Longtime Laker QBs prepare to pass torch

GVL / Archive
Quarterback Heath Parling

GVL / Archive Quarterback Heath Parling

Pete Barrows

Being a quarterback is a long and time-honored tradition at GVSU where year to year, game to game, snap to snap, the name of the game is ‘pass it on.’ A tradition that started before QBs Heath Parling and Isiah Grimes became Lakers, and will last long after they’re gone. 

ASK SIXTH-YEAR QUARTERBACKS Heath Parling and Isiah Grimes their favorite play, and they’d likely tell you. Parling digs W-Read, a boundary throw that’s become a staple of the Grand Valley State University offense and was the first pass Parling learned as a Laker, while Grimes prefers a deep-post cleared out on play-action.

Ask them to recite the GVSU quarterback clandestine creed, and you’d probably only get a bemused look shot right back to you between the numbers. Although if one had to guess, the unspoken doctrine passed down, like the W-Read, between Laker quarterbacks might sound something like this:

“…The GVSU Laker football team in convention assembled declares and affirms the following principles:

“…that a man may be a very good man, a very good man may be, but a better man he’s sure to become when he joins a football team (say what).

“….that in furtherance of these aims to win games and ‘ships, may there always be lobbed spirals thrown without fear through coverage made on proper reads so that we proclaim our truth with every pass; that what’s started might be finished as long as tradition never graduates. We pass the torch, as well as the pigskin, as we press forward with eyes down field and on the count of two, we pledge our allegiance to the Heta Iota Kappa Eta.

“L-A, K-E, R-U a Laker? HELL YEAH. BREAK.”

Greek organizations thrive at GVSU within the neighborhood of 10 different fraternities that are functionally active on campus – from Sigma Phi Epsilon to Sigma Pi to Delta Sigma PhI (no Delta Tau Chi, yet). 

However there’s also another secret fraternity – a Skull and Bones organization of sorts. A secret so well kept that even its members don’t always realize when they’ve been initiated. So secret that appendages of the elite group don’t wear letters nor brands and aren’t always easy to spot – particularly when braced under helmet and pads.

Although rest assured, they’re there and are a very established part of GVSU lore.

TAKE BROTHER JEFF FOX, pledge class of ’95 and active until ’98, for instance, who was a three-year starter at quarterback for GVSU, went 26-8 and finished his career holding 16 Midwest Intercollegiate Football Conference offensive records to go along with two MIFC titles. He briefly suited up of the Detroit Lions.

Then there’s brother Curt Anes of Kentwood, class of ’99 and active until ’02, who during his tenure, rewrote Laker football history. A local boy with a golden arm, Anes threw for a school single-season record 3,692 yards and 47 touchdowns to lead GVSU to the program’s first national title and claim the Harlon Hill Award, the D-II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, in his senior season. He also briefly played for the Lions.

Perhaps the most beloved of them all, brother Cullen Finnerty, active between ’03 and ’06, is gone, never forgotten, and still resides in eternal bond within the circle of Laker greats. He directed GVSU to three more national championships while becoming the winningest quarterback in NCAA history with a 51-4 record as a starter in his four-year career, and also briefly saw time in the NFL.

Brother Brad Iciek of Grandville, class of ’07 and active to ’09, took up the mantle under center next, and led the Lakers back to the Division II title game as a senior after thrice being named a Harlon Hill finalist. He ranks third in GVSU history in career touchdown passes (98) and fourth in passing yards (8,461).

Senior transfer from Division I Eastern Michigan University, Kyle McMahon, had his moment, too – albeit for just a year – and in 2010 guided GVSU to an 11-2 record, while completing 181 of 320 passes for 2,616 yards and 24 touchdowns as well as rushing 130 times for 721 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“There’s been a tradition of great quarterbacks here at GVSU ever since I’ve been here, and with the offense we run, it’s integral that we line up a guy we can trust under center,” said GVSU coach Matt Mitchell. “That didn’t change when I took over as head coach.”

Between the 15 years separating Jeff Fox and Kyle McMahon, the founding fathers of what the GVSU program is today produced four NCAA Division II national championships, established a combined 171-34 record and created a tradition of re-upping records as they went.

Yet for all the greatness yielded during the span, perhaps no Laker quarterback has ever been more prolific than Heath Grimes. Or was it Isiah Parling?

Over the last four seasons, the pair has combined to go 32-13, splitting starts along the way.

“Isiah and Heath are both very capable, but very different players, and you have to adjust as a team to suit their unique styles of play,” Mitchell said. “Isiah’s great in play-action, there’s not a ball he can’t throw down field and he’ll rip throws into some tight windows that Heath won’t. Heath’s better at managing the game, getting us into the right runs, distributing the ball to a lot of different people and excels in the five-step sets where he’s asked to read things.

“It’s been frustrating for us as a program and for them at times cycling back and forth between them not only year to year, but within the year game to game, but I can’t say enough about how the two of them have handled that dynamic.”

There’s an old adage in football that suggests if you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have one, and maybe it’s true. Just don’t tell that to Parling or Grimes.

Separate, each has had plenty of moments to hang their helmet on.

In his first year as a starter in 2011, Parling completed 154 of 249 passes (.618) for 2,415 yards and 34 touchdowns, led the nation in pass efficiency rating (180.3) and was named GVSU’s most improved offensive player.

