Lubbers Stadium hosts MHSFCA all-star game for first time

Pete Barrows

In the wake of Super Bowl XL, much ado was made about Jerome Bettis, affectionately known as ‘The Bus,’ completing his football career as a champion in Detroit, the city that raised him. Pulling back into the station for the final time made for a compelling through line, but every trip, every story, every career is marked by a point of departure.

Bettis (’88), Mushin Muhammad (’91), Drew Stanton (’02), Tyrone Wheatley (’91), Antonio Gates (’98), Braylon Edwards (’01) and Jake Long (’03), well known alumni of Notre Dame, Michigan State University, Kent State or the University of Michigan who all started in college, played (and sometimes thrived) in the NFL and all began their respective careers in the same game. And no, it wasn’t an early 2000 production of NFL Blitz.

Grand Valley State University alumnus Tim Lelito (’07) and current student-athletes Matt Armstrong (’08) and Bobby Wunderlich (’10), among other Lakers and a host of players across the state of Michigan from Wayne State to Michigan Tech, did too.

The 33rd annual Michigan High School All-Star Football Game was played June 22, and for the first time in the game’s history, Grand Valley State University’s Lubbers Stadium played host to the 89 MHSFCA all-stars, who for a day shared a common stop with the aforementioned stars. Earning tickets to ride on the merit of their high school gridiron exploits, a majority of the 89 will next year depart unto college careers of their own and years from now might one day again be included in the same utterance as those who departed before them.

It was all aboard June 16 as the players and coaches arrived in Allendale from all over the state to participate in a week of practices and scheduled activities leading up to the game. Divided equally into East and West rosters, there were as many high schools as athletes represented with eight from the Grand Rapids area.

Kenowa Hills wide receiver Dylan Smith, West Catholic defensive lineman Daniel Green, East Kentwood defensive back Houston Glass, Grandville linebacker Utah Bartholic, Forest Hills Central tight end Hunter Folkertsma, Byron Center defensive back Garrett Cross, Caledonia running back Heath Hoogerhyde, and Comstock Park quarterback Jake Brown all suited up for the West squad and relished the opportunity to act and play as constituents.

“All the people in my community got me here in the first place,” Brown said. “This game was really for them.”

The game, itself, got underway that Saturday in front of family and friend who filled bleachers in a mid-summer afternoon’s heat. For the all-star football players, coaches and cheerleaders, it was a just reward for all of the sacrifices—two-a-days, seven-on-sevens, off-season workouts and practices waged with trash cans posted at every 10-yard increment along the sidelines—made in similar heat.

To the avail of East head coach Mike Zdebski of Walled Lake Northern, the East took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Dearborn Edsel Ford’s Leonie Degraffenreid extended to receive a looping 32-yard pot-of-gold touchdown pass rainbowed from South Lyon East quarterback Cameron Thomas, who completed 6-of-9 passes and all three on the opening drive for 78 yards and a touchdown on the day.

“It’s awesome,” Thomas said. “Playing with these guys, who are the best in the state, and getting a chance to learn all of these plays, it’s amazing.”

The West returned fire later in the quarter as Okemos’ Dong Kim’s field goal topped off a bumpy drive guided by Brown, but the East side wouldn’t relinquish the lead for the rest of the game.
“Their (the East’s) defense was really good,” Brown said. “You are playing against college DB’s, they are as fast as can be, the speed of the game—it is a college game.”

Getting a taste of playing against a team of college level talent for theoretically the first time, there was plenty of evidence of growing pains—nuances to learn and chemistry to be developed. One element that clearly translated just fine was the will to compete.

Jogging off the field at half with a 7-3 score in favor of the East, players were reined with ‘east-side’ and ‘west-side’ undulations from the crowds mixed with words from onlookers leaning over the Lubber stadium rails.

“Game up boy,” said the grandfather of Flint Carman-Ainsworth’s offensive guard for the West Cleandre Robinson. “Y’all got to hit those guys.”

Obliging grandpa Robinson, the West hit back in the second half and physical play permeated the contest. Head coach of the West Bill Feraco of East Lansing cranked up the intensity on offense, too, calling a double bubble screen that elicited ‘woos’ from the stands. It wasn’t enough.

The score remained 7-3 until the East scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Detroit Loyola’s Keymonn’e Gabriel stole the show and finished off the game with scoring rumbles of eight and 22-yards, fending off defenders and facemasks on his way to pay dirt.

Due to a blocked extra point attempt, the game ended in a 20-3 East over West final. As players from both squads took knees at midfield for the trophy presentation, families and friends flocked onto the field, pictures were taken and handshakes exchanged and just like that, it was over—the 33rd rendition completed, the field vacated and the metaphorical bus departed for what could be the last time.

With talks of altering the game into a Michigan versus Ohio all-star format, the future of the MHSFCA all-star game is just as unknown as the football futures of the game participants.

For some, a culminating experience, a last football game, an end of the line. For others, merely a football beginning with nothing but open roads ahead.