By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
FRUITPORT – Everyone missed “Doc” Pierce at Fruitport varsity football games last year.
After all, he was the Trojan team physician since 1969, a tenure that lasted more than four decades. Nine head coaches came and went, but Pierce was a fixture on the home sideline until his death in June, 2012.
Starting this week, he will always be seen at Fruitport homes games, in the form of a bronze sculpture of his face, attached to a granite wall that will bear his name.
The Fruitport community is showing its love and respect for Dr. Robert Pierce by rededicating its storied football stadium in his name Thursday, before the season-opening home game against Grand Haven.
The wall – which will bear the name Robert H. “Doc” Pierce Field – is located at the northwest end of the stadium, on the home side by the concession stand. A brief ceremony at the wall will precede Thursday’s game.
The doctor’s family, including his widow Virginia and three of his adult children, will be in attendance.
It was an idea that came up in the last year or so, according to former Fruitport football coach Steve Wilson.
“I think it really came down to (Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame board chairman) Gene Young and myself,” said Wilson, who grew very close to Pierce during his 23 years as coach. “We were talking at a wedding reception about how much he loved Fruitport football, and how loved and respected he was in this community. We figured we had to do something so people will remember Doc.
“We’ve never really named anything after anybody at Fruitport, but I said if we’re going to start, there’s no better person to start with than Dr. Pierce.”
Wilson and several others, with the permission of the school, formed a committee to make a recommendation for some sort of memorial. They finally decided to rename the football stadium, “because he spent more time on the sideline than any other person,” Wilson said.
A special granite wall memorial was approved by the school board, with a bronze plaque that will be unveiled at the ceremony Thursday. The project, expected to cost around $23,000, is being completely funded through the sale of pavers that will comprise the walkway in front of the memorial wall.
The committee is still selling pavers to cover the cost. A local resident came forward and loaned the committee enough money to largely complete construction by Thursday, and several area businesses stepped forward to provide much of the labor for free.
Bruce Benkurt and his son donated a great deal of time to do the brick work. Other companies, like Shultz Trucking and Muskegon Ashphalt and Paving, also contributed to the effort.
“All of these business owners are Fruitport people, and they were all excited to help with the wall,” Wilson said. “That’s the kind of community this is.”
Pierce served more than just the high school football team. He was dedicated to the entire community.
For years he operated a private practice in Fruitport, and spent many long hours away from home, treating patients at all hours and even making house calls, Wilson said.
“He was an old-fashioned country doctor,” Wilson said. “I think after he died they found around 2,500 patient files in his office. He delivered three generations of babies in this area.
“When you went to see Doc in his office, sometimes you waited a while to see him, but that’s because, once someone was in there, he gave you as much time as you needed.”
While Fruitport residents benefited from Pierce’s dedication to his patients, the doctor’s family sometimes sacrificed, Wilson said.
“This is a tribute to his family as well,” Wilson said. “I’ve driven by his office at 2 a.m. and saw a car in the parking lot. He was just a giving person. With him being gone all the time, it was the family that sacrificed. This is our way of telling the family that their sacrifices were very much appreciated.”
Dr. Pierce was loved at Fruitport High School, for very good reasons. He was a fixture with the varsity football team, and in his younger years also served as team doctor for several other school sports.
Wilson recalls going to see to Dr. Pierce for checkups and spending the first half hour talking Trojan football.
Banged-up football players were always a high priority in Pierce’s office, according to Wilson. He would sometimes sneak them in the back door for treatment, even without an appointment, Wilson said.
For years Pierce would come to the high school to do spring physicals for all athletes, but was always the most animated with the football players, Wilson said.
“They were all his favorites,” Wilson said. “He would ask them what position they were going to play, and whether they were going to beat Reeths-Puffer that year. He had played quarterback when he was young for some small college out west, and he just loved the game of football”
Pierce was pretty calm and collected during games when Wilson was coach, but apparently sometimes wore his emotions on his sleeves in his younger days.
“Pat Wescott, who worked with (former Fruitport head coach) Tom Holden, tells a story about one very tight game when a referee threw a flag at the sideline,” Wilson said. “Holden thought it was Wescott who got the penalty (for yelling), but it was Doc. I guess he used to be quite passionate.”