The very next year, Grimes was granted the same distinction and too led the nation in pass efficiency rating (178.07) in relief of an injured Parling. He also tossed three or more scores in a game four times, completed 119 of 203 passes for 2,213 yards and 22 touchdowns and did so in just seven starts.

Together, without the injuries or bad breaks, there might not be a quarterback that compares. Combined, the duo has racked up 11,113 career passing yards – the record is 10, 905 paced by Cullen Finnerty – 116 passing touchdowns – the record is 114 held by Curt Anes – and there’s still three games left in the 2014 season.

THE UNANTICIPATED QUARTERBACK UNION has roots dating back to 2009 when 6-foot-6, 240-pound Grimes – then a recruit out of South Haven ranked the No. 86 player in the state of Michigan by Scout.com – redshirted a year with 6-foot-3, 220-pound Parling – a fresh face from Salem rated the No. 79 player in the state – behind Brad Iciek on a Division II national championship runner-up.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Parling and Grimes bunked up together with Michael Ratay, now a fellow sixth-year senior, as well as Charles Hill at 48 West for two years, making occasional visits to the H block of the Copper Beach complex. 

“It took us time to acclimate to life at GVSU,” Parling said. “We were thrown into the fire, getting yelled at by coaches all the time, asked to learn a complex offense and it was tough. Now that we’ve been here forever and know the school and the offense like the back of our hand, it’s different, but I think we helped each other get there.”

Grimes expanded.

“It’s easier being good friends,” Grimes said. “You want to see the other guy competing for your job succeed and do well, where it’d be easy otherwise to wish for him to mess up. It’s always been a friendly competition, and it makes us better every day.”

Both had been recruited in part by then assistant coach Mitchell, and in year two, the pair bided their time and backed up McMahon, absorbing all that they could as they had under Iciek.

Both understood it was only a matter of time before one of their numbers would be called.

“Brad was a genius when it came to knowing the playbook – he knew everything like the coaches did,” Parling said.

Grimes agreed and added, finishing the sentence in sync.

“And with Kyle, it was amazing that he did what he did after only spending six months here.”

“They were not only respectful of us, they went out of their way to help us out even when they didn’t have to,” Parling said.

“And that’s why we try to be like that with Bart and Ollie,” Grimes said.

Bart, as in redshirt freshman Bart Williams, and Ollie as in fellow redshirt freshman Ollie Ajami – the next two quarterbacks set to uphold the lineage – one of whose number will likely be called next spring.

Although as Parling and Grimes have also come to understand, playing time is never promised. After a scintillating 2011 campaign, an ACL tear limited Parling as redshirt junior – providing Grimes his opportunity – and subsequent ailments to Parling, as well to Grimes, have powered a quarterback carousel.

“When Parling finally got his opportunity, it was quickly stripped from him by injury, but he’s always persevered well,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a roller coaster for him, and he’s still here ready to start.

“Isiah’s in the same position, and has always been there when we needed him. He’s been a consummate team player. A guy that gets the job done when you need him to, and steps back and cheers when we don’t.”

GRIMES’ AND PARLING’S SWAN SONG – the 2014 season – began inauspiciously: 0-3. Back to 4-4, there are still three games left, starting with Ashland on Saturday, to leave a mark, but it’s unlikely either Parling or Grimes will ever be remembered the same way that their predecessors have been.

The Lakers have failed to make the playoffs under Parling and Grimes every year except one – last year in a semifinal finish in the Division II playoffs – and in a program that has been marked by its exceptional quarterback play, its quarterbacks have been marked by winning.

“We want to win, starting with Ashland this weekend, and Parling’s the guy that’ll be doing that,” Mitchell said of his starter who threw three touchdown passes last week. “I don’t think we’ve put it all together to play a complete game to our full potential yet as an offense, which we’re still striving for, but we’re also trying to establish a culture of what we want to do around here both on and off the field.

“Our seniors help dictate that, and both Paring and Grimes have had influence upon the direction of our program.”

What if Parling never would have gotten hurt? What if Grimes would have had full rights to the quarterback job? What if the almost unprecedented run of national championships would have continued? Perhaps more than any other cliché’, ‘what could have been’ might be the most appropriate motto to encapsulate the last five years of GVSU football – as well as Parling and Grimes’ careers as Lakers.

Although as telling as it may be, it does not seem to accurately define either Parling or Grimes or the legacy of a program tapestry that they’ve woven themselves into.

A more suitable motto might be ‘what could be.’

For Parling – an honors student in a higher education masters program – and for Grimes – who will take on an internship in the winter – both of whom have aspirations to pass along what they’ve learned as GVSU signal-callers as coaches like so many other GVSU quarterbacks before them.

For Williams and Ajami and whoever else might be up to carrying the torch next, all of whom will have the advantages of being groomed by experienced players above them on the depth chart.

For the future of GVSU football, whatever that might be. The styles at quarterback may change with the personnel – and the changes will come – but the experiences passed along perpetuate beyond individual players. It’s the team, the fraternity, that stays on at GVSU – not the players. And the quarterback fraternity at GVSU was better for having initiated Parling and Grimes.

“When it comes down to it, we just want to see Grand Valley win games,” Parling said. “Whether I’m in there or if he’s in there, it doesn’t matter.”

Grimes concluded.

“I’ve met my best friends here, and the coaches and professors and people have been great to us,” Grimes said. “As much as it’s about the games, it’s more about the relationships and memories we’ve made. The moments, the little stuff that happened out in games, but also so many good times just hanging out together at Fresh, at home, wherever.

“It’s been good to be a Laker.”