Pete Barrows

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Back to school

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Jamie Potts is back in town, GV couldn’t be happier


GVL / Robert Mathews Sophomore Jamie Potts


Pete Barrows
Featurist

Matt Mitchell stares on solemnly from the sidelines behind a strategically tinted pair of aviators. His squad at Grand Valley State – named the No. 14 Division II football team in the country by the latest American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) poll – has been temporarily shipwrecked by No. 4 ranked Ferris State. So, too, have been any national championship aspirations he may have held.

With his team huddled around him on bent knee at halftime, Mitchell suppresses the growing lump in his throat as he attempts to bark life into his players. Mitchell has convinced himself that his Lakers still have a chance to best their arch-rival for the first time since Muskegon-area coaching legend Tony Annese took over at FSU in 2012, but in his twisted-up gut, he’s re-living 2014’s nightmare: a 42-17 defeat that moved GVSU to 0-3.

At the the conclusion of Mitchell’s impassioned, yet thinly veiled, pep talk, the locker room falls silent. Deathly so, until a muffled click-clack of molded cleats over carpeted concrete echoes from down the hall. The figure attached to the cleats grips a helmet in his right hand as he lightly jogs towards the room. His face, as if for dramatic effect, is shrouded in shadow.

With notice to the inquisitive whispers now spreading from player to player, Mitchell slowly rotates his head over his shoulder to gain a better vantage. As he turns, he double-takes as he rips off his shades. It’s prodigal son Jamie Potts that has implausibly returned, and Mitchell’s sternness melts away.

Playing the part of smooth operator, Mitchell beams.

“What took you so long, kid?”

Led out by Potts, GVSU pours back out onto Lubbers Stadium in front of a record crowd re-invigorated. An incredulous Annese and his defending Harlon Hill winning quarterback Jason Vander Laan – who in this rendition is played by Billy Zabka – sprint spiritedly out to midfield to contest Potts’ eligibility. They are debunked on one condition: Potts – GVSU’s star receiver — can play, as long as he declares the route he’s going to run before the snap. Tough, but fair, thinks Mitchell.

With a confidently coy grin, Mitchell acquiesces.

“Potts will be running the Tripppppple Lindy. And he’ll be running it all night.”

As the ruling is announced by the head umpire over the PA system, Annese and Vander Laan exchange a bewildered glance, shrug and then about-face back towards their sideline. A shirtless GVSU student, painted as if he had an interview lined up with The Blue Man Group, is equally confused, and turns to a peer in the student section to discover how difficult a route the Triple Lindy is to run. He’s promptly informed that it’s impossible.

After GVSU receives the kick, Mitchell sends out his offense. Potts lines up in the slot, rotates his trunk in a stretching motion, performs a  few armpit farts for good measure and licks his thumb before dragging it out across the length of his frame to sample the wind. A befuddled defender adjacent Potts stands slack as the crowd falls silent in anticipation.

At the snap, Potts pounces.

Instead of charging downfield as is the standard operating procedure for receivers even as talented as Potts, he plants his feet and flips latterly over the entire offensive line. The entire Ferris State defense is aghast even before Potts lands and immediately springs back again across the offensive line to his initial alignment. As quarterback Bart Williams hits the back end of his seven-step drop, he hitches up into the pocket, and watches mystified as Potts first backflips behind the line of scrimmage and then front flips over an unsuspecting defender in what appears to be one fluid motion. Bart fires into the middle of the field to a wide-open Potts, who proceeds to fly downfield with the speed of a hanging curveball off the sweet-spot of a bat.

His path was so clear, he could have Ickey Shuffled.

GVSU wins big, the Laker faithful swamp the field en masse after the game and Potts is carried off into the night triumphantly on the shoulders of his teammates as streams of fireworks burst into the sky. It’s at that moment that Mitchell awakes with a start from a nap in his office; his cellphone is vibrating across his desk and the caller ID reads “Spokane, Washington.”


Dearest reader:

I hope you enjoyed that admittedly over-cooked, Rodney Dangerfield-inspired interlude enough that it still stands up when I level with you. I dig Dangerfield, old movies, football and combining them all in prose when the opportunity presents. I also have no reason whatsoever to suspect Mitchell day-dreamed this summer about Potts’ return. It’s pure speculation. But if he did, who could blame him?

It’s not that GVSU’s skill position cupboard was bare sans Potts – both junior Matt Williams and sophomore Brandon Bean have shown promise at receiver and the Laker backfield, spearheaded by senior Kirk Spencer, is well-stocked. It’s that Jamie Potts is a different (read: Division II Bo Jackson-esque) brand of athlete.
19386_pottslowerp
At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, not only is Potts physically imposing. He’s productive, and led GVSU in 2014 in both catches (54) – more than double anyone else on the roster – and touchdown receptions (10). A jack-of-all-trades and a master of many since high school, Potts quarterbacked his team at Muskegon Oakridge High School, took care of all kicking duties and probably would have filled up the Gatorade cooler, walked the dog and painted the back porch had he been asked.

Potts also has a long-running penchant for baseball, and compiled a successful dual-sport career in his four years as a Laker. Last spring – his final season of collegiate baseball eligibility – he was named a first-team member of the Daktronics All-American squad.

So when Potts pulled a Russell Wilson as a football star drafted by the Texas Rangers, it came as only a mild surprise. Potts had expected he might get a call from the Detroit Tigers on draft day, but instead was selected this summer with the 918th overall pick in the 31st round. With little hesitation, Potts inked a deal to play for the Spokane Indians – a Class A Short Season affiliate of the Rangers — and flew out to Washington for his first season of professional baseball.

“I’ve thought for a while now that I probably have a better chance of making it up to the highest level in baseball than I do in football,” Potts said. “I’m a little undersized to be a tight end in the NFL, which I would have to be if I went that route.

“Baseball – besides being fun to play – is also a lot easier on your body than football. There’s a lot less health concerns, you can play a lot longer and I knew that if I got the chance, I’d play professional baseball.”19384_pottsheaderphotoo

In 57 games with the Indians – most of which Potts hit cleanup and started at right field – he finished with a .217/.290/.311 slash and four home runs. He didn’t commit a single error.

It was a promising start – especially for a Division II prospect like Potts that had nary before been exposed to big league caliber pitching. It was the sort of start Potts was expecting to build on in fall instruction league and in workouts back home. At least, that was the plan until Potts received a fateful text from Mitchell in late August.

“I was in contact with coach Mitchell on and off throughout the summer, and toward the end of my season with the Indians, he sent me a text to see if there was any possibility that I’d be able to come back,” Potts said. “I had previously heard from some other people in the Ranger organization that it would be very unlikely that I’d be allowed to play football, but I decided to check one last time.”

After the text exchange with Mitchell, Potts got in touch with the Rangers’ minor league director of player development, Mike Daily. What happened next was unexpected. The kind of thing that defies the laws of opportunity cost, and is generally reserved for overly optimistic day dreams.

“Mike was very supportive of my desire to come back to finish my degree and my football career, which was a little bit of a shock for me,” Potts said. “I have been at GVSU for four years and with two older brothers that went to school here before me, I’ve been around the program for even longer. Getting the opportunity to finish up the right way was important to me, and it’s special to me that I was granted that opportunity.”

On Sept. 7 – the day after the second half of the Northwest League ended – Potts was on a plane back to Grand Rapids. The day after that, he was enrolled in the 13 credits he needed to complete his degree in allied health sciences, had cleared his eligibility with both GVSU and the NCAA and was back to practicing with the football team.

Potts dressed, but played sparingly, in GVSU’s 27-24 come-from-behind, payback victory against No. 7 Ohio Dominican on Sept. 12. That won’t be the case Saturday in a critical game against Ferris State that GVSU officials predict could be played  in front of one of the largest crowds in Lubbers Stadium history (the current record is 16,467 against  Saginaw Valley in 2009).

“Any time the Anchor-Bone trophy is on the line, it’s a huge game for both programs, and I’m excited to be at full go for it,” Potts said. “It’s Ferris State. There doesn’t have to be a lot said about it. They’re a good football team, and I think we are too. It’s the biggest rivalry that we have, and there’s major implications on the conference championship race.

“We want to win. I’m sure they do too. We’ll have to see who wants it more.”

After a summer vacation spent without picking up a pigskin and only a week’s practice to sync up with the flowing-haired, big-armed incumbent quarterback Williams — a player Potts has no prior game experience with — there’s no guarantee that Potts will make the difference for GVSU, even if he does unleash a few Triple Lindys. Just as there’s no guarantee that Potts will make it up to the Major Leagues or that the Lakers will redeem last year’s disappointing 6-5 season with a national championship.

