By Ron Rop
MUSKEGON–The year Jeff Strait started coaching football, the first manned rocket ship orbited the moon and the National Football League was preparing for Super Bowl II.
Yes, it was that long ago when an 18-year-old graduate of Fruitport High School made his debut as a football coach in the Fruitport youth league.
Now, Strait is preparing for his 55th consecutive year of coaching. He is entering his 19th season as the middle school coach at Orchard View.
Every season since 1968, Strait, 73, has been teaching football. And as long as his body and mind will allow, he intends to keep on going.
“I started right out of high school,” Strait said. “Some of us guys decided at 18 we were going to get into a bowling league and one of the guys (Bill Corning) coached at the youth club. He said he knew I played football and if I was interested in coaching football. He talked me into it.”
Strait not only started coaching, but got “roped” into being the secretary for the new, and growing, youth league. When Fruitport middle school decided it wanted its coach to be a teacher at the school, Strait moved over to Ravenna and helped Coach Dusty Fairfield’s up and coming football players.
When Hal Holman was hired at OV, he called Strait and asked if he’d come over and run the Wing-T.
“When I got to OV, I was still kind of upset with Fruitport that no one stood with me,” Strait said. “The parents were upset because they knew my reputation and what I did with the kids. But, I think once I got to OV and got working with it, I found out more and more that God had another plan for me. A lot of the kids from Orchard View are coming from moms supporting them and working three jobs and they need somebody when they don’t have a dad around to help guide them a little bit. That was an immense thing for me to work with those kids. I had the opportunity to work with a young kid – Fletcher Payne – who was autistic and that was an eye-opening experience for me. All the kids just loved him.”
Strait, who retired nearly 5 years ago after 34 years at Meridian, did veer off into the semi-pro ranks of football, but that never slowed him down when it came to coaching at the youth level. That gig lasted several years.
He’s been questioned numerous times over the years on why he doesn’t move up and take a varsity job.
“I had a regular job and that doesn’t give you the luxury of having long practices or two-a-days,” Strait said. “So then I just kept on at the middle school and love working with those kids and the OV community accepted me with open arms and I have a real good working relationship with Jim Nielson, the superintendent.”
OV also has had some numbers issues at the varsity level that has caused some games to be forfeited. Those low numbers also came during covid-19 and that just made matters even worse. Strait believes those issues have been resolved, but regardless, he will continue to prepare those seventh and eighth graders for the jayvee and varsity levels.
Strait began with 27 middle schoolers on his team and he expects that number to increase by 10-12 players as it gets closer to the first day of school. Strait said 18 of his eighth graders from last year’s team are now eligible for high school football at OV.
Oh, there have been some obstacles to overcome along the way. Like shoulder surgery that effectively ended his bowling career. A bout with prostate cancer that disappeared thanks to surgery. He’s got a new left knee and will have his right knee replaced after the current football season.
Strait has committed to working through the 2024 season – he goes on a year-by-year basis with Nielson. The 2024 season will be Strait’s 20th at Orchard View.
Year after year, Strait’s approach remains unchanged. He loves teaching the game to young kids, some of whom know little or nothing about the game.
“I love working with the kids and I love football so those things just work hand in hand,” he said. “It’s just been a journey. Everybody says I look younger and I think working with the kids keeps your mind fresh. You’re always working on what play is next.”
Having been involved in football for so many years, Strait has built up relationships that continue to this day. He coached current Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak and Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield at the semi-pro level. He’s had youth players move on to bigger and better things in life.
He quickly rattles off the names of Tommy Scott, Rob Pouch, Greg Vargas and certainly there are many others.
“There’s been a long of guys and it’s been so great to see their successes,” said Strait, whose methods of coaching have changed over the years, but one thing has been constant. There are rules to be followed and those rules are followed there are consequences. It doesn’t matter if you’re the star of the team or the last man on the end of the bench, those rules remain unchanged.
So, the big question remains … how long will Strait keep coaching? He’s not ready to answer that just yet.
“I know that once I retire, I am definitely going to miss it,” Strait said. “I want to make sure I’m ready when I go.”
Strait has plans for retirement, much of which includes trips out West to visit family and friends. It’s just that he doesn’t know when those trips actually will take place.
One thing is certain, Strait will continue with another of his passions – golf.
“I’m not that good at it, but I love it,” said Strait, who has a group of guys who make up the foursomes on the golf course.