Recently retired sports editor at the Daily Press, Denny Grall once told me that when he first started here, professional sports was where his heart was, and who could blame him. Most of us out there, myself included, rise and fall with our professional sports teams, the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit Tigers. They occupy our nights and weekends, they alter our emotions, they make or break our days. However, Denny described this job changing his views on professional sports. Gradually they became less meaningful to him and the focus became more on high school sports.
At the time he told me this, I didn't understand it. what was so great about high school sports? I wasn't really the person in high school that was in the student section of the stands on a Friday night cheering on our football team at Walled Lake Central. For the most part, though I came here from a large Metro-Detroit community, people there didn't care about us the way they do here about their Escanaba Eskymos or Gladstone Braves. So that was the first thing I had to learn when I started at the Daily Press in August of 2010.
That other thing, about professional sports taking a backburner? I think I have finally started to understand where Denny was coming from, and that happened this weekend.
Paul Gerard photo
Gladstone High School students hold up signs taunting Escanaba over the spoon that was in the Braves possession before Friday night's game.
I witnessed two incredible football games Friday night at Marble Field and Saturday afternoon at Eben Junction.
It was my first time covering an Escanaba vs. Gladstone football game and of course when those two teams get together it's not a typical game.
I've been at games where I felt one team stopped trying at a certain point and the play on the field generally just became lax. That was never the case Friday night as both teams were still hitting as hard as they could late in the fourth quarter. It was one of the most physical football games I've seen, and I believe that's how football should be played.
The atmosphere only added to the game. Thursday evening at the Gladstone Invitiational Cross Country meet at Beauchamp's Grove in Flat Rock, Escanaba's giant wooden spoon was taken by a contingent of Gladstone students. The spoon, by this point, has become a permanant fixture at Escanaba athletic events. Taunts toward the opposing team have even centered around it.
Friday night, it was firmly in Gladstone's possession. Braves students held up signs saying "Got Spoon? We do!" The marching band even came out of the Marble Field gates holding it high like a trophy they had just won.
At halftime, Gladstone students taunted the Esky fanbase further, running across the student section waving the spoon, before a couple Escanaba students snuck up from behind and grabbed it back. Cheers quickly erupted.
I watched the second half of the game from the press box, listening to Jack Hall's outstanding play-by-play with none other than our state representative, Ed McBroom standing beside me.
It was truly a night to remember.
Saturday afternoon, on a sparse five hours of sleep the night before, I got in my car and headed off toward Eben for what I suspected would be a great game between Rapid River and Superior Central. The last time those two teams met in the regular season, I was there, and witnessed a double overtime victory by the Rockets.
The temperature in my car said 38 degrees and it had begun to rain steadily upon driving in to Gladstone. I had a half-second thought about turning around, knowing full well that there was no press box to shield me from the elements at Superior Central. At the same time, I thought, 'this is the kind of weather that makes good football games great.'
Of course, my hunch turned out to be correct. The Rockets and Cougars played four quarters of hard-nosed, grind-it-out football through rain, sleet and snow. And in a display that speaks to the devotion of the communities of Eben and Chatham, I saw no one leave, even when the elements were at their worst in the second and third quarters.
Rockets quarterback Jake Pearson, though he will likely be overlooked at the UPSSA football meeting later this month, gave one of the grittiest performances I've seen out of a quarterback. He took a punishment on each one of his 33 carries and got up a little slower each time, but kept going at that Cougars D-line because that's what he was called to do.
After the game was over and a Rockets victory was in hand, thanks in no small part to Pearson's effort, the Rockets quarterback was so winded he couldn't muster more than a few words, and I didn't press him.
Pearson and the Rockets' offensive line truly earned a Sunday of rest for their work Saturday afternoon. Those who witnessed the game will surely remember the effort, if not the weather.
Two games, Friday and Saturday made me stop and realize. Though we get ourselves so wrapped up in who the Tigers going to start in game two against Oakland or if the NHL lockout is going to end anytime soon, we often forget, the rawest form of sport is right here in our community. This is the blood, sweat and passion of sport with no significant glory to be had, with no money, no endorsement deals at stake.
I think I finally understand where Denny Grall was coming from.