For now, that’s too far into the future for Potts, who is elated just to be a college student again. And for now, just having Potts back in school is a dream come true for Mitchell and the entirety of the GVSU football program that is tired of getting no respect.

“It’s great being back here,” Potts said. “I really missed it all. Even playing pro baseball – and we’d fill our stadium just about every night – nothing compares to college athletics. As cool a spot as Spokane is, it’s not college. There’s a special feel you get when you’re playing for your school, and it means a lot to me to be back for my senior season.

“I try to make it a practice not to look too far ahead – our approach at GVSU has always been to take everything one day at a time. I still can’t help but to be excited to see where we end up at the end of the year if we take care of business every week.”

sports@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “Back to School”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

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Written by peterdbarrows

September 17, 2015 at 4:16 pm

DiIanni turns page, finds success at Iowa

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Dave DiIanni and Jeff Hosler add new chapters to the same book – winning soccerGVL / Eric Coulter Head Coach Dave DiIanni and the rest of the team


Pete Barrows
Featurist

 

There are those that, in the instant they strike in the last period on the final page of a grand work – a thesis, for example, or a paper written in haste the night before the deadline – wash their hands from the keyboard and immediately push away from their desk.

These people are generally known as students.

There are others who are not so easily satiated. That sit down to toil and write until they bleed, and view the final page a bit differently. Not as an end, but as a beginning. And when they’ve reached it, they turn the page to start anew.

We call them authors.

Both groups have been known to pen masterpieces, but it’s the latter group that is typified by those that grace work after work with a Midas touch. It’s the latter group where former Grand Valley State women’s soccer coach Dave Dilanni belongs.

“Eventually you want to have tradition, a culture of success breading success, but to do that, you have to start on page one,” Dilanni said. “It’s a process.”

Many fledgling authors are instructed to start by writing what they know, and what Dilanni knows is soccer and winning. What he knows, he knows well.

So, after a successful seven-year stint as head coach of the Jackson Lumen Christi High School women’s soccer team, and three years as an assistant at Hillsdale College, Dilanni made his collegiate head coach debut at Division II GVSU back in 2003, and embarked upon penning a decade-long ‘New York Times Best Seller’ tenure.

“There have always been wonderful people that are passionate about the team and the school and the program everywhere I’ve gone,” Dilanni said. “With that support – and I’m grateful to have had it – the expectation is always to win, and that’s something I think about every day I’ve been on the job.”

DiIanni coached 21 All-Americans and accrued a 221-18-18 record during the 11-year span at GVSU. His .895 winning percentage is the highest of any coach in any sport in the Division II ranks, and the third-highest amongst all coaches in any division.

He collected nine consecutive GLIAC titles, 11-straight NCAA Tournament berths, seven Final Four appearances in the last eight seasons and three NCAA Division II national championships – including one in 2013, his final season at the helm.

A title – a third in five seasons – gleaned from a season that led with the second-longest shutout streak in Division II history, and saw the Lakers score the second-most goals in program history (88), while also matching a program-high 21 shutouts.

Bolstered by five All-Americans, the 2013 team finished 24-0-1, tying the mark for most single-season victories in school history, and claimed both GLIAC regular season and tournament titles. For his efforts, DiIanni was named the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Coach of the Year for a third time, and atop the peak, recognized the time to mark an ending was near.

It was time for a new project and, on May 17, the page turned. Dilanni was hired on as the fifth head coach in the University of Iowa women’s soccer history, and had made the move to Iowa City by June 1.

“I think my family and I will always have a soft place in our hearts for GVSU, but I was excited to challenge myself professionally by becoming the head coach of Iowa,” DiIanni said. “The memories stay and hopefully the successes will too, but the right kind of change can be good.”

Few have received more acclaim for their debuts than DiIanni did in 2003 when he directed the GVSU women’s soccer program to a then-school best record of 17-2-2 and its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth, but both he and successor at GVSU, Jeff Hosler, have given their inaugural seasons with new teams their best go.

Despite jumping up a division, taking over without the benefit of spring play and losing five different players to ACL injuries suffered throughout the season, DiIanni helped escort Iowa to a 14-7-1 (7-6-1 in the Big 10) record after losing to Wisconsin 1-0 in double-overtime in the championship game of the 2014 Big 10 Tournament.

“The transition has been a whirlwind, but considering some of the adversity we were faced with, I was really very happy with how the season ended up,” DiIanni said. “The level of talent across the board in the Big 10 is so high, and the margin for error so low that this past season, about 80 percent of games played inter-conference were decided by a goal or ended in a tie.

“That’s completely different than what we were used to at GVSU. It’s less about the technical ability of the players than it is about the tactical skills on this level, and I’ve had to adjust in some ways.”

Despite jumping up a division, and deep cleats to fill, Hosler has also adjusted amicably. His 19-2-1 record (10-1-1 GLIAC) and .886 win percentage fall perhaps a notch shy of the bar DiIanni set, although you wouldn’t notice from a glance.

Hosler – younger and slightly more offensively inclined than DiIanni – will continue to write his story his own way in his own voice, although the arch he’s outlined so far closely resembles his predecessor’s story that he was bequeathed to continue.

“Tim Selgo is one of the best athletic directors in the business because he knows what he’s looking for and then goes out and gets it,” DiIanni said. “I’ve always had respect for Jeff as a peer and it’s exciting to see the success he’s had already at GVSU.

“I know both Jeff and the girls in the program had massive expectations for the season, most of which were self-imposed, and I’m so proud of the job that they’ve done. I don’t always get to follow them on as much as I’d like with how busy I’ve been, but I always keep one eye on them from Iowa City.

GVSU will continue its season with a match Friday against No. 3 Wisconsin-Parkside with a spot in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament on the line. Anything less than a championship might be seen as a disappointment.

DiIanni will have to wait until next year to chase a championship, and will have to do while combatting more adversity – Iowa graduates nine seniors from the team after this year – but understands that as daunting as a blank page can be, fresh starts also allow for new opportunities.

It took DiIanni three seasons to win his first conference championship at GVSU, and, like writing a work worth reading, building a soccer program takes time. For both he and Hosler, there are plenty of blank pages ahead left to fill.

Keep reading.

“It’s a process,” DiIanni said. “That’s the only way I can put it. I did this at GVSU, Jeff did it at Alma, and well as you and the players do, you don’t create a winning culture or a sustainable program overnight.

“It takes many days of consistent effort over many years, a certain work ethic consistently applied, but I’ve never been afraid of hard work. I’m sure that’s true of Jeff, too.”

pbarrows@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “DiIanni turns page, finds success at Iowa”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

Written by peterdbarrows

November 20, 2014 at 9:10 pm

Crandall transitions from player to coach

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The GVSU coaching tree rooted under Janel Burgess has a new blossom, and her name is Dani CrandallGVL / Robert MathewsJunior Dani Crandall


Pete Barrows
FeaturistThe Earth makes its rounds day after day as though it was a basketball spun on a finger in the sky, and from the planetary to the molecular, life, like basketball, is constant motion.

Through the movement, change is inevitable. That’s just the way it is. It’s also occasionally welcome, as it was for recent Grand Valley State alumna Dani Crandall.

Six months ago, Crandall laced up her sneakers one final time as a player on the Laker women’s basketball team. Although unforeseen at the time, her service to the program wasn’t over.

Not yet.

At the conclusion of an internship with current Laker women’s basketball strength and conditioning coach, Joe Poferri, Crandall considered her options and campaigned to Burgess to extend her time at GVSU.

“I presented the idea of me being a graduate assistant to her in the spring, and I pitched that I could help,” Crandall said. “I know the system, the program, the traditions, the staff and the girls all really well, and told her that I was interested in being a strength coach.

“I then pointed out that if she was going to continue to use Joe (Poferri), that it would be a great outlet for me to continue to work with the team since I know his system and his exercises, too.”

It was a successful pitch.

So, after being tabbed to the All-GLIAC First Team and leaving her mark on both GVSU and the GLIAC, Crandall took a degree in exercise science and her astute basketball acumen, and traded in her sneakers for a whistle.

It’s been a smoother transition so far than many might have anticipated for Crandall — the freshly removed senior captain of the team she now coaches.

