the athletic director then asked Brodie to take over the struggling basketball program, which had never won a conference championship.
Brodie led Lincoln Park to back-to-back conference championships and an appearance in the MHSAA Quarterfinals in 1961. No Lincoln Park boys basketball team has made it back to the Quarterfinals since that year.
On to administration
After 13 years at Lincoln Park, Brodie accepted a job as athletic director at Southgate High School. Eventually, the position also included duties at Schafer High School, which is closed.
“It was strictly an administrative job, and that got me out of coaching,” Brodie said. “That’s when I had the time to do a little bit of officiating.”
Brodie, who had first registered as an MHSAA official for 1955-56, joined a football officiating crew that went on to work an MHSAA championship game, served on the MHSAA Representative Council from 1978-80 and 1981-83, and officiated swimming meets. And he was never afraid to let his voice be heard.
“Our crew was headed to Jackson to do a playoff game, and the athletic director there was my good friend Dennis Kiley,” Brodie said. “The guys on the crew were getting up there in age, and the game was getting tougher to do. They were going to pay four of us, but I wanted to have an extra official so we could cover the deep passes and said we would still take the pay for four and just split it among the five of us.
“They told us no, but we did it anyway. I was the umpire that night, and I was the deepest umpire you ever saw in high school football. Nobody said anything about it.”
Kiley chuckled at the mention of Brodie.
“Joe was one heck of an athlete; football, basketball, you name it,” Kiley said. “He is a heck of a good guy and was a very good official. He was excellent. I would have hired him anytime.”
Not one to take time off, Brodie found odd jobs in the summer to pick up a little extra cash.
“I’ve worked every summer doing all sorts of things,” he said. “I’ve jumped off milk trucks, things like that.”
No job was too big or too small for Brodie, whose next move was to Davison Middle School in Southgate, where he was principal when he retired in 1986 – 30 years ago.
He didn’t slow down much in retirement.
Every winter for 25 years, Brodie and his wife would go to Arizona, and he could not resist getting involved with athletics. He worked track meets, doing high school and AAU meets. He once was named the official of the year in Arizona and also had a chance to work the Pac-10 conference meet at Arizona State University.
“Here’s a little kid from River Rouge, and I’m lining up guys from Washington, Washington State, USC and Arizona. I felt so humbled being a starter. Where else other than this country can this happen?”
Legacy lives on
Brodie concedes he is slowing down at 87, but slowing down at 87 is a good thing. He and his wife no longer go to Arizona for the winter, so that has opened the door to do a few boys swimming meets in addition to girls meets he often works in the fall.
“I’m not going out and campaigning to referee,” he said. “This year I took the Riverview boys schedule, about four or five meets, and took six to eight middle-school meets – you can’t get officials for middle-school meets – and I had a couple of girls meets that I did.
“I just fill in for people, that’s what I do. I’m not going out and hustling, but I think I’m still sharp enough to do the job.”
Brodie’s legacy lives on, not only in the continued work he is doing but in his son and daughter. Brodie’s son, Bob, has been the head basketball coach at Salem for 26 years and is in the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He also has been an MHSAA registered official for 39 years in five sports.
Brodie’s daughter, Jann Stahr, is an MHSAA official in competitive cheer and swimming.
“They are why we don’t go to Arizona anymore,” Brodie said. “Both kids live in Flat Rock. My daughter is about seven houses away, and my son lives about three blocks away.”
The Brodie legacy has more meat to it. In addition to the Norris Award, Brodie is in the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the Eastern Michigan University Hall of Fame and the Lincoln Park Hall of Fame, which has his bust on display at the Sportsmen’s Den in Riverview.
“I hate saying, ‘I did this,’ or ‘I did that,’” he said. “It’s never been about me. All I ever wanted to do was give back.”
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Flat Rock's Joe Brodie officiates a swimming and diving meet Tuesday at Riverview. (Middle) Brodie, an official for 61 years, dresses for a football game during the 1970s. (Below) Brodie with the "Brodie Bunch," his family, which includes current officials, coaches, athletes and past coaches. (Photos courtesy of the Brodie/Stahr family.)
BROWN CITY – Jerry Sauder thought he was going to be a presenter Thursday night, as his alma mater Brown City was honoring officials Curt Lowe and Joel Venia and school statistician Todd Vandewarker for their decades of service.
But that was simply a ruse by fellow official Tom Mailloux and Brown City athletic director Tony Burton to get Sauder there to join the ceremony and receive his own award for 50 years as an official.
With Sauder on the court, 175 total years of involvement with athletics were honored between the JV and varsity Unionville-Sebewaing vs. Brown City girls basketball games. Sauder spent 50 years as an official, Lowe and Venia 45, and Vandewarker has spent 35 years as a statistician, all across multiple sports.
