By Steve Gunn

MUSKEGON – Soccer has always been in Michael Schmitt’s blood, and he’s always been very good at the game.

But his ability to continue to play, at least at a high competitive level, could have easily ended after he completed his collegiate career at the University of Charleston.

Luckily his older brother Matt Schmitt, who helped him develop his passion for the sport while they were growing up, provided an outlet that has allowed him to extend his career and use his passionate, physical style of play to thrill Muskegon soccer fans.

It was 2015 when Matt Schmitt, a former Reeths-Puffer and University of Michigan soccer star, established the semipro Muskegon Risers, a team that became instantly popular with local fans.

So when Michael Schmitt graduated from college and moved back to West Michigan, he was able to keep playing while still pursuing a full-time business career. Even better, he was able to play for the hometown he takes great pride in, and for the older brother he loves and respects.

Michael Schmitt will begin his third summer outdoor season with the Risers on Saturday night, when the team kicks off its 2019 schedule against Lake St. Clair at Muskegon Catholic Central’s Kehren Stadium at 7:15 p.m.

“Honestly it’s a blessing that Matthew was able to start this,” said Michael Schmitt, 26. “Not many players get this sort of opportunity. I just feel blessed to have the chance to keep playing, and play for the city I grew up in.

“It’s just a bonus that my own brother is behind the whole organization. I’m just thankful that he gave me this opportunity to play. I’m extremely proud of him. He’s a super smart guy and extremely creative, but to be able to pull something like this out of nowhere, it amazes me. I have always really respected him.”

Risers fans have come to know Michael Schmitt as the 6-foot, 3-inch bearded giant who anchors the team’s defense, on both the summer outdoor team and the winter indoor squad. But he didn’t start out his soccer career that way.

Michael Schmitt tries to get a foot on the ball during a Risers’ home game in 2017. Photo/Jason Goorman

Michael Schmitt, along with his brother Nathan, were forwards and big goal scorers at Reeths-Puffer High School and Muskegon Community College. It was toward the end of his MCC career that Michael made the transition to the back line, and learned that preventing goals can be just as rewarding as scoring them.

“I think about halfway through my final community college season, there was a hole (in the defensive lineup) that needed to be filled, and when I went down to Charleston, I was comfortable in that position, and they had quite a bit of talent up front, anyway, so I just kept it rolling,” said Michael Schmitt, who helped Charleston reach the NCAA Division 2 national championship game in his senior season.

“I like the grit of it, and keeping the ball out of the net. It feels just as good to maintain a clean sheet for the goalie. That provides just as good of a feeling for me as scoring a goal or two in a game. I guess I just enjoy doing the dirty work.”

Playing defense is generally not a glorified job. Even those who do it well usually take a back seat to the guys who score, when it comes to fan recognition and appreciation.

But that’s not the case with Michael Schmitt.

For one thing, he still produces goals. He has a blistering shot that allows him to find the net from long range, which comes in handy during the indoor and outdoor seasons. He also uses his physical style to make defense entertaining for fans.

They love to watch the big guy mix it up with opposing attackers, using his large frame and skill set to keep them away from the Muskegon goal.

“It’s just about me not wanting to lose to the guy in front of me,” he said. “I would definitely say I’m a physical player. I’m 6-3, a lot of guys are not quite that big, and you have to use what you got.

“I’m just a competitor. Throughout my life, growing up with two brothers, everything was competition. What you see on the field is something that’s engraved in me. Passion for the game is another strong suit I have. I could have been done with it a long time ago. That’s something I considered right out of college, when I was kind of burned out. But it’s one of those sports that’s just filled with passion.”

Schmitt controls the ball in the defensive end for Muskegon during a Risers indoor game in February. Photo/Jason Goorman

Matt Schmitt says his brother’s style of play has clearly made him a favorite with Risers fans.

“People refer to him as ‘The Beard,’ and we’ve seen plenty of ‘Fear the Beard’ signs at games,” said Matt Schmitt, who will coach the team this summer, assisted by player/coach Stu Collins. “One fan even had the word ‘Beard’ printed on the back of a replica jersey.”

Michael Schmitt and the Risers will be entering a brave new world this summer, when they play an independent schedule while preparing to join the elite National Premier Soccer League in 2020. The team will spend 2019 trying to win as many games as possible against tough opponents and figuring out who should be on the roster when NPSL play begins next year.

“I lot of the guys are looking to transfer with the team to the NPSL, and they are all fighting for a spot in that,” Michael Schmitt said. “In every practice and every game, we’re going to be working out asses off. Even though we’re playing an independent schedule this year, we don’t want to lose. This is actually a very important season because it’s going to set the tone for next year.”

While he loves where the team is headed, Michael Schmitt is not sure how long he will be able to be part of the action. He lives in Grand Rapids and co-owns a business with his brother Nathan – Wave 9 Installation – that assists retailers throughout the Midwest with marketing displays.

“I’m kind of playing it year by year, as far as my health, and if I will have time,” he said. “You don’t want to commit to something, then not have the time and let the other guys down. If you’re going to commit to something you should be 100 percent, especially in the NPSL, where you have to put everything you have into it.

“Hopefully I will be around for it. To be able to say that I played for my city, in that league, would be unreal.”