“People ask me all the time if it’s hard not playing and still being around it or if I miss playing, and the truth is that I don’t,” Crandall said. “It’s weird. I miss lacing up because it’s been a part of me for four years, but at the same time, I haven’t been removed long enough to miss it that bad.

“Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe it’s a bad thing, but right now, I really enjoy my role being a coach and a mentor to the girls while being there for the coaches also.”

Both the players and coaches she now works with have enjoyed working with coach Crandall too, albeit the dynamic of the relationship has changed.

Crandall can no longer bail the team out with her play as she did when she netted a career-high 36 points (tied for the sixth-highest scoring output in GVSU history) in an overtime victory over Northwood University back on Feb. 15 of last year. Nor can she associate with the same players she so recently called teammates in quite the same way as she once did.

“I guess I don’t really know what the team is like away from basketball anymore,” Crandall said. “We were always close and loved to hang out with each other, but I don’t necessarily know what that’s like currently since I had to remove myself from that scene as a coach.

“I do still think the team is getting along great, though. They play well, they’re enjoying the process and speaking from what I’ve seen at practices and games, if the chemistry isn’t better than it was last year, it’s just as good.”

What she can do is jump back onto to the court to model drills she’s executed for years, and is more familiar with than the back of her hand. She’ll even periodically lace up as a body on the scout team, and when the need arises, demonstrates with a swish of the net or a subtle crossover that it’s her role — not her game — that has changed.

She can also share her years of experience as well as insights gleaned on and off the court with both her players and the coaches she works with. And all of what she can do, she does well.

“The rapport between Dani and I has always been strong, but it’s especially unique now,” Burgess said. “There had to be an immediate trust in terms of philosophy, interest level and passion for the program for me to have brought her on staff, and it’s all there. It takes a lot of trust from myself to know that she’s mature, and ready to embark on that challenge, and she has done a tremendous job with everything we have tasked her with.

“I think it’s easy to forget how hard it can be to deprogram yourself from being a athlete, but I lean on Dani to give me insight and to remind me what it’s like to be a player. What did you think as a player? What can we change? She can look at it with such a fresh coaching perspective not far removed from being a player, and that’s invaluable.

“I also lean on Dani to set a tone, and the kids are able to respect her because everything she did here at GVSU, she did it so well and they saw her do it. We’re very fortunate to still have Dani in the program, and she’s having a real and positive impact on our kids.”

Where Crandall left off on the court last year – with a 14-12 record (12-10 GLIAC), just out of range of a spot in the GLIAC tournament – seniors Kat LaPrairie and Meryl Cripe will pick right back up, leading an assorted cast of now-sophomore and junior returners like Piper Tucker, Kayla Dawson, Taylor Lutz and Bailey Cairnduff as Crandall had before them.

What’s next for Crandall, the recent graduate who has aspirations of becoming a strength and conditioning coach someday, and would like to have an opportunity to travel, not the coach, is as uncertain as how the 2014-15 rendition of GVSU basketball’s season will unfold.

Although through all the unbeknownst and all the changes, the core goal for the season remains the same as it always has: to win a national championship, GVSU’s first since 2005-06.

It’s a lofty goal to be sure, but as much as things change, they stay the same. It’s unlikely anyone will rise from this year’s team to replace Crandall’s contributions verbatim. They don’t have to. But as Crandall has passed down and a maintained a proud tradition, those that come next will be tasked with doing the same.

As the days continue to spin and Crandall’s story has come full circle, the ball, so to speak, is in a talented team’s court.

“I hope for only the best for this team,” Crandall said. “That’s another reason why I wanted to stay around; to be a part of and to continue to help this program try to get what we’ve been working for as long as I can remember.

“That’s a championship, and that goal starts in the regular season, goes into the GLIAC Tournament and then goes on from there. We aspire to be the best GVSU basketball team to come through the program, and even though it’s anyone’s guess what the future holds, that’s not a bad place to be.”

sports@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “Crandall transitions from player to coach”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

Written by peterdbarrows

November 13, 2014 at 9:04 pm

Touchbacks: Q&A with GVSU’s specialists

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GVL / Emily Frye Senior Place Kicker Marco Iaderosa (#53)


Pete Barrows
Featurist

A few years late, and a third of a yard short, the Lanthorn finally gets around to kicking it with fifth-year senior legs for hire – Marco Iaderosa and Chris Picano – as they dish about life, love, burritos and what it takes to be a specialist on the Grand Valley State University football team.

Iaderosa and Picano knew in their hearts that, one day, adoring fans and student peers alike would clamor to know everything about their most beloved special team specialists, and a feature article would be written in their homage – a detailed piece delving into the inner mind and process of a collegiate kicker.

Since their redshirt season together at GVSU back in 2010, they have done plenty to secure their place in Laker lore, which had to be at the very least worthy of a small column.

Iaderosa has tallied a total of 49 touchbacks on 299 kickoffs (.164) as well as three GLIAC all-academic team nods, while Picano – named to the All-GLIAC second team back in 2012 – has racked up the second-highest career yards per punt average (39.0) in the history of the program. It was only a matter of time.

Except the article didn’t come. Nor did the adulation, the glory or the fame. Such is the life of a kicker, but not even a footnote?

No matter. With one final home game left in their careers – a matchup Saturday against Tiffin – Iaderosa and Picano would probably settle for being correctly identified from one another.

Of Italian lineage, with beards Hugh O’Neill would be proud of, and stocky builds, both Iaderosa (5-foot-10, 205-pounds) and Picano (5-foot-11, 200 pounds) more closely resemble soccer balls than footballs, and, from a distance, might easily be mistaken for one another (as so happened in practice moments before this very exclusive interview was performed).

What they’d never be mistaken for is bland.15058_picanop


PB: How does one get started as a kicker?

MI: My dad came over from Italy, has always been about soccer, and I started playing when I was about 3. In middle school, I realized I was pretty good at kicking a football too, and found that I liked it. So I kept doing it.

CP: Same deal. I was a goalie, but I liked to run around a lot. My dad told me to try football so I did, and I was the only kid who could punt. I stuck with it all the way through, and well, it was a lot better than running around after a soccer ball.

PB: Then it was fate. How did y’all end up at GVSU together?

MI: Chris and I went to a couple of camps together, and the relationship between us seemed to work out really well. We both came to GVSU for a tryout, they liked both of us, offered both of us and so we figured why not spend some time together?

CP: That’s kicker love. During the tryouts, coaches asked me which place-kicker I liked better. I let them know on a side note that Marco and I are friends, but also that he was better.

MI: I like Chris ‘biceps too big for his body’ Picano for his muscles.

PB: Biceps? Pretty decent draw of a nickname for a punter.

CP: Right? My dad, he was a linebacker, and had me lifting since sixth grade. I was a lineman in high school, wrestled and played rugby, but that’s when I go off and punt. He says, “well this came out of nowhere, but keep lifting, keep lifting”. Now it’s my stress-reliever. If football didn’t go well today, I’ll get a lift or go for a run and feel a lot better.

MI: I actually really enjoy going to lift with Chris, and pretty much just making fun of him. My stress-relief is making fun of Chris while he lifts.

PB: Did you see that ESPN recently ran a piece on Steve Weatherford (punter for the New York Giants) for having the best body in the NFL? The man takes something wild like 18 supplements every morning, and sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber.

MI: Dude is yoked out of his mind! It’s absurd.

CP: Steve has been a huge idol of mine, and I’ve actually gotten a few tweets about the story today. A buddy of mine goes “the best body in Division II football also goes to a punter #fatjesus” and then tags me in it. Like alright, man. You can’t call me Fat Jesus and the most fit player in D2 football in the same tweet.

PB: Give me the first word that comes to mind: Ray Guy.

CP: Hang time.

PB: Shane Lechler.

CP: Bomb.

PB: Steve Weatherford.

CP: #FitFam

PB: Marco, you’re up. Adam Vinatieri.

MI: Clutch.

PB: Jason Hansen.

CP: Legend.

MI: Definitely legend.

PB: Sebastian Janikowski.

MI: Bomb! Bomb squad. Idol. Might be my favorite player ever. Love that guy.

PB: Can’t blame you. The “Polish Rocket” might be one of the best nicknames in sports today. You have a good nickname?

MI: Well I’m not Polish.

CP: We never gave you a nickname, did we? It’s coming to the end, and I have yet to think of a nickname.

MI: Could go Italian Stallion?

CP: I was going to go with Burrito.

PB: So they film these state of the football team addresses, and Marco, I’ve seen you representing with a burrito in hand on more than one occasion. How many burritos should a good kicker eat a day?

