MUSKEGON, MI – Shane Fairfield recalls sitting at home on a December night in 2013, watching Michigan State defeat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship football game before he drifted to sleep.
At 2 o’clock in the morning, Fairfield received a phone call. It was from Damon Knox, who had contributed to the Spartans’ victory, which put them in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 26 years.
Knox’s parents attended the game, so he did not need to call them. Sitting on the team bus in the afterglow of MSU toppling highly touted OSU, Knox’s phone was ringing and dinging like crazy with calls and text messages from well-wishers. But, he felt moved to contact his old football coach at Muskegon High School first.
It was Fairfield who took a chance on Knox five years earlier when Knox seemed to be running out of chances. Fairfield — then the Big Reds’ defensive coordinator — saw something in the big sophomore.
“He just listened and he was really interested in getting to know me, and from that day our relationship took off,” Knox recalled about his and Fairfield’s long conversation over lunch one day. “I kind of was attached to his hip. I wanted to learn from him, I trusted him, and that was a big thing for me.”
That’s when the transformation began for Knox, from a raw but gifted 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive-end prospect with an uncertain future to an MSU signee who was in the playing rotation during a golden era in Spartans football.
A full-ride scholarship opened opportunities that likely would not have existed otherwise for Knox. Of all the things he took from his time at MSU – the friendships, the experiences, the championships – he said he’s most proud of his criminal-justice degree.
Now 27, Knox is currently employed as a deputy at Muskegon County Jail, but he recently enrolled at Grand Valley State University to pursue a master’s degree in public administration. He is seeking a career in education. He wants to make a difference in the lives of young people, much like Fairfield and others at his high school alma mater have done for him.
“He’s a son of mine. He’s a son. He’s a reason that I aspire each year to continue to do what I do,” said Fairfield, now in his 10th season as Big Reds head coach. “I think that sums it up. As much as I think I’ve helped him or inspired him and helped him along the way to achieve his goals, he helps me and reiterates or re-certifies the fact that what I’m doing is working and it has meaning.”
Knox is one of the success stories to come out of the Muskegon High athletics program in recent years. He’s Exhibit A in showing that what Fairfield along with a team of coaches and educators are doing to help make lives better.
From athletic director/basketball coach Keith Guy to athletic academic advisor Josh Wall to guidance counselor Shawndra Sain to a cast of committed teachers, they tie together the academic and athletic facets of college-hopeful Muskegon High student-athletes. Keith Williams, who is now working at Grand Haven, also was instrumental in a counseling role at Muskegon when the tide turned for the better.
When Guy arrived at Muskegon High in 2012 from Muskegon Heights, an emphasis was placed on taking the steps necessary to educate students and their parents and show them what it took to earn scholarships. That includes knowing what’s required in terms of core classes and college-entrance test scores.
These days, Muskegon High is putting student-athletes in college at an all-time high rate. Those students are earning scholarship money at several levels of college. In the last three years alone, 10 Muskegon student-athletes have received scholarships to attend Division I schools, eight more have earned Division II scholarships, while a slew of others are attending smaller colleges with at least part of their schooling paid.
“They have that support system here (on the academic side) and it’s not just the coaches – they have the guidance, they have the teachers, who know their academic abilities and they know their athletic abilities and they know background and what those kids need to do to keep pushing. And it takes a lot of effort, a ton of effort, but they’re willing to do that to help those students,” said Kelli Postema, an advocate for student-athletes, who has been a teacher at Muskegon for nearly 20 years.
Sarah Ego, who is in her sixth year teaching at Muskegon, is an advocate just like Postema. Ego has a unique perspective in that she’s the daughter of a former college football coach and she’s now married to an assistant football coach for the Big Reds.
She has the utmost respect for what the student-athletes are doing inside and outside of the classroom.
“I have Cameron Martinez, Jordan Porter, Bryan Stinson, Kayden Smith – four of the football players are in (her class) for AP Literature. I have Jarvis Walker, Lamar Lee also for AP Lit – two basketball players that are doing their job in the classroom, on the field, on the court,” Ego said.
“I’ve just been tied to that marriage between academics and athletics my entire life. Those that are putting in that effort and able to achieve that, I want to help in any way I can. So I work closely with Josh, closely with football staff, basketball staff, getting these kids where they need to be. I’m blessed that right now I just have very driven academic students because I’m only teaching AP classes right now.”
For Knox, it was truly a journey going from the bottom end of the scholastic spectrum to an acceptable level, and the ride was not always smooth. During his high school career, Knox had his good days and bad days. Fairfield said that led to two nicknames: “Damon” and “Demon.”
Playing football – running around, sweating, hitting guys who were his size or larger – that was the easy part for Knox. Academics were not so simple. After digging a hole early in high school, he found purpose in the classroom with encouragement from Fairfield and others.
When college football programs started to show interest — when they said they were willing to invest in Knox should he get his academics in order – Knox began to get serious. Fairfield even pulled him aside and said, “Do you really want to do this? Because if you do, you have a lot of work to do, so let’s figure it out now.”
Knox got caught up in the classroom, taking online classes in the summer. He took the ACT five times, going from a score of 14 to a 22. His grade-point average went from 1.9 to 2.5 by the time he graduated. He qualified through the NCAA clearinghouse and earned his scholarship.
“To most people, they look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s not very good,’ but for me it was everything,” Knox said about his grades and test scores. “I opened a door to get out of Muskegon and experience something new.”
Knox would love to work at Muskegon Public Schools and coach football. He actually interviewed for a dean of students position at Muskegon, but he did not get the job and decided to enroll at GVSU.
For Fairfield and Guy, Knox landing a position at their school would be the perfect scenario: A Muskegon High-educated young person, who goes away to college on scholarship and wants nothing more than to return to his hometown and positively impact young lives.
“Shane and I talk about this all the time: If you sit me in a room and asked me to answer this question, ‘Would I rather get a championship every year or would I rather all my kids go to college every year?’ I would tell you I’d want all my kids to go to college every year because it betters their life,” Guy said. “The priority is based on us getting kids to college.”