THIS IS THE time of year when we’re accustomed to hearing about the Ishpeming High School Hematite football team and their head coach Jeff Olson.
They’re usually downstate at Ford Field playing for the state championship in Division 7 or Division 8.
Well, not this year. Not even close. But more about that later.
The Hematites have been a compelling David-and-Goliath story. An undermanned team outweighed by their opponents by 20-30 pounds a player. No blazing speed. No future big time college athletes on their squad.
And yet, look at their record: Five state championship games, in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, and three state championships–in 2012, 2013, and 2015.
“Ishpeming is a blue collar town,” Coach Olson explains. “We’re the underdog. We get blue collar kids but if you get them to commit, they’re tough to beat. They know how to fight.”
Olson, who’s from Marquette, got into coaching 36 years ago. He’s been head coach at Ishpeming for 26 years.
“I love it,” he says, “because of the competition but also because you can have a big influence on kids’ lives. You give them tools and instill values in them that will help them for the rest of their life.”
Commitment. Discipline. Hard work. The fundamentals.
“If you’re putting a small kid up against a big kid,” he says, “his technique better be sound.”
Otherwise the small kid is going to get knocked on his butt and run over by the bigger, stronger, more athletic kid. And the smaller kid’s team is going to get run out of the stadium.
“I’ll tell you what,” Olson says. “Those first three championship games, I woke up early on game day and my wife would say to me, “Well, what do you think?’ And every time, I would say, ‘I hope we can keep it close and not get embarrassed.'”
They never got embarrassed, but this is where the story–full of hope and inspiration–takes a sharp, tragic turn.
In that very first championship game, back in 2010, Olson’s son, Daniel was the star quarterback. The UP Offensive Player of the Year. All 5’8”, 165 pounds of him. The classic Ishpeming player. Smallish, disciplined, hardworking, a fighter on the field.
The Hematites lost that game, and Daniel took it hard. Blamed himself even though he had played well.
But there was so much more to it than just that one game. Daniel had been having problems since sixth grade. Anxiety. Moodiness. Extreme frustration. Depression. Jeff and his wife Sally initially hoped it was just hormones, a problem he would grow out of.
He didn’t. It got worse, in spite of treatment and counseling. In 2012, a year after graduating high school, the handsome All American boy committed suicide.
Inexplicable, unless you understand clinical depression.
Daniel left behind his mom and dad, two sisters and a brother. Now they had to move on with their lives.
“If you don’t have faith,” Jeff says, “it’s hard to get through something like this.” He says he and his wife stills see signs that Daniel is with them. It’s comforting.
“Everybody grieves differently,” he continues. “I told myself I’m not going to curl up in a corner. I felt this need to put it out in the open. I thought maybe something good could come out of this. Maybe we could help some people.”
And that was the beginning of “Do It for Daniel,” a documentary that Jeff and his family put together with filmmakers that chronicled not only Daniel’s death, but also Ishpeming’s 2012 championship year. The hope was to get teenagers, parents and schools talking openly about depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts…and also to inspire the kids.
It succeeded. In his offtime, Jeff now travels to schools presenting the documentary and answering kids’ questions about suicide. Making something good out of a tragedy.
In the meantime, Jeff went back to coaching. “Two weeks after Daniel passed away, I was handing out equipment,” he says. “I didn’t know how good I’d be. I just told the kids we’re going back to normal. If you have questions, talk to me. I’m gonna bring up Daniel’s name, and I don’t want you to be afraid to bring up the word ‘suicide.'”
His players and coaches thought at first he was a little quieter in his approach but he was still the same football coach who demanded commitment, discipline, and hard work.
Ishpeming won its first state championship in 2012, then again in 2013, lost in the state finals in 2014, then again won the championship in 2015 when Jeff’s youngest son, Isaac, played on the team. The moment father and son embraced after that game was unforgettable.
So now the Ishpeming Hematites had become a genuine statewide football power. A U.P. dynasty.
But then 2016 happened. Injuries hit them. And they were less talented than the previous teams. They finished only 3 and 6.
And then 2017 happened.
They started with only 16 juniors and seniors on the team, so they had to bring up three JV players to supplement the squad. But injuries started mounting–ACL’s, MCL’s, a dislocated hip, a concussion. Kids out for the year. Four more JV players were brought up just so Ishpeming could suit up for a game.
Then, in October, tragedy struck again. Another troubled Hematite player took his life. His teammates were stunned. One of them in anguish put his hand through the wall and was out for the season. Another just quit. Couldn’t take it.
“I’d never seen anything close to this,” Olson says, “and I’ve been coaching 36 years.”
They forfeited one game because it was the day of the funeral, then managed to play and win their next game, but then the final game of the season, against Gwinn, they had to forfeit again.
They had only 11 players on the team at that point. Each of them would have had to play the entire game, on both sides of the ball. Too dangerous. Not fair to the kids.
So ultimately, you have to ask yourself what’s happened to a once powerful football team that suddenly finds itself unable to even put a team on the field. Certainly there’s been incomprehensible tragedy. And uncommonly bad luck. But is there more?
“Yeah, you’d have to say football is scaring some parents,” Olson explains. “There’s a few of them that are shying away from the game. They’re concerned about the studies. The concussions. But I’ll tell you, those studies are with players who’ve been playing in high school, college and the pros. That’s years and years of banging into each other. This is just high school, and the equipment is getting safer and the rules are getting safer.”
He’s convinced the high school game is safe. Moreover, he’s convinced Ishpeming football will come back, even though the numbers don’t look especially good for next year. The roster will be thin again.
“It’s all about handling adversity,” Olson says, ever the football coach. “That’s what sports is about. That’s what we want to instill in our players. What helps you in football helps you in dealing with the major stuff for the rest of your life.”
Major stuff like having the deck stacked against you.
Major stuff like always being the underdog.
Major stuff like tragedy.
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