MI: The best strategy is a burrito a day keeps the doctor away.

PB: Better than an apple.

MI: Apples, how helpful are they? They don’t even fill you up. If you eat a burrito a day, I’d say you’re probably on your way to being one of the best kickers of all-time.

PB: Put this one to rest. Does it peeve you as kickers that you’re the only ones in a sport known as football that use your feet?

CP: No way. I’m not that foreign yet.

MI: It probably makes my dad upset, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think he knows the difference between fútbol and football.

PB: Pitchers, goalies and kickers, man. What are some of the rituals that come with being a kicker?

CP: I put my pads on earlier in the day than most guys on the team do, and have grown out my hair and beard, but otherwise my rituals have pretty much stayed the same since my freshman year. On game day, I get up and eat the same breakfast every morning, and watch about an hour of Spongebob to relax. It’s the mental part of football, ya’ know? Then I take a nice little nap before we go out on our Laker Walk, do the same stretches before we get out to the field and then kick a few pin punts and deep punts. It works for me.

MI: Starting off the day, I always watch a little Fresh Price of Bel-Air because I’ve got to get in the right mindset.

PB: That’s the best mindset.

MI: No doubt. Once I’ve laughed a little, and have done the Carlton in my basement, I’m ready to get out to the field. And when I do, I probably do stuff that’s a lot different than what most kickers do. I spend a good amount of time doing anything but kicking. I go out and return punts, run routes with (quarterback) Isiah Grimes and the receivers and I love running around and pretending I play a different position for a little bit.

PB: So what you’re telling me is that the coaches ought to game plan for you more.

MI: Well yeah. I like to go out there and show them that there’s another weapon out there, and then the coaches on the other team freak out.

PB: Who can kick a football farther?

CP: When it comes to kicking, it’s Marco by far. When it comes to punting…

MI: Chris just destroys me in punting.

CP: I can’t kick to save my life. At least Marco can punt a little. That’s why they keep him around as my backup. In case I go down, he’s the next best thing we’ve got.

MI: Thanks, man!

PB: Is it true that chicks dig the long-ball?

MI: It is. That’s what they love about me.

CP: You sure about that?

MI: Every time I show up places, girls ask me about the long-ball. Either that or the beard.

PB: What’s the reaction you get when you tell people you’re football players?

MI: Chris and I take pride when we go places and we tell people that we play football. They say what position, we tell them kicker or punter or something like that, and they look at us with this ridiculous face like “no you don’t, you play fullback.”

CP: The look’s more like “but wait, where’s the quarterback at?”

MI: Exactly.

CP: We’re both short and stocky, not tall and lanky. Hey did you know you’ve got the perfect body to be a kicker? And four years of eligibility left no matter where you go.

MI: Come work with us. We’ll get you ready.

PB: I like the sound of that. Teach me up.

CP: We got you. Just remember a burrito a day.

PB: Finish this sentence: A kicker is a (blank).

MI: Hold on, I have to come up with something ridiculous.

CP: It has to be so stupid and out of the ordinary.

PB: This has already been one of my favorite interviews.

MI: Stick around the whole time. Just wait for it.

CP: We love to have fun.

MI: Hmmmm. A kicker is … a long walk on the beach?

CP: But why? More like a kicker is … a burrito.

PB: Do y’all enjoy watching football?

CP: More so on the college football scene, but I’m the guy when it comes to fourth down and no one wants to watch it that flips back to game just to see what the punter does. Most punters use the same base, same drop, same swing, but I love watching it. It’s the one thing I care about.

MI: Chris and I have been to so many camps over the last couple of years that we know so many guys kicking all around the country, which is pretty cool. When UofM and MSU are playing, we know those guys. Cody Parkey with the Eagles, we know him, and we like seeing the guys that we’ve kicked with do some stuff.

PB: Chris, you’re a rugby guy. Can a rugby star hack it in the NFL?

CP: Oh yeah. It’s a different game – football’s about every single inch, while rugby is more like soccer with time of possession, working the field, finding open guys to make a move – but I could see it happening.

PB: Marco: Favorite cub team?

MI: Real Madrid probably. I went to Spain this past summer and got to see the fans first hand, but my dad’s team is Napoli since that’s where he grew up. It’s one of the two.

PB: What’s your hidden talent?

CP: I’m a great cook. It’s a passion of mine. My specialty it recreating my great-grandma’s sauce and making pasta. It doesn’t match hers – Marco can vouch that Italian grandmas can just throw anything in the pot and it all work out together – but mine’s not shabby.

MI: Besides growing a beard? I like baking bread. And I make some mean bread. I’ll toss in some garlic, some rosemary and you combine it with some pasta, it’s dangerous.

PB: It was meant to be. Did you guys ever live together?

CP: We did. I actually crashed at his dorm all the time freshman year because I didn’t want to walk back to the Ravines. He goes “how does the floor sound?”. I say “the floor sounds great.”

MI: I stayed over in Robinson, which was a lot of fun, and Chris basically slept on a giant pillow for over half of the year. You wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and you trip over Chris.

PB: You’re both education majors and, like Grimes and Parling, have expressed interest in coaching. Cold you see a future where you keep the band together?

CP: We’ve talked about teaching in the same area before.

MI: It’d be a hoot if we taught at the same school. Maybe coach the same team. I don’t know who’d coach the specialists, though. It’d probably be a fight.

PB: Now when you say fight, are we talking an argument or would you kick for it?

CP: Kick for it. But see the thing is that Marco would win the kicking competition.

MI: And Chris would win the punting competition, and we’d be right back where we started. Guess we’ll have to long snap for it or something.

PB: What are the competitions like between you two?

CP: Either at the beginning or end of practice, we’ll do long ball or pin punts and I can’t win a pin punt to save my life. Everybody else seems to win it – we’ll usually bet Jimmy Johns or something like that – even when they’re blindfolded, and I’m still looking. That’s how horrible I am. It’s rough.

PB: Who’s winning the beard competition?

CP: I’ve been growing mine since sometime in July. Marco’s has been growing for maybe a month.

MI: I was blessed with some really nice beard-growing genetics.

PB: On the field, who can contribute more at other positions?

CP: When it comes to throwing and catching, it’s Marco. When it comes to speed, me. Hitting I don’t know.

MI: I’ve rocked some people here. Maybe we should run an Oklahoma drill? Chris is a better “in the trench” player, by far, and I’m a better skill player.

PB: I’m telling you, Marco, we need to get you out on the edge.

MI: I’m like Percy Harvin. As long as I have a ball in my hand, you have to get me involved.

PB: Breaking the mold for kickers everywhere.

MI: See kickers aren’t always seen as real football players, but Chris and I have a different body type than most kickers. I’ve laid out kids in my time, which I think I enjoy more than the actual kicking, and of course Chris is yolked out of his freakin’ mind. We’re trying to revolutionize the position.

CP: I do have one career tackle.

MI: And six career rushing yards that nobody knows about. Don’t forget that.

CP: And zero first downs. It was a fake punt and it was working, but there was a missed block and some dude caught me from behind about two yards short. It was the worst! I’m running and thinking to myself “I got it, I got it,” and then this kid spider-monkied me from behind.

MI: Come on, Biceps, you have to throw that dude off of you. You didn’t even try to stiff-arm him!

PB: What’s the best part about running a kickoff?

MI: Especially here at the home, the best part is getting that opening kickoff. The crowd’s going nuts, you’ve got the music and I just love energy knowing that I’m the first thing happening in the game. I just try not to mess it up.

PB: What’s the mindset before a punt?

CP: I just tell myself not to shank so that everyone doesn’t hate you. Marco was just talking about how everyone gets all hype for the kickoff, but when I’m out there, all I hear is “Boooooo offense! Why’d you have to do that?!” I just think to myself “gee thanks guys, I don’t want to play either,” go off, punt the ball, and typically the only people that cheer for me are the cheerleaders. Mostly the men cheerleaders, but hey.

PB: Still counts. When you’re kicking often, Marco, that means GVSU is generally doing well. Just the opposite for you, Chris. What do you consider your perfect game?

MI: Touchbacks are obviously what I want, and hitting an absolute bomb into the end zone makes me happy. Besides that, as long as I get enough kicks in the game to stay warm, and don’t have to go a half between getting on the field, I’m happy.

CP: Three punts with about a 40-yard average, and no touchbacks is about right for me. That way, I’m getting a little action, but we’re not getting stopped too much.

