t’s late morning on a comfortable spring day, and a coach for a Big Ten college football program prepares to leave Muskegon High School. It’s a popular stop lately.
Muskegon’s Billie Roberts (53) watches with a scratched up helmet during a game in the Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University in Detroit on Aug. 30, 2019. Cory Morse | MLive.com
As the coach heads toward his car, one of the school’s handful of prospects is the center of attention — but not in the way he would prefer.
Billie Roberts, all 6 feet, 5 inches and 265 pounds of him, squats low to the ground, sweat beading at his forehead. It’s tough to flip a 200-plus-pound tractor tire if you don’t get under it and use your legs.
He squats, flips the tire end-over-end, over and over, pausing to catch his breath between repetitions. This is part conditioning, but mostly discipline for skipping a track meet, and his peers walk by playfully mocking him.
When you’re 17, discipline from your track coach, who is also your football coach, stings. Billie, however, understands the reasoning. The discipline makes you stronger and being stronger gets you noticed. Getting noticed leads to a scholarship and a scholarship leads to a better life.
“You’ve got to know what’s best for you,” said Billie, who plays offensive and defensive tackle for the Big Reds. “If you walk off and you’re like, ‘I’m done with this,’ you’ve got to think of, ‘How are you going to get by without football?’
“Football and sports have been the game plan … you walk away and you’ve got to figure out something else.”
Muskegon High is like many other urban schools in Michigan. The city’s once mighty economy built on heavy manufacturing left long ago, keeping the blue-collar mentality without the jobs or free-flowing money.
At Muskegon High, 87 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last year. The median household income for a family with children is $24,848, compared to the state average of $67,027.
Violence and gang activity plague the community. In August, just days before school started, a current student and a recent graduate were killed in separate incidents of gun violence on Muskegon streets. Students, including Billie, started the school year attending a candlelight vigil in honor of a dead friend. Immediately after the vigil ended, the sound of gunfire sent the crowd running.
Against that backdrop, or maybe because of it, sports provides a way out – a way past the financial hardships, the violence, the unemployment that stand in the paths of many Muskegon High kids.
Muskegon football assistant coach Tracy Lewis, top left, jokes with players as they eat lunch at a rest stop while traveling to Detroit King on Sept. 6, 2019. Cory Morse | MLive.com (More Big Reds photos)
“I’m not going to sit here and try to understate the importance of athletics,” said Keith Guy, Muskegon’s boys basketball coach, athletic director and stepfather to Big Reds football star Cameron Martinez. “We have some kids here that, that’s what they know their way out is. Their parent couldn’t stash away $50,000 for college. So this … is … their … way … out. It was my way out.”
Championships and scholarships. That’s Guy’s motto, and other Big Reds coaches have adopted it, including Shane Fairfield, head football coach. Between the two, scholarships take priority. Championships get your program noticed. That is not lost on any member of the Muskegon High Big Reds football team. Muskegon begins its quest for a state championship this week. The Big Reds (9-0), who are ranked 18th in the USA Today Super 25 national poll, kick off their playoff run against Marquette (5-4) on Saturday afternoon at Grand Haven High School.
“We don’t apologize for that – for providing this and being one of the best athletic programs in the state of Michigan,” Guy said. “We have kids qualifying to go to college at an all-time high rate right now. We’re proud of that. … This is who we are.”
Who are the Big Reds?
It’s a Friday night at Hackley Stadium, site of Muskegon High home football games since 1907. Most eyes are fixed on the traditional, natural-grass playing field, but on this particular night, they’re turning their attention toward a blue-sky canvas painted with wispy clouds.
Four skydivers descend upon the stadium, parachuting in with the game ball for the Big Reds’ contest against Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills.
Game nights at Hackley are a big deal. They’re social events as much as anything. Capacity in the iconic venue is around 6,000, which for the bigger games is often reached and exceeded.
