By Steve Gunn
FRUITPORT – By the time Ken Erny was honored on Thursday night, the surprise wasn’t much of a surprise anymore.
He looked around and saw many familiar faces from his years of working and coaching at the high school. They were all watching him as he arrived, as if he were the guest of honor.
In front of him was a mysterious new sign covered with cloth, attached to the front of the soccer field press box.
Something was clearly up, and it had everything to do with him.
Just minutes later, Erny learned exactly what it was. The school had decided to name its longtime soccer facility “Ken Erny Field,” in honor of the longtime coach and athletic director who retired on Sept. 1, after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a neuromuscular disorder more commonly known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The dedication ceremony took place before Fruitport’s varsity game against Fruitport Calvary Christian.
Everyone who knew about the event had tried to keep it a secret, but the old coach had figured out that something special was about to occur, and he was deeply touched, frequently to the point of fighting back tears.
”My son Steve said it was an alumni gathering of some sort, but I had to wonder, how can there be an alumni gathering when there are crowd restrictions?” Erny said with a grin. “I thought it was a little fishy, but I tried to be convincing.
“I am very humbled.”
Steve Erny, the Fruitport boys basketball coach, was in charge of getting his dad to the field on Thursday. He realized that Ken knew he would be honored in some way, but doesn’t think he knew the full extent of the surprise.
“It might not have been a very well-kept secret, but I don’t think he knew about the actual field dedication, so that was the nice thing,” Steve Erny said.
“This is a special night, and I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks,” he added. “I knew how humbled he would be, and how humbled we would be as his family. You can see how many people came. It’s pretty hard to get a group like this together during this time, and it’s really special to see everyone here. It’s a difficult time for the family, but this is a night we will remember for a long time.”
Erny became the very first Fruitport varsity soccer coach in 1990, and over 19 seasons posted an impressive 242-133-20 record. Prior to that he coached at the old Fruitport Faith Christian High School, and his all-time prep soccer coaching record is 335-182-32
He was inducted into the Michigan High School Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame in 2015.
Erny became the interim athletic director at Fruitport High School in 1995, a job that quickly became permanent. He served proudly in that role for the next 25 years, through this summer, then decided to retire a few years early after he was diagnosed with ALS.
Under Erny’s leadership, Fruitport’s athletic program produced many great players, awards, championships and moments. But the people who showed up on Thursday weren’t there to honor Erny the successful soccer coach, or Erny the great AD.
They were there to honor Ken Erny the man, because his greatest success at Fruitport involved setting a great example for students and colleagues, and touching many lives in a positive way.
That was obvious during the ceremony, when the PA announcer read several emotional messages from former players and assistant coaches who learned so much from the man they described as a mentor and friend.
“You taught me how to be humble and how to try to be a better person and a better man,” one former player wrote. “You have had a tremendous impact on me and my entire family.”
“He showed me you can do things the right way and still be successful, that you don’t have to cut corners or push down others to get ahead,” wrote a former assistant coach. “I consider Ken to be many things – a role model, a mentor, and most importantly, a friend.”
“As I have grown older, I have learned that the most important things in life are the things (Erny) modeled all along – faith, family and character,” wrote Dan Hazekamp, who graduated in 2003 and is the current coach of the Fruitport varsity soccer team.
Perhaps the most touching words came from John Erny, Ken’s son, who was the soccer team manager for his dad as a child, and later played on his team in high school.
“I think you treated many of your players as sons, and that is something I am really proud of,” he wrote. “I love you and I am so proud of you and your impact on the Fruitport soccer program.”
After the testimonials were read, the cloth was removed from the new sign on the press box, revealing the words “Ken Erny Field.”
Erny took the microphone and thanked everyone who played for him or helped him coach over the years, and everyone who participated in the dedication ceremony.
“When I think of this field, I think of all the people who played here,” he said. “The players are this program and always will be. I believe one of our themes one year was ‘passion and pride.’ That’s what I think of when I think about Fruitport soccer, in the past, the future, and the present.
“This is not about a coach or a person. Any good coach or leader is only as good as the people he serves. I will not forget your love and friendship.”
A while later, after posing in front of the sign with his family and many friends, and hugging a steady stream of well-wishers, Erny revealed that Thursday was his first day back to campus, because rules prevent retirees from coming back for 30 days.
“I’ve been following (the school teams) and watching online as much as possible,” he said.
He also said the new name of the soccer field brought back a distant memory from his childhood.
“When I was 10 years old in New Jersey and I was playing soccer, my grandmother told me that there was a soccer field at Temple University named Erny Field, after my great uncle who was on the board or something.
“I was like wow, that is so cool. Now I’m getting that strange feeling back from the old days. Obviously that field has been gone for years, but hopefully this field will last for years to come.”
Erny said he had hoped to keep working for a few more years, but the challenges posed by the disease made immediate retirement an obvious choice.
“I was hoping to stay longer,” he said. “I would have loved to see the new high school and fully engage in that, but absolutely there is no question it was the right thing to do. I was sort of a workaholic, and it was time to change gears. I do notice there is a ton of fatigue (associated with ALS), and you have to take advantage of every day.”