PB: Are you aware that you currently have the second-highest career average per punt in GVSU history?

CP: I’m fighting for first right now. I’m at a 39.0 and the guy ahead of me is at a 39.3. Although, if you average in my punts to date, I’m at a 39.4 which is where I hope to be when it all comes down to it.

PB: With just three games to go. But who’s counting?

CP: I had to know what I needed to do. And I do want the record, but whether I get it or not, one thing I am proud of is that I’m above everyone else when it comes to fair catches and punts downed inside the 20-yard line. That’s hang-time, and getting the ball to where it needs to be.

PB: What’s it like being a kicker on the sidelines?

CP: We’re completely left alone. Whether we’re losing or winning. It does bother us, but a lot of the times if we’re doing good, it means we’re doing good for the team. If we’re having a bad game, our demeanor gets pretty down, but when we’re having a good game, we’re pretty hype even if the team is losing knowing we’re doing or best.

MI: We can get pretty giddy. We even have our own cele (celebration). Wanna see?

The pair high-fives as they walk past each other, but then pulls an about face with vigor. Gearing up for a leaping mid-air shoulder bump, they again abort (it’s a fake!), high-five a second time and then reach for each others feet, all in perfect synchronization.

CP: We don’t leave the ground. We belong there.

PB: What T.V. or movie character do you relate to most?

CP: The kicker from The Replacements. He’s so chill, so laid back and even though I don’t smoke, I could see going out on the field with a cigar to punt giving you a real edge.

MI: Besides that, it has to be the kicker from Blue Mountain Sate. Harmon Tedesko is my idol, minus the drug abuse. Otherwise, he’s got things figured out.

PB: Do you ever pull off a few beard hairs to check the wind?

MI: It hurts a little bit to pull so I just bring some scissors out there with me.

CP: Could bring the electric razor, but would probably jam it on the way out.

pbarrows@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “Touchbacks: Q&A with GVSU’s specialists”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

Written by peterdbarrows

November 6, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Quarterback {GVS}U

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Being a quarterback is a long and time-honored tradition at GVSU where year to year, game to game, snap to snap, the name of the game is ‘pass it on.’ A tradition that started before QBs Heath Parling and Isiah Grimes became Lakers, and will last long after they’re gone.

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Pete Barrows
Featurist

ASK SIXTH-YEAR QUARTERBACKS Heath Parling and Isiah Grimes their favorite play, and they’d likely tell you. Parling digs W-Read, a boundary throw that’s become a staple of the Grand Valley State University offense and was the first pass Parling learned as a Laker, while Grimes prefers a deep-post cleared out on play-action.

Ask them to recite the GVSU quarterback clandestine creed, and you’d probably only get a bemused look shot right back to you between the numbers. Although if one had to guess, the unspoken doctrine passed down, like the W-Read, between Laker quarterbacks might sound something like this:

“…The GVSU Laker football team in convention assembled declares and affirms the following principles:

“…that a man may be a very good man, a very good man may be, but a better man he’s sure to become when he joins a football team (say what).

“….that in furtherance of these aims to win games and ‘ships, may there always be lobbed spirals thrown without fear through coverage made on proper reads so that we proclaim our truth with every pass; that what’s started might be finished as long as tradition never graduates. We pass the torch, as well as the pigskin, as we press forward with eyes down field and on the count of two, we pledge our allegiance to the Heta Iota Kappa Eta.

“L-A, K-E, R-U a Laker? HELL YEAH. BREAK.”

Greek organizations thrive at GVSU within the neighborhood of 10 different fraternities that are functionally active on campus – from Sigma Phi Epsilon to Sigma Pi to Delta Sigma PhI (no Delta Tau Chi, yet).

However there’s also another secret fraternity – a Skull and Bones organization of sorts. A secret so well kept that even its members don’t always realize when they’ve been initiated. So secret that appendages of the elite group don’t wear letters nor brands and aren’t always easy to spot – particularly when braced under helmet and pads.

Although rest assured, they’re there and are a very established part of GVSU lore.


TAKE BROTHER JEFF FOX, pledge class of ’95 and active until ’98, for instance, who was a three-year starter at quarterback for GVSU, went 26-8 and finished his career holding 16 Midwest Intercollegiate Football Conference offensive records to go along with two MIFC titles. He briefly suited up of the Detroit Lions.

Then there’s brother Curt Anes of Kentwood, class of ’99 and active until ’02, who during his tenure, rewrote Laker football history. A local boy with a golden arm, Anes threw for a school single-season record 3,692 yards and 47 touchdowns to lead GVSU to the program’s first national title and claim the Harlon Hill Award, the D-II equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, in his senior season. He also briefly played for the Lions.

Perhaps the most beloved of them all, brother Cullen Finnerty, active between ’03 and ’06, is gone, never forgotten, and still resides in eternal bond within the circle of Laker greats. He directed GVSU to three more national championships while becoming the winningest quarterback in NCAA history with a 51-4 record as a starter in his four-year career, and also briefly saw time in the NFL.

Brother Brad Iciek of Grandville, class of ’07 and active to ’09, took up the mantle under center next, and led the Lakers back to the Division II title game as a senior after thrice being named a Harlon Hill finalist. He ranks third in GVSU history in career touchdown passes (98) and fourth in passing yards (8,461).

Senior transfer from Division I Eastern Michigan University, Kyle McMahon, had his moment, too – albeit for just a year – and in 2010 guided GVSU to an 11-2 record, while completing 181 of 320 passes for 2,616 yards and 24 touchdowns as well as rushing 130 times for 721 yards and 13 touchdowns.

“There’s been a tradition of great quarterbacks here at GVSU ever since I’ve been here, and with the offense we run, it’s integral that we line up a guy we can trust under center,” said GVSU coach Matt Mitchell. “That didn’t change when I took over as head coach.”

Between the 15 years separating Jeff Fox and Kyle McMahon, the founding fathers of what the GVSU program is today produced four NCAA Division II national championships, established a combined 171-34 record and created a tradition of re-upping records as they went.

Yet for all the greatness yielded during the span, perhaps no Laker quarterback has ever been more prolific than Heath Grimes. Or was it Isiah Parling?

Over the last four seasons, the pair has combined to go 32-13, splitting starts along the way.

“Isiah and Heath are both very capable, but very different players, and you have to adjust as a team to suit their unique styles of play,” Mitchell said. “Isiah’s great in play-action, there’s not a ball he can’t throw down field and he’ll rip throws into some tight windows that Heath won’t. Heath’s better at managing the game, getting us into the right runs, distributing the ball to a lot of different people and excels in the five-step sets where he’s asked to read things.

“It’s been frustrating for us as a program and for them at times cycling back and forth between them not only year to year, but within the year game to game, but I can’t say enough about how the two of them have handled that dynamic.”

There’s an old adage in football that suggests if you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have one, and maybe it’s true. Just don’t tell that to Parling or Grimes.

Separate, each has had plenty of moments to hang their helmet on.

In his first year as a starter in 2011, Parling completed 154 of 249 passes (.618) for 2,415 yards and 34 touchdowns, led the nation in pass efficiency rating (180.3) and was named GVSU’s most improved offensive player.

The very next year, Grimes was granted the same distinction and too led the nation in pass efficiency rating (178.07) in relief of an injured Parling. He also tossed three or more scores in a game four times, completed 119 of 203 passes for 2,213 yards and 22 touchdowns and did so in just seven starts.

Together, without the injuries or bad breaks, there might not be a quarterback that compares. Combined, the duo has racked up 11,113 career passing yards – the record is 10, 905 paced by Cullen Finnerty – 116 passing touchdowns – the record is 114 held by Curt Anes – and there’s still three games left in the 2014 season.


THE UNANTICIPATED QUARTERBACK UNION has roots dating back to 2009 when 6-foot-6, 240-pound Grimes – then a recruit out of South Haven ranked the No. 86 player in the state of Michigan by Scout.com – redshirted a year with 6-foot-3, 220-pound Parling – a fresh face from Salem rated the No. 79 player in the state – behind Brad Iciek on a Division II national championship runner-up.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Parling and Grimes bunked up together with Michael Ratay, now a fellow sixth-year senior, as well as Charles Hill at 48 West for two years, making occasional visits to the H block of the Copper Beach complex.

“It took us time to acclimate to life at GVSU,” Parling said. “We were thrown into the fire, getting yelled at by coaches all the time, asked to learn a complex offense and it was tough. Now we’ve been here forever and know the school and the offense like the back of our hand, it’s different, but I think we helped each other get there.”