A Muskgeon football game illuminates Hackley Stadium, located in the heart of the city. Cory Morse | MLive.com (More photos of Hackley Stadium)
The Muskegon area is traditionally a hotbed for high school football and Hackley Stadium is the epicenter. The fact that it houses the winningest program in Michigan history, one that ranks seventh nationally in all-time victories, has a lot to do with the popularity.
This is the 125th season of Big Reds football. Muskegon High School started playing football in 1895 and, since that time, the Big Reds have amassed a staggering 855-279-43 record. The second-winningest program in Michigan, Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, is more than 100 wins behind Muskegon.
Muskegon High’s football program owns 18 state championships in its history – 12 mythical and six since the Michigan High School Athletic Association adopted the playoff system in 1975 – plus the Big Reds have made several state finals appearances.
But football isn’t the only powerhouse. Muskegon High’s boys basketball team won the Class A state title in 2014 with a 28-0 record, and under Guy the program is a perennial power. Historically, Big Reds boys basketball owns four state championships. Meanwhile, Muskegon High’s girls basketball program has been emerging as well, having advanced to the state semifinals last season.
Players lift Muskegon head coach Keith Guy up into the air as they celebrate defeating Bloomfield Hills 91-67 at the MHSAA boys basketball Class A championship game on March 22, 2014. Jake May | MLive.com
No question, all those victories and championships can only help student-athletes gain notice from college recruiters and, in turn, earn scholarships.
In the past three years, 10 student-athletes from Muskegon High have received scholarships to play sports at Division I colleges. Eight made it to Division II schools on scholarship.
In that span, an average of a little more than $1 million in scholarships were awarded to student-athletes per year.
As Guy sees it, his job is to get Muskegon student-athletes to “the starting blocks” — a college education. How they get out of the starting blocks is up to them, he said.
In Muskegon High’s current senior class, four student-athletes have received Division I scholarship offers, while two others have received Division II offers. A couple of sophomores on the Big Reds football team have already received Division I scholarship offers.
Billie holds offers from 13 Division I football programs, nine of them from Power-Five conferences.
Cameron, the electrifying quarterback and reigning MLive state football player of the year, is headed to Ohio State University on a full-ride scholarship. He chose the Buckeyes from 29 Division I offers, including ones from Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame.
Cameron would be getting an athletic scholarship no matter where he played high school football. He spent his freshman and sophomore seasons as quarterback at Muskegon Catholic Central before he transferred to Muskegon midway through his sophomore year.
Guy said that his family as well as Cameron wanted a more diverse, bigger-school environment that a place like Muskegon High could provide.
“I think Catholic started the foundation for me,” Cameron said. “When I decided to transfer to Muskegon, it was for something bigger.
“If I was still at Catholic, I don’t think I would have this much attention … I think everybody understands that.”
Muskegon’s Cameron Martinez (13) runs against Detroit King at Detroit King on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Cory Morse | MLive.com
Basketball standout Jarvis Walker II, who attended Mona Shores High through his sophomore year, understands. He came to Muskegon via school of choice, seeking “a different experience, different atmosphere,” his father, Jarvis Walker, said.
At Muskegon High, Jarvis Walker II also found big-time exposure with the Big Reds during his junior basketball season. He earned Associated Press Division 1 first-team all-state and MLive Muskegon Chronicle Dream Team player of the year accolades in 2018-19. In August, he committed to Purdue University Fort Wayne, a Division I school.
But this isn’t just about the exposure. It’s about creating a culture to win, not just on the field or court, but in life.
Fairfield explains to his players that the work they do academically is like investing. They are putting money in the bank by investing in education, preparing for college, working hard.
The payoff can be big. Take Damon Knox, who endured some ups and downs as a high school student and Big Reds football player before he graduated from Muskegon High in 2011 and attended Michigan State University on a full-ride football scholarship.
Muskegon football player Billie Roberts stretches while studying during his early-morning class, Frances Eilers’ Algebra 2. Cory Morse | MLive.com
Knox said his scholarship to MSU opened doors to a new world, one which he would not have had access to otherwise. As a member of the Spartans football program during a stretch of glory years that included Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff, he traveled the country and created indelible memories. More importantly, he earned his criminal justice degree and established relationships that could last a lifetime.
