By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

All those games. All those wins. And a couple bitter losses to boot.

And yet, the moment I remember most about Muskegon Catholic Central’s  Mike Holmes – who announced Monday night at the school’s annual football banquet that he was stepping down as head coach after 25 seasons and over 200 wins – wasn’t even on the gridiron.

It was the time he stepped up for every single player who ever wore the green and gold.

At the moment his players were enjoying the greatest moment of our young lives, Holmes was facing down both members of the press and the coach he’d just faced on the field.

The year was 1991.

We had just won our second-straight Class C title, a 34-0 win over Harbor Beach (ironically, the school that just took the 2012 Division 8 title, defeating MCC in the semifinals to get there).

While most of us were changing out of our football gear deep within the bowels of the Silverdome, Holmes, along with Catholic players Pat Jackson, Jason Eichorst and Paul Siembida, as well as Harbor Beach head coach Jack Dillon and two of his players, were fielding questions in the post-game interview session.

The first question was to Dillon: “Jack, what kind of consolation is it to know you’re the best (Class C) public school team in the state?”

Dillon, who was obviously impressed with the team he’d just lost to, said he felt his team showed it could play with MCC, at least for 2 1/2 quarters, before the bottom fell out in the 34-0 loss.

Next Dillon was asked where MCC ranked among the best teams in the state.

“They’re right there with St. Martin De Porres … Detroit Country Day … probably Brother Rice, for all I know.”
Prior to school-of-choice, this was a trope we’d heard many times before: because we could ‘recruit’ players – meaning we could enroll players across traditional public school boundaries – the parochial schools were always going to be better than their public school counterparts.
Instead of focusing on how well we’d just played, sportswriters were much more concerned with what they percieved to be the inherent inequality of the whole thing. After a few more questions, the entire charade was revealed.

“You’ve dominated (Class) C,” said the reporter, “lost 18 seniors, came back and dominated again. Would you consider moving up a classification?”

Holmes said he’d have to ask that question to the AD, and then pointed out Catholic was much closer to a Class D-sized school than a Class CC school.

The reporter pressed on. “I’m talking about talent, not size,” the reporter said smugly. It was then that Holmes, refusing to yield to the reporter’s insinuation, laid all his cards on the table.

“I don’t know that our players don’t work very, very hard to prepare for this,” answered Holmes. “Patrick Jackson (who went on to play at Western Michigan University) probably put 75 (more) pounds on his bench press from last year to this year. Our kids simply work very, very hard. We have a lot of very dedicated kids. I don’t know we have any more talent than anybody else has, necessarily. We have expectations for our kids, we push our kids.”

The worst part about all this was that, while Holmes was saying this, Harbor Beach running back Rob Winkel was shaking his head, giggling and putting his hands over his face in mock disbelief.

When word filtered down to the rest of us that the presser following our big win was dominated with the idea we didn’t really deserve the title, many of my teammates were justifiably angry.

But when I heard how Holmes had answered, most of that anger left my body, replaced by an equally justified feeling of satisfaction.

I’m not being pollyannish about this.

Sure, I am well aware that myself and most of my teammates came from relatively fortunate, privileged backgrounds. Intact homes were the norm. Parents working as professionals and skilled trades people was more than common. None of us ever came close to starving.

But, WE were the ones who never missed a summer doubles practice; WE were the ones who went to all the camps, lifted all the weights, ran all the wind sprints.

That kind of commitment justifies itself. The way Holmes had answered at the presser is one of the big reasons we did so well. He made it so that you wanted to play well for him, not because he’d chew you out if you didn’t, but because the way he conducted himself proved to you that his example was the right way to do it.
Sure, there were times at practice when Coach Holmes lost his cool, when we practiced a bit longer than most teams because we just couldn’t get a play right. And there were times, especially when he was middle school principal, when he and I clashed.

But all that melted away the moment I heard how he’d stood up for us, for all the time and hard work we’d all put in to be the best student-athletes we could be.

Looking back recently upon the tape of that old press conference, I saw where many of my own values derive.

It’s moments like that where I learned that when you actually believe in what you’re doing, in what you’ve done, you stand up for yourself, your teammates, your players, your coworkers, your family, for the process itself. That is, when you know you’ve done the right thing, you don’t capitulate to anyone. You act honorably, of course, but you speak the truth and then you drop the issue.

You live with the fact that you can’t convince everyone.

You keep working, you keep hustling.

And by doing so, you’ve already won.