Grimes expanded.

“It’s easier being good friends,” Grimes said. “You want to see the other guy competing for your job succeed and do well, where it’d be easy otherwise to wish for him to mess up. It’s always been a friendly competition, and it makes us better every day.”

Both had been recruited in part by then assistant coach Mitchell, and in year two, the pair bided their time and backed up McMahon, absorbing all that they could as they had under Iciek.

Both understood it was only a matter of time before one of their numbers would be called.

“Brad was a genius when it came to knowing the playbook – he knew everything like the coaches did,” Parling said.

Grimes agreed and added, finishing the sentence in sync.

“And with Kyle, it was amazing that he did what he did after only spending six months here.”

“They were not only respectful of us, they went out of their way to help us out even when they didn’t have to,” Parling said.

“And that’s why we try to be like that with Bart and Ollie,” Grimes said.

Bart, as in redshirt freshman Bart Williams, and Ollie as in fellow redshirt freshman Ollie Ajami – the next two quarterbacks set to uphold the lineage – one of whose number will likely be called next spring.

Although as Parling and Grimes have also come to understand, playing time is never promised. After a scintillating 2011 campaign, an ACL tear limited Parling as redshirt junior – providing Grimes his opportunity – and subsequent ailments to Parling, as well to Grimes, have powered a quarterback carousel.

“When Parling finally got his opportunity, it was quickly stripped from him by injury, but he’s always persevered well,” Mitchell said. “It’s been a roller coaster for him, and he’s still here ready to start.

“Isiah’s in the same position, and has always been there when we needed him. He’s been a consummate team player. A guy that gets the job done when you need him to, and steps back and cheers when we don’t.”


GRIMES’ AND PARLING’S SWAN SONG – the 2014 season – began inauspiciously: 0-3. Back to 4-4, there are still three games left, starting with Ashland on Saturday, to leave a mark, but it’s unlikely either Parling or Grimes will ever be remembered the same way that their predecessors have been.

The Lakers have failed to make the playoffs under Parling and Grimes every year except one – last year in a semifinal finish in the Division II playoffs – and in a program that has been marked by its exceptional quarterback play, its quarterbacks have been marked by winning.

“We want to win, starting with Ashland this weekend, and Parling’s the guy that’ll be doing that,” Mitchell said of his starter who threw three touchdown passes last week. “I don’t think we’ve put it all together to play a complete game to our full potential yet as an offense, which we’re still striving for, but we’re also trying to establish a culture of what we want to do around here both on and off the field.

“Our seniors help dictate that, and both Paring and Grimes have had influence upon the direction of our program.”

What if Parling never would have gotten hurt? What if Grimes would have had full rights to the quarterback job? What if the almost unprecedented run of national championships would have continued? Perhaps more than any other cliché’, ‘what could have been’ might be the most appropriate motto to encapsulate the last five years of GVSU football – as well as Parling and Grimes’ careers as Lakers.

Although as telling as it may be, it does not seem to accurately define either Parling or Grimes or the legacy of a program tapestry that they’ve woven themselves into.

A more suitable motto might be ‘what could be.’

For Parling – an honors student in a higher education masters program – and for Grimes – who will take on an internship in the winter – both of whom have aspirations to pass along what they’ve learned as GVSU signal-callers as coaches like so many other GVSU quarterbacks before them.

For Williams and Ajami and whoever else might be up to carrying the torch next, all of whom who will have the advantages of being groomed by experienced players above them on the depth chart.

For the future of GVSU football, whatever that might be. The styles at quarterback may change with the personnel – and the changes will come – but the experiences passed along perpetuate beyond individual players. It’s the team, the fraternity, that stays on at GVSU – not the players. And the quarterback fraternity at GVSU was better for having initiated Parling and Grimes.

“When it comes down to it, we just want to see Grand Valley win games,” Parling said. “Whether I’m in there or if he’s in there, it doesn’t matter.”

Grimes concluded.

“I’ve met my best friends here, and the coaches and professors and people have been great to us,” Grimes said. “As much as it’s about the games, it’s more about the relationships and memories we’ve made. The moments, the little stuff that happened out in games, but also so many good times just hanging out together at Fresh, at home, wherever.

“It’s been good to be a Laker.”

sports@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “Longtime Laker QBs prepare to pass torch”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

Written by peterdbarrows

October 30, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Catching in the rain: Johnson’s NFL journey

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Despite scattered obstacles and storms to brave, former Grand Valley State University wide receiver and current Minnesota Viking Charles Johnson still sees the sunny side as he catches on in the NFL.

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Pete Barrows
Featurist
  • 6:00 a.m.: Swing feet out of bed, brush teeth
  • 6:45 a.m.: Arrive at Minnesota Vikings’ practice facility
  • 7:00 a.m.: Flush out legs in cold tub, relax muscles in hot tub
  • 7:30 a.m.: Lift early, stay late
  • 9:00 a.m.: Talk Lions and Packers and Bears (oh my) in team meetings
  • 12:00 p.m.: Split for lunch
  • 1:00 p.m.: Practice, and practice hard
  • 3:00 p.m.: Critique practice film, and critique it thoroughly
  • 6:00 p.m.: Head for home in a red Camaro, a lone splurge on an NFL paycheck split toward supporting moving expenses and family

HOME, TO A THIRD RESIDENCE in an 18-month span where daughters Hayden, Hayleigh and Hazel – ages 4, 2 and 1 – run around rampant in eager anticipation of dad’s return. Instead of a 9 to 5, former Laker wide receiver Charles Johnson works a 6 to 6. As much as Johnson enjoys the game of football, he realizes it is a job – and that it has to be if he’s to keep playing.

After playing with his girls, it’s right back to work, glancing through the playbook, jotting down nuanced mental notes on next Sunday’s opponent, visualizing breaking the goal line for the first time in his young NFL career. If there’s time, maybe a little HGTV to unwind.

Rain or shine, it’s wash-rinse-repeat tomorrow. Especially if it’s rain.

“So many people love sunshine, but can you stand the rain?” Johnson said. “Everyone loves it when it’s good, when things are going well, when you’re making your money, when you’re making your plays, when you’re healthy, when you’re eating right, but how do you react when it’s bad?”

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JOHNSON BEGAN HIS FOOTBALL CAREER at Lloyd Memorial high school in Elsmere, Ky., although his career hasn’t been characterized so much by where he’s played, but rather that he’s played. No matter what.  A stint at Eastern Kentucky University ended prematurely after Johnson’s freshman roommate pilfered a laptop. Johnson – who caught three passes for 63 yards in 11 games – refused to rat, and was suspended two years as a penance.

A fresh start at Antelope Valley Community College began auspiciously. Johnson made 24 receptions for 231 yards and three touchdowns – but ended with a muffled call from pops at midnight Pacific Standard Time, 3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Charles’ father, Fred Johnson, was sick with a rare disease called scleroderma, and nearly died from complications that night. Doctors gave the elder Johnson six months to live, and so his son put football – and everything else – on ice for a year to return home.

Yet somehow through it all, both father and son kept going.

Due to the NCAA’s five-year clock rule, Johnson had only one year of Division I eligibility left – two years remaining if he chose to play at Division II. A Google search for “top Division II schools in the nation” made during the hiatus merited a hit for “GVSU,” and, with a click of a mouse, Johnson’s once-promising football career resurfaced.

“I really can’t replace the experience I had at Grand Valley State,” Johnson said. “I’m glad I made the decision to come to GVSU, and that they accepted me there. All the quarterbacks, the receivers, all the offensive and defensive guys – I love all those guys and they’re going to continue to be like brothers to me.

“GVSU, it’s a great institution, not only for football, but for education, and for me, the culture was just different than everywhere else I’ve been. I can’t really explain it. We love football there – the coaches, the players, the students, the faculty – but they also all understand that education is the key. It’s a family, and to see how many people support you on and off the field, it was overwhelming to me in a good way.”

Johnson re-enrolled as a Laker, and, after red-shirting a season, recorded 1,030 yards and 15 touchdowns on 56 receptions, five times exceeding the 100-yard receiving mark in a game as a junior. The season after, he caught 72 passes for 1,199 yards and 16 touchdowns, and, as most skilled performers do, he saved his best act for last.

Snubbed from the NFL combine, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Johnson hawked his NFL-caliber wares at the Kelly Family Sports Center, with current New Orleans Saints center Tim Lelito, and caught a few glances. Scouts from 23 different franchises in attendance at GVSU’s pro-day succinctly gaped open-mouthed at their stop watches after Johnson, who had guaranteed that he’d run his 40-yard dash in under 4.4-seconds, did just that.