“What Coach Fairfield has done in the last 10 years at Muskegon High School, it speaks volumes,” Knox said. “Coach Fairfield is putting kids in college. They’re getting full-ride scholarships and they’re having new experiences that they wouldn’t have had in Muskegon and they’re excelling in life because of it. I was one of those kids.”
Knox, 27, currently works as a deputy at Muskegon County Jail. He knows he wants to make an impact on a community, be it in Muskegon or elsewhere in West Michigan. He wants to work with young people of color, like himself.
Knox said that some young people in Muskegon can get lost in the shuffle during that pursuit of a scholarship. Gang activity and bad influences surround kids in the city.
Knox credits his parents and Fairfield for the discipline they instilled in him.
“My dad was always afraid,” Knox said. “He always said, ‘I’m not gonna bury my son. I will beat the hell out of you before I bury my son.'”
Choices, actions, consequences
It’s a cool, late-August night. Football practice is ending, and people are gathering a couple blocks from Hackley Stadium.
Stuffed animals and candles are lined up near the curb of the residential street. A vigil is forming to remember a young life.
Muskegon football player Billie Roberts, second from top right, stands with a crowd holding a vigil to honor the memory of Mervin Bonner at the 1500 block of Seventh Street in Muskegon on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019. Cory Morse | MLive.com
Minutes after his practice ends, Billie walks upon the memorial site. The big kid with the huge personality approaches the crowd of a few hundred mourners with a stone-faced expression that does not change.
Next fall, Billie hopes to be playing big-time college football, maybe far from Muskegon. But on this day, he was just a boy who lost another peer.
One night earlier, Billie was hanging out with teammates at Keith and Kiesha Guy’s home, where Cameron was entertaining the Big Reds’ linemen. They scarfed down pizza and wings, and Oreo flurries. They challenged each other to video games of Madden NFL 20 and NBA 2K19.
Across town, the body of a popular 18-year-old, college-bound Muskegon graduate was found — the victim of a gunshot wound to the head.
Like many places, Muskegon can be difficult to navigate for a young person and some challenges do not disappear even if one leaves the city. Knox has witnessed the cautionary tales of how young lives can be altered by one fateful decision.
In one case, a former Muskegon High student-athlete is now serving time in prison for armed robbery that happened after he went away on an athletic scholarship.
“If you’re from here and you’re a kid – a young, black male that comes from the inner-city of Muskegon area – I think it can happen to any of us because we’re exposed to it,” Knox said.
Advocates for the kids
Sporting a deep gray polo shirt with the trademark Muskegon Basketball “M” logo over his heart, Guy leans back in his chair.
The walls in his roughly 12-by-12-foot athletic director’s office, located a firm bounce pass across the hall from Redmond-Potter Gymnasium, are adorned with an assortment of framed photos and plaques.
First photo: Muskegon cheerleaders celebrate near Muskegon’s Tarran Walker (9) after Muskegon defeated Detroit King on Sept. 6, 2019. Second photo: Muskegon football head coach Shane Fairfield. Third photo: (Clockwise from left) Muskegon’s Japrie Henderson, Tyreese Oakes, Cameron Martinez, Jacarri Kitchen and Tommy Watts rest on a team bus Cory Morse | MLive.com
“This plaque here is from my mom, when I first got the job (at Muskegon High),” Guy says, a touch of sentiment in his voice. “It’s probably the most important in here.”
Guy grew up in Muskegon Heights in a family with divorced parents. He starred in basketball at Muskegon Heights and he parlayed that into a career.
“Without athletics I don’t think I would have had an opportunity to go to (college),” he said.
Guy spent two years at Muskegon Community College, then headed to Division II Ferris State University.
Guy sees a lot of himself in the young student-athletes he encounters at Muskegon. That’s what drives him, knowing that many of them are traveling down a similar path as he did.