“Tonight, we gather to pay tribute to those whose steadfast dedication has woven the fabric of excellence into the tapestry of Michigan high school athletics,” Brown City principal Brad Hale said to kick off the ceremony. “It is with profound gratitude that we extend our heartfelt appreciation to the unsung heroes behind the scenes – the pillars whose tireless efforts ensure that each game unfolds seamlessly, each moment etched with the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play. … Tonight, we shine a spotlight on a few whose commitment spans decades, illuminating the path for generations of athletes to follow.”
Sauder’s 50 years as an official included 25 as a Division I college basketball referee. He is currently working in an administrative role with Elite Officiating, overseeing officials in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference. He’s officiated NCAA Tournament games and contests around the world after getting noticed at a camp at Western Michigan University.
“I’ve always said I’m the luckiest guy to put on a shirt,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be selected to be given the opportunity. There’s a lot of guys that could have, but weren’t set up to do it at that time.”
During his time as a high school official, Sauder reffed MHSAA Finals for basketball and football. He also spent time officiating baseball and softball games.
He began officiating when his best friend Jim Seidell, a longtime coach and administrator in Brown City, convinced him to start. Sauder knows his path isn’t a common one, and that it’s not easy to convince people to get into officiating. But with perseverance, opportunities are available.
“There’s a dire need right now,” Sauder said. “We’ve got to do something because if we don’t, high school sports as we know it is going to suffer. … I was fortunate to have good people around me that mentored me. Kids start, they last a couple years and they walk away from it. They don’t pay enough money to get yelled at like people go at you now. I don’t blame the young people.”
Lowe, who officiated Thursday night’s JV game before the ceremony, got his start thanks to Sauder and Seidell. Also a Brown City graduate, Lowe’s 45 years of officiating include multiple assignments at MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals. He’s also been on the court for women’s college basketball games.
“Officiating is like family,” Lowe said. “I have met so many people – wonderful people. And, over 45 years, it’s been a ton.”
While he’s worked plenty of games in the Thumb, much of Lowe’s time as an official was spent in the Saginaw and Flint area, where he was able to officiate games featuring some of the state’s greatest athletes, including Mateen Cleaves, Draymond Green, Mark Ingram and the late Charles Rogers.
“Those were the best games, and Jerry got me in there,” Lowe said. “That was the best ball ever. It was just amazing to watch.”
Lowe’s crew Thursday night included a pair of younger officials who later officiated the varsity game with Mailloux. Lowe thinks it’s a great opportunity for athletes who want to stay connected to sports.
Venia’s start in officiating was more by happenstance. He was working the scoreboard for rec basketball games in his hometown of Marysville, and one day needed to fill in as an official. After reffing the game, he made $10 as opposed to the $5 he got for running the scoreboard, and made the move.
He’s still doing football games but is no longer on the basketball court or softball or baseball diamonds.
“It’s probably the contacts you make in the little towns,” Venia said about what has kept him in the officiating business. “I go down to the Macomb area and do that. In football, we always take five games up in the Thumb. I know so many people up here. With the kids, it keeps you younger, keeps you moving.”
Like Sauder and Lowe, Venia has officiated multiple MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals.
He played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and thinks that experience can be “tremendous” for future officials. But he was quick to point out that those who don’t have that experience can also thrive.
“I’ve worked with a couple guys that never played,” Venia said. “(Mailloux) never played football, but he’s a good football official. I mentored a guy that never played basketball, Jordan Stevens, who is the softball coach at South Dakota State. He never played basketball, never played football, but he was a very good official. I think it gives you an advantage, but by no means is it a barrier if you haven’t played.”
The person with the best seat in the house as Sauder, Lowe and Venia have run up and down the court or football field in Brown City has been Vandewarker, who was celebrated for his decades of service as a statistician.
When asked how he got started, he pointed at Burton.
“That guy suckered me into it,” Vandewarker said with a laugh.
Vandewarker was himself a Brown City athlete, competing in football, basketball and track. Over his more than three decades keeping stats, he’s seen several great Green Devils and opposing athletes – so many that he couldn’t narrow them down.
“A couple thousand (games),” he said. “I’ve seen some stuff, I’ve seen some good stuff. A lot of good players. Too many memorable ones to mention, I guess. I’ve seen the best of the coaches and heard everything they have to say. Best of the refs – I was in high school and Jerry Sauder was reffing my games.”
At that point, Vandewarker had to step away and start the pregame clock for varsity warm-ups. But when he came back, he had an idea of how long he may remain at the center of Brown City athletics.
“I always said as long as Tony and Cindy (Burton, Brown City’s assistant AD) were around,” he said. “But I don’t know. I’ll probably go for another 10-15, put a good 50 in. I think I got that in me, still.”
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: MHSAA-registered officials Curt Lowe, Joel Venia and Jerry Sauder and Brown City statistician Todd Vandewarker stand together as they are celebrated Thursday at Brown City. (Middle) Vanderwarker receives his award for 35 years as a school statistician. (Below) Lowe refs the junior varsity game before the recognition ceremony. (Photos by Paul Costanzo.)