Twice.

Johnson’s best time of 4.35 seconds would have ranked fourth-best among all receivers at the 2013 NFL combine – and fifth-best overall amongst all positions – trailing only the top time of 4.27 paced by Marquise Goodwin, and the 4.34 second times clocked by Tavon Austin and Ryan Swope. His 39.5-inch vertical leap would have ranked first amongst his combine peers, while his 11-foot-1 broad jump would have been good for second.

He personally rated his pro-day performance a nine out of 10, citing that nothing is perfect, although the moment he set up may have been.

GVL / Robert MathewsSenior Charles Johnson (4)


THE CALL CAME IN the seventh and final round of the NFL Draft, but as far as Johnson and his 50-member cheering section packed into a clubhouse in Kentucky were concerned, it might as well have been in the first.

“…with the 216th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers select Charles Johnson, wide receiver Grand Valley State University.”

The proclamation echoed across the hall from a television monitor moments after the call to Johnson had concluded, only to be muffled by a roar more distinctly raucous than any the newly initiated pro had ever been privy to on a field. The dream and the actuality merged in one instant.

“I don’t care if I was the last pick or the first pick, the feeling of knowing somebody wanted you, that you are accomplishing something that so many people have tried to accomplish and couldn’t, that was my welcome to the NFL moment,” Johnson said. “A moment I’ll always remember.”

Of course in the NFL, nothing is promised after the welcome – even when a player stays true to his. Johnson assured his father, now 63, after that fateful midnight call years ago that he’d live to see his son get drafted to the NFL. That he’d see him play.

And he has.

Through four heart attacks, bouts with cancer and all other precipitants life has thrown his way, Fred Johnson has survived, nay thrived, to see the promise kept. To see his granddaughters grow up. To be able to leave upward of 20 voicemails a day on his son’s phone dictating what coaches should have done in the last game, how Charles can improve and expressing his continued excitement and pride toward his progeny.

The promises Johnson has left to keep, dictated by his immense physical talent and drive, are to himself.

After being selected, Johnson was placed on the practice squad by the Packers, and spent a season running routes and snagging passes under the tutelage of seasoned veterans Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and Aaron Rodgers.

He never made the active roster.

“Just going out there and getting that experience and being able to work in the NFL is solid for you, and once you get there, you start to find little things as a player that can make your game better,” Johnson said. “The more you do, the more it clicks.”

Claimed by the Cleveland Browns midway through his rookie season, Johnson was granted a second fresh start early in his career, although it didn’t last long. The Browns went 5-11 – despite receiver Josh Gordon’s near record-breaking season – as Johnson spent a year on the non-football injury list rehabbing an ACL tear.

This preseason, a fully healed Johnson comprised a supporting role on a Browns’ preseason cast headlined by Johnny Manziel, but for the third time of his short professional career, he was again asked to relocate – this time to Minnesota.

“I’m confident that I can play in this league,” Johnson said. “That I can play on this team. That I have the ability, the tools. I know I can. It’s all about the opportunity, and five years from now, I hope I’m still playing in the NFL, and doing the best I can do.

“But as long as I do my part, I can live with whatever happens. I’m going to continue to work hard, and we’ll see how it all unfolds.”

So he did, substituting ad-lib darts from rookie Johnny Football for carefully coordinated spirals from rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Johnson assumed a spot on the 53-man roster vacated by dismissed All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson.

Sometimes when it rains for some – Gordon, Peterson or the entirety of the Vikings’ offense – it shines on others. Reunited with offensive coordinator Norv Turner and his pass-friendly playbook after a brief stint together in the Sixth City, the clouds above Johnson – who has so far avoided many of the pitfalls that have frequently plagued some of his NFL counterparts – finally appear to be aligned.

“Bouncing around, it’s kind of frustrating because you want that stability, but I’m a real strong individual, and I feel like I can handle anything that comes my way,” Johnson said. “Not too much can get me down, not too much can alter my approach to my situation and I’m very self-motivated.

“The hardest thing for me is having to meet new people, but every team I go to I learn something new as a player, as a person and as a professional. That all helps me to grow.”IMG_2248


Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014:

DOWN 42-7 WITH LESS THAN 4:30 REMAINING in  the fourth quarter, the Vikings take the field to mount one final offensive against the NFC North division rival Packers with nothing to play for but pride. It’s enough.

With the game clearly out of hand, No. 12 in purple checks back in with a hungry glaze in his eye, and takes his spot on the far reaches of the formation. He sprints a quick out route, and the receiver quickly squares himself. The pass goes for just 7 yards, the two-minute warning strikes and the drive goes on.

And on, and on – all the way into the Green Bay red zone. The clock running down, Minnesota adopts a no-huddle 8 yards from the end zone, 8 yards from checking another lofty accomplishment off the list.

On the snap, Johnson – donned in horns and a purple 12 – bursts off the line, beats his man to his spot and is rewarded with a quick arching lob hung delicately above him like a ripe fall apple ready to be plucked. And he plucks it, only with a toe out of line. The would-be touchdown is waved off.

The game ends with a whimper as a field goal produces a 42-10 final in Green Bay’s favor. Johnson finishes with just one reception for 7 yards, but it means so much more than that. It’s his first official reception in a regular season NFL game – hopefully of many to come – and for now it’s enough.

“It was just one reception, just 7 yards, but just to be able to go out there – especially against the team that drafted me – it was a very special moment,” Johnson said. “I kind of wish I would have gotten that touchdown – that’s the milestone I’ll keep the ball after – but it means so much to me to even be here in the NFL.

“It’s something I’ve worked so hard for, and through everything I’ve battled – from ACL injuries to playing football for multiple schools and franchises to everything I’ve gone through in life – I realize not many people get to make good on that opportunity. To have that catch means so much more to me than just the 7 yards.”

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THREE WEEKS AFTER Johnson’s inaugural catch, his NFL future remains as difficult to forecast as ever. He added two more receptions for 22 yards the next week in a loss to Detroit, but none last week against Buffalo. The size, the speed, the hands, the versatility to play any wide receiver position – X, Y and Z – on the field are all present, but more importantly, it’s Johnson’s humility, perhaps his best quality as a professional athlete, to know that talent alone is not enough.

That his drive alone is not enough, nor is one reception enough to satiate it. That it’ll take not only the continued support from family and friends that he has, but time, commitment and opportunity to make his dream last. Stability, for a change, couldn’t hurt either.

He knows it won’t be easy. Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I could have people take away one message about life, football, family, anything from my story, it’d be to live free and have no regrets,” Johnson said. “I say that because life is short, tomorrow’s never promised and you don’t want to look back and say, ‘boy, I wish I would have done that.’

“I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life – from being suspended in school to being in trouble with the law – and still regret none of the negative decisions, nothing I do, because all of it – the good and bad – has helped to mold me into the person I am today.

“So far, my life hasn’t been easy. My road in the NFL hasn’t been easy. So what? I know there are people depending on me, and if it is raining right now, it isn’t going to be raining for long. I know that the sun is going to come back out one of these times, and I’ll keep pushing forward in the rain until it does.”

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sports@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “Catching in the rain: Johnson’s NFL journey”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

Written by peterdbarrows

October 23, 2014 at 3:24 am

A {Chris Robinson} Runs Through It

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After compiling one of the most prolific careers in Michigan prep football history, running back Chris Robinson has run through every obstacle in his path in pursuit of the one accomplishment that has continually eluded him like he has defenders: A championship.

GVL/Michael Dykstra

Pete Barrows
Featurist

With pads set low beneath his No. 28, and cleats dug deep into the Midland Community Stadium turf in a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) state semifinal game in 2008, then Ovid-Elsie junior Chris Robinson purveyed the field. Perched behind his offensive line, Robinson glanced across the scoreboard that announced his Maruaders led 21-13 early in the third quarter with a hint of a smile knowing a secret unbeknownst to others,

With the stage set and the stakes high, Robinson broke his gaze at the sound of the snap, and broke free for a 24-yard gain from midfield, only to have the play brought back on a holding penalty. It was a momentary setback, but in a way it still serves to represent Robinson’s football career in a microcosm — perhaps even more than the successes.

On the very next play, Robinson ran the ball across the goal line from 52 yards out. There wasn’t a flag in sight. Over the next seven minutes of football, Robinson performed his best impression of pixelated Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson , and ripped off touchdowns of 35, 43 and 42 yards for 204 total yards on 11 carries. There wasn’t a single secret left regarding how good Robinson could be.