“I think about it every day because when I walk the halls here and I see a lot of guys playing football or basketball, I see me,” he said. “I want to be that advocate for them.”
Guy and Fairfield said the academic and athletic departments at Muskegon High communicate daily. They also try to educate parents on helping to make their children college-ready.
It’s not always an easy task.
Per the MI School Data website, 55 percent of Michigan high school students scored at “college readiness” in English Language Arts and 36 percent reached that level in math in 2019. For Muskegon High students, those numbers were 31 percent in reading and 8 percent in math.
Shawndra Sain, a Muskegon High counselor since 2012 and proud alumna, said counselors, teachers and coaches keep a constant watch on grades, classroom behavior and attendance for student-athletes.
“I just know for myself as well as them, it’s personal,” Sain said. “This is why we’re in the business and this is kind of why I like the high school level. I like to see the a-ha moments. ‘This is what I need to go to the next level.'”
Video by Scott DeCamp | MLive.com
One future set, another up in the air
It’s mid-afternoon on a warm, early-September day. The sun beats down on Muskegon High’s practice field adjacent to Hackley Stadium, where in three days the Big Reds will finally play at home after traveling to Detroit each of the first two Fridays of the season.
The Big Reds are coming off a pair of statement wins to open the season. They dominated reigning state champions Warren De La Salle and Martin Luther King in consecutive weeks. They’re feeling on top of the world. Some players may even be feeling a bit invincible.
But, it’s time to get back to the grind. East Grand Rapids is coming to town. The Pioneers pushed the Big Reds to the brink in a playoff opener last season at Hackley before Muskegon prevailed, 42-35. If there is an emotional letdown by Muskegon, then the experienced East Grand Rapids team is one that could present the Big Reds some issues.
On big-game weeks, especially, coaches are always trying to limit distractions. But, between the Detroit King and East Grand Rapids games, Billie seems to be having one of those weeks. He appears to be losing focus.
During practice, when the team jogs over to huddle for a breakdown, Billie saunters toward the group. That body language is unacceptable by coaches’ standards, so Billie is directed to the corner of the practice field for dozens more tire flips. Wearing full football equipment, Billie squats down, gets his hands under the tire, lifts and flips it. He repeats the motion, over and over and over, sweat glistening on his skin. He takes little breaks between flips to catch his breath.
His playing status for the East Grand Rapids game appears tenuous, coaches are that upset with him. He does end up playing, and Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles later said that Billie played his best game at left tackle that evening in the Big Reds’ hard-fought 28-23 victory.
“I know Fairfield doesn’t want to see me flip tires,” Billie said during an interview a few days later. “You’ve just got to do what you’re supposed to do.”
Cameron is planning to sign his national letter-of-intent with Ohio State in December. One of the jewels in the state of Michigan’s class of 2020 recruiting crop, Cameron already dons the scarlet and gray frequently.
In the win over East Grand Rapids, Cameron rushed for a season-high 243 yards and three touchdowns to carry the Big Reds. That same week, Cameron was up for a national player of the week award, while Muskegon had moved into the USA Today’s Super 25 national rankings. The Big Reds were the lone Michigan team to earn that distinction and one of only two from the Midwest in that poll.
First photo: Cameron Martinez sits in his bedroom surround by souvenirs from his sports career. Second photo: Billie Roberts, left, and Japrie Henderson celebrate a victory over Detroit King this year. Third photo: Muskegon football players warmup before the Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University in Detroit. Cory Morse | MLive.com
For Billie, his future is still up in the air. The scholarship offers are still on the table, but he has yet to take any official visits.
Earning an athletic scholarship could be life-changing for Billie. He says he understands that, but he’ll have to find his way to the starting blocks first.
Guy and Fairfield are trying to help him. After that, it’s entirely up to Billie.
“It can help change my life, as well as my family’s lives,” Billie said about the pursuit of a scholarship. “It can change the lives (of other Muskegon student-athletes) because if I do make it, I plan on giving back to the Muskegon program, to the city – that’s what I see it as.”