MUSKEGON–The only thing that keeps this aging Michigander from slipping into a major depression at the end of summer is the start of high school football season.
Thank goodness we have the fun and excitement and pageantry of “Friday Night Lights” to distract us from the steady descent of temperatures into the chest freezer that is January and February.
Need a dose of positivity in your life?
Interview a high school football player in August.
I will never forget one particular interview with a senior football player at a Newaygo County school back in the glory days of The Muskegon Chronicle (I’m thinking it was the late 1990s).
Setting the scene: It was a hot August night and we were standing on the edge of what had to be the worst practice football field in state history – with more dirt than grass (the grass that was there was a crispy brown) and plenty of ants and grasshoppers. Picture the “Bad News Bears” of football, with about 13 total players wearing old equipment and trying to conduct a makeshift scrimmage with six players on offense and seven on defense.
I remember thinking how much I admired the dedication of those players for persevering in the 90-degree heat, when they could have been on the beach or playing video games.
“What is your outlook for the season?” I asked, expecting the worst.
“I think we’ll make the playoffs for sure,” said the senior lineman, who appeared to dress out at about 5-foot-6 and 155 pounds. “If we keep working hard like this, we could go all the way.”
I think I spit out my water on my “Skin Skinner” T-shirt.
Great expectations were not a thing at Mona Shores until recently. When Matt Koziak took over in 2011, staying within three touchdowns of Muskegon was considered a victory. Four state championship game appearances, two titles and one Brady Rose later, the new standard is that the Sailors are expected to win every single game.
Muskegon Catholic’s Steve Czerwon came the closest I have ever seen to achieving perfection in his first four years as head coach, from 2013 to 2016. After losing his first two games as head coach (CRUCIFY HIM!!!), Czerwon went 52-2 over his next 54 games, including four consecutive Division 8 state championships.
But no school has more unrealistic expectations than Muskegon High, the winningest high school football program in state history with 868 wins (131 more than second-place Ann Arbor Pioneer).
Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield put together a mind-boggling streak of his own, reaching the state championship game seven times in eight years from 2012 to 2019. Do that at any other high school in the nation and they’re debating between renaming streets, dedicating a portion of the school in your honor or erecting a giant bronze statue. But at Muskegon, because the Big Reds only won one of those championship games (28-10 over Farmington Harrison in 2017), a faction of Muskegon fans would like to see him hanged, drawn and quartered on the downtown Olthoff Street Stage.
As a whole, Muskegon County football fans are the most spoiled in the state. Look back through the years and you will see Muskegon County, which accounts for roughly 1.75 percent of the state’s 10 million people, regularly gets a plethora of teams into the semifinals and finals – highlighted by 2008, when four of the eight champions hailed from our little county by the lake.
Which is why, while Kid Rock sings about “summertime in Northern Michigan,” this type of tradition makes Adult Tom write about “football time in Western Michigan.”
All of this made the ending of last year’s football season a difficult pill to swallow. Not only did none of the area’s football teams make it to Ford Field, none of them even made it to the semifinals (forcing many men to get out and rake leaves or, worse yet, take their wives to a movie).
But, based on interviews with players this month, we are headed for a big rebound this season – with as many as half of the area teams looking to be in Motown on Thanksgiving weekend.
Forget that is mathematically impossible. That type of unbridled hope and optimism is refreshing and good for the soul.