Robinson finished the 55-20 victory over previously undefeated Standish-Sterling with a line of 370 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries – a season worth of stats for some prep players – and helped secure 11-1 Ovid-Elsie’s first ever state championship game appearance – a spot in the Division 5 state finals at Ford Field the following weekend against Muskegon Oakridge.

Entering the championship game, Robinson needed just over 200 yards to break the state single-season rushing total of 2,890 yards, set by Chippewa Valley’s Chris Lomasny, and and was eight rushing touchdowns from tying the single-season record of 48, paced by Livonia Clarencville’s Tim Shaw. Neither felt out of reach, but Robinson remained locked on to the task at hand.

Kind of like here (at GVSU), I was focusing on the games on week at a time and we always had one goal as a team, as we still do – and that’s to win,” Robinson said. “All the other statistics get pushed to the side, as long as we’re winning.”

Fast forward six years and Robinson, a fifth-year senior, is the leading rusher – with 414 yards and five touchdowns on 76 carries for an average of 5.4 yards per carry and 67.8 yards per game – for a 3-3 Grand Valley State University football team clinging to abbreviated playoff hopes, just as senior teammate Jaime Potts is the team’s leading receiver with 479 yards and five touchdowns on 27 receptions, good for an average of 17.7 yards per catch and 79.8 yards per game.

Yet as close as the two are off the field, and as integral as they are to GVSU’s offense on it, their first experience playing for a championship with each other was notably distinct from their final push for one together this season. Then a sophomore, Potts quarterbacked the Muskegon Oakridge team that defeated Robinon and Ovid-Elsie 26-14 in the state finals.

That (championship game) was one of the biggest moments of my life, and we worked so hard to get there, but even though we had the talent, Potts got the better of us,” Robinson said. “I had hoped we might get a rematch the next year, but we both ended up losing in the playoffs.

“I held a little bit of a grudge, but when I found out Potts was coming here – at the time I thought as a quarterback – I was really excited about it, and we’ve been boys since he started playing here.”

Potts still contests that Ovid-Elsie might have been dealt a different hand in the championship game had Robinson not sprained his ankle on a horse-collar tackle just before half, but the history stands. Just as it does with Robinson, who like Potts, ranks amongst the top 20 in a plethora of season and career MHSAA record categories including fourth on the list for on the list for most career rushing yards (7,123), fourth on the list for most career touchdowns (99) and first on the list for most consecutive games with 100 yards or more (27).
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Despite the look and resume’ of a Division I talent, Robinson inexplicably slipped through the cracks during the recruiting process in a way that ironically resembled the way the ball carrier patiently and purposefully meanders through seams in the defense.

The visits to elite programs – including trips to the Big House and Spartan Stadium – came early, but the official offers, limited by ACT scores, did not. And what started as Robinson’s loss became GVSU’s gain when coach Matt Mitchell traveled to a town directly across from Grand Rapids centrally located between Mt. Pleasant and East Lansing to pitch the promising prospect.

He was a late commit – mainly MSU and I think MAC schools like CMU and Cincinnati were still talking to him – but we kept grinding away,” Mitchell said. “We had him up on an official visit and then when I went back after some of the bigger schools didn’t come with what he had thought or had hoped they’d come with, I think he saw that this was a great place to extend his education and playing career.”

Mitchell was right.

“I had dreamed of going to a big-named school as a kid, but after all the flash of the process, I remember coach Mitchell coming down to the school and saying to me ‘hey, we’re a Division II program’ – which I really didn’t know much about at the time – ‘but we have a winning tradition and national championships’ and that got my ear real quick,” Robinson said.

Robinson was a redshirt freshman in 2010, but came on strong towards the end of 2011 as a sophomore. Then, as a starter in 2012, he picked up right where he had left off until an ACL injury sidelined his season – a season that due to the timing of the injury four games in was prohibited by the NCAA from being salvaged.

Instead of throwing in the towel, as he could have years prior after the penalty against Standish-Sterling or following a mildly disappointing recruitment, Robinson reset instead of relenting. He rehabbed hard, grew out his distinctive beard and dreads and transformed his body from a speedy 205-pounds to a powerful 220-pounds in preparation to contribute as a part of a three-headed monster in a backfield with Michael Ratay and Kirk Spencer. The backfield was coined by Robinson as “Pop, Smash and Dash”.

“When I came in at around 200-pounds, I’d look at some of the older guys taking a beating, and thought maybe I need to build myself to be able withstand hits,” Robinson said. “So I developed this mentality that if I’m going to be this big and sacrifice some speed to get the size, I mine as well be the hammer. The Smash. We talk about that role all the time in meetings, and I guess I really embraced that job.”

The trio paced GVSU’s offense last season with
2,342 combined rushing yards and a 5.9 per-carry average all the way to an NCAA Division II semifinal game. Through six games in 2014, Pop Smash and Dash are just slightly off last year’s per-game average of 156 yards per game (150). 

That trio has since been depleted.

Ratay (Dash) suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second year in a row after leading the Lakers with 1,002 rushing yards through nine games in 2013, while Spencer (Pop) left the 17-3 home coming victory over Wayne State University with an injured foot, leaving Robinson (Smash) – who rushed for 56 yards on 20 carries against WSU, and for 157 yards on 22 carries in a victory the week before against Hillsdale — to carry the load.

“With so many different types of backs in the running back room – and there have been since I’ve been at GVSU – your job then becomes easy knowing you just have to go in, and work to be one-eleventh of the offense,” Robinson said. “With Ratay and Kirk – backs that can do everything, including lining up in the slot and blocking – I’ll have to step up to fill those roles to become a bigger part of the offense like I did in high school, but it’s just another thing on my plate that I can and am going to have to be able to control.”

Mitchell expanded on the expanded role.

“Spencer is touch and go, so Chris is going to be counted on to be our workhorse and he has stepped up as our main guy,” Mitchell said. “He’s a really big, physical runner, and is the kind of guy that gets better as the game progresses. I don’t think a lot of people realize it, but he’s also really good in protection – like an Emmitt Smith — and we don’t really have to sub him out for anything.”

An unanticipated and inauspicious 0-3 start has placed GVSU’s — and Robinson’s — dreams of championship glory to the brink, but the back – who Potts says makes his job as a receiver easier with play-action sells and blitz pickups – and Potts – who Robinson estimates catches around 98-percent of the passes thrown to him – remains undeterred.

Even with these obstacles, events beyond his control, Robinson thumps on.

The bad breaks – like the tragic loss of a best friend, Nic Greenhoe, to leukemia following the 2008 season or a loss in an impromptu best of seven rock-paper-scissors showdown to a teammate that prevented Robinson from continuing to wear No. 2 in tribute to Greenhoe, as he did after making the switch from No. 28 to No. 2 as a senior at Ovid-Elsie – with the good. Robinson, who now wears No. 3, takes it all in stride, grateful for what’s there instead of lamenting upon what’s not.

Grateful for the offensive line that he still credits largely for his high school accolades and promises to return home to some day to buy personal pizzas for as a thank you, to freshman roommate and defensive lineman, Isiah Dunning, who jokes that he taught Robinson everything he knows about playing running back, for Potts’ friendship and play, for his running back teammates for making him better and for the opportunity he’s been provided at GVSU.

For more than any physical trait or style or record, what perhaps separates Robinson most – even more so than his patented spin move, breakaway speed or his charismatic approach that endears him teammates and peers alike – is his ability to make the best of situations. Endowed with the drive to run through his problems north-to-south, never away from them east-to-west, GVSU slim playoff hopes – starting again with a game at No. 20 Michigan Tech on Saturday and continuing from there one practice at a time – will sustain as long as Robinson is around to carry them.

“Obviously, we didn’t start the season off the way that we wanted to – we didn’t expect to be 0-3, even with three tough games to start the schedule, and I don’t think anyone else really did either – so we’re just taking it one game at a time,” Robinson said. “But hey, in football things don’t always work out the way you want them to, and what went wrong can’t be the focus. We have some momentum built up now, and we know the kind of football team we’re capable of being.

“Hopefully we can keep winning the next game, but we’ll control what we can and trust the rest to take care of itself.”

sports@lanthorn.com

To read the original post “GVSU to lean on C-Rob amid injuries at RB”, click here at the Lanthorn online.

Written by peterdbarrows

October 16, 2014 at 4:48 pm