Setting the bar high

Prokos retires from 60-year coaching career

Mike Mattson | Daily Press John Prokos, who has a passion for the pole vault, is retiring from a 60-year career in coaching at Escanaba.

ESCANABA — John Prokos of Escanaba has held a variety of positions during his coaching career.

Following this year’s Upper Peninsula Track Finals, Prokos stepped down from his most recent position, assistant track coach at Escanaba High School.

Overall, he had been competing and coaching for 70 years.

“It was time for me to go,” said Prokos, who had a 60-year career in coaching. “I think I was the oldest track coach in the U.P. I had a lot of wonderful people to work with. I became a coach because I enjoy working with the kids. I had been an athlete until now. It was a good run.”

Prokos was the head track coach at Escanaba Junior High for 25 years. then helped with the coaching duties at Esky High the next three seasons.

He also served as assistant track coach at North Central for two years.

“We had some champions those years,” he said. “We had a great young man (Tom Granquist) who was jumping six feet (in high jump) under Jerry Root, who I thought was a great track coach. He got as high as 6-4 and was a U.P. (Class D) champion as a senior (at 5-11 in 1995).

“Every now and then I’d go to Rapid River and work with those kids and with the pole vaulters at Bark River-Harris in the evening.”

In previous years, he worked with Esky’s pole vaulters and sometimes with the Marquette and Menominee vaulters.

Among them was Wade Hodge of Menominee, who became the first U.P. vaulter to clear 14 feet in the U.P. Finals (Class A-B) in 1992.

“Wade was a great young man,” said Prokos. “I remember how cold it was in Marquette that day (windy with temperatures in the mid 30s). That was an amazing jump for those conditions.

“We had at least a dozen vaulters when Gary Seehafer and Rusty Bluse were coaching (at Esky) and we had some good vaulters, then Gladstone came along with Casey Young. I also remember working the pole vault at Gladstone (in the 2010 Delta County Invitational) and seeing Josh Syverson going 14-4.”

Prokos had a passion for vaulting, starting when he was in fifth and sixth grade.

“We would dig holes for the poles, put eight-penny nails to hold them steady and found a hefty clothes line pole for vaulting,” he said.

“Our box was just a hole in the ground and we’d work up the dirt on the other side to make it softer for landing,”Prokos added. “We were jumping 6 1/2 feet at the most. We didn’t have any junior high track at that time, but we’d go to the high school meets and watch their vaulters.”

He was the U.P. Class A-B recordholder in pole vault at 11-7 for nine years until Mike Stemac of Holy Name soared 11-8 1/2 in 1960.

After high school, Prokos had a college scholarship for Albion College, were he attended classes for just one semester. He then attended Northern Michigan University where he vaulted for coach Burt Gustafson.

His education got interrupted when he joined the U.S. Army.

But he continued his vaulting while stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J. where he cleared 13-8 while still using a bamboo pole and landing in a sawdust pit.

“I went to the Korean War and followed by wife to school (NMU) in 1956,” he said. “I started vaulting again in 1957 and officiating high school basketball games with Burt. I was going to be an industrial arts teacher, but I also majored in physical education. I was a physical ed teacher for 28 years and had the longest longevity of all the PE teachers at the junior high. I was also a general math teacher for two years.”

He used to compete in the Senior Olympics until it was time for him to retire. He gave up vaulting at age 76 in 2008.

Among his competitive highlights: He competed in the 1975 World Masters in Toronto; placed third in a 1974 national meet in Chicago; placed first twice at Green Bay in the late 1970s; and won his age group at the Great Lakes State Games in the 1980s. He also won at a pair of meets in Crystal Falls in the mid-60s.

Prokos coached varsity cross country at Esky in the late 1970s, through the 80s and into the 90s.

Then in 1991, his final year at the helm, he guided the Eskymos to the U.P. Class A-B title and earned Coach of the Year honors.

He continued to work with area track athletes and conducted pole vault clinics in the Central U.P. for several years. He coached many area vaulters and helped at area track meets for many years. He plans to continue serving as an official starter at area track and cross country meets.

Prokos played high school football for three years and basketball for two seasons at Esky. He also played junior high football and basketball.

In 1944, Prokos organized the first Little League baseball team as a sixth-grader in Escanaba.

“My brother Nick was on the team,” he said. “We had a lot of help from Paul Vardigan. What a wonderful person he was. He did everything he could to help us.”


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