By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS – Jimmy Purnell is like most coaches who work with young people.

He becomes attached to his players, like they are his own children.

Of course that involves a tremendous emotional gamble. That’s because coaches are not the parents, and they only have so much control over the lives of the youngsters they mentor on the field.

Muskegon Heights coach Jimmie Purnell discusses how his team is working to handle the loss of another Tiger to violence. Photo/Jason Goorman

Muskegon Heights coach Jimmy Purnell discusses how his team is working to handle the loss of another Tiger to violence. Photo/Jason Goorman

Kids sometimes take wrong turns in life, and senseless tragedies occur.

But it’s been worse for Purnell than it is for most coaches. He’s the varsity football coach at Muskegon Heights Academy, in a community that’s been gripped by a lot of deadly violence in recent years.

Twice in the past six months, Purnell’s players have been caught in the crossfire, and two young lives tragically ended at the age of 17.

In April one of Purnell’s starting defensive ends, Marquis Gresham, was walking down the street on his way to a school basketball banquet when a vehicle drove by and shots were fired. Witnesses say Gresham ran for a few feet, then suddenly collapsed.

And now, almost unbelievably, it’s happened again.

On Thursday morning, about 20 minutes after midnight, DeQuarius “Dee Dee” Love, the team’s other defensive end, was walking down the street with a friend on the way to a neighborhood party. A van pulled up beside the boys, shots were fired, and Love fell to the ground, reportedly with five bullets in his back.

Now the Muskegon Heights Tigers will kick off the 2014 football season next Thursday at Godwin Heights without two teammates. The players will have to go on without their longtime friends, and Purnell will have to deal with the loss of two boys he hoped to guide into manhood.

The coach admits his heart is breaking, but he’s determined to go on and lead his team into the new season.

“We want to win games, we want to make the playoffs, but at the end of the day, when I see them walk across that stage with a diploma – that’s when we really win,” said Purnell, a 1985 Muskegon Heights graduate who’s in his second season as varsity football coach. “But then there’s the part of life you can’t control. You can’t prepare yourself for things like this.

“These kids, when you are around them all day, every day, become like your own kids in your own household. When one of them is snatched away … I just pray. That’s all I can do. You can’t let yourself worry about what’s next. You don’t know what’s next or who’s next.

Hts players

Courtney Davis,  John Manurs and Ta’Shon McCain look to their coach during a discussion about losing their teammate this past week. Photo/Jason Goorman

“They say God doesn’t put more burden on you than you can bear.”

Purnell is angry about the violence that seems so prevalent among kids today, locally and nationally. He remembers his high school days, when the worst thing that usually happened was a fistfight and a few bloody noses or broken bones.

“We had rivalries, but we weren’t trying to take anybody’s life,” Purnell said. “I don’t know what kids are so angry about these days. I remember I could ride my bike all the way to Amity and Getty,  because I had a girlfriend who went to Muskegon, and see all kinds of people along the way, and nobody said anything.”

The coach is also angry about what’s happening to Muskegon Heights, the city where he was born and plans to always call home.

“We don’t need this in our community,” he said. “We already have people who aren’t from here saying things that aren’t true. I have so much pride in my city. I love Muskegon Heights. I remember coming into the community and reading those street signs that said ‘city of friendly people.’ We need to get back to that.

“We have to want to take our city back. We can’t go out there alone, vigilante style. You can’t do it with just one person. Everybody has to take back their corner, take back their block. It’s not just their block, it’s our block. Everybody has to help.”

The scrimmage went on

Several Muskegon Heights players said they remember Love as a “goofy and funny kid” who was always smiling, and who had an odd but endearing habit of sucking his thumb.

“It’s hard, knowing the dude you usually see every day you won’t be seeing anymore,” said Heights football player Courtney Davis. “You might hold it back a little around your friends, but inside you know it will never be the same.

“It’s going to pull us together. There’s no more playing around. We will do what we have to do for our team, and for (Gresham and Love), too.”

Purnell said the Muskegon Heights athletic program meant a great deal to Love, who also played varsity basketball.  The coach said Love depended on his coaches and teammates, particularly over the past two years since his father died.

“Everybody knew Dee Dee,” Purnell said. “He was a good kid. There are no perfect kids. Sports were his outlet. When he had problems he didn’t know how to deal with, he would come to practice, talk about it, and get other people’s perspective. All kids need guidance.”

When the news about Love’s death spread around Thursday morning, Purnell assumed his team would have to cancel a scrimmage scheduled for Thursday night in Newaygo.

“They all knew what happened that same night,” Purnell said about his players. “I had kids texting me at 3, 4 and 5 in the morning. I told our superintendent that I didn’t know if we were going to be able to make it to the scrimmage that night, because my players didn’t get any sleep.

“Then we had a team meeting at 3 p.m. and the players all said ‘Coach, we’ve got to play.’ Surprisingly, even one of (Love’s) cousins, who I did not expect to see, showed up and wanted to play, too.”

The players said it was important for everyone on the team to get on the bus, participate in the scrimmage, and carry on in the memory of their friend and teammate.

“I was on the telephone (early Thursday) with someone, and they said they saw (reports of the shooting) on Facebook,” Davis said. “The worst thing about it, he was my cousin. We were close, and I had to go play hard for him, just like he would have done for me. He was ready to play, but he didn’t get the chance to do it.”

“Everybody wanted to go out and play for him,” said teammate Ta’Shon McCain. “It sort of made us stronger.”

A few weeks ago Purnell told a reporter that the team planned to play this season in memory of Gresham. Now he says the players have two lost friends to inspire them on the field.

“One of the kids said to me, ‘Coach, you told us to use Marquis like a 12th man this year. Now we have to carry a 13th man,’” Purnell said.

“We’re still going to fight on. Our goals are still the same. We will be doing it with two less members, but we’re still going to fight like true Tigers.”

A curfew for the players

While the players seem determined to carry on and have a good season, they also admit they sometimes feel frightened in their own community.

One player said he doesn’t believe the local police do enough to prevent violence. Another said he doesn’t think there are enough police officers.

“You’re always looking over your shoulder,” said Heights football player John Manurs.

“You never know who it might be,” Davis said. “Especially at night. You just never know.”

Purnell said too many teens are frequently out too late at night, and that can spell trouble.

“So many teenagers today think being stuck in the house at a certain hour makes them a wimp,” the coach said. “When I was growing up I had to be in the house before the street light came on. I trained my ear to hear the buzzing of the street light. That meant I had to go.

“I try to tell the kids, if you’re out on the streets anytime after 10 o’clock, there’s nothing good out there.”

Purnell has come up with a plan to combat the horrific problem, at least for the players on his team. He said he’s going to institute a team curfew, starting immediately.

Several players immediately said they would head straight home after football practice and honor the deadline.

“I haven’t come up with a time yet, because I just thought of it,” Purnell said. “Probably nine or nine thirty. I’m going to have contracts drawn up and all the players will have to sign them. And there are consequences for breaking contracts. We might as well teach them about contracts while we’re at it.

“We’ll make it a learning experience for everyone.”