It was a postcard fall day on the Ottawa Hills High School football field. A little sunshine, temperatures in the low 70s and a slight breeze out of the southwest.
But for the 32 players on the field for practice, and for the coaching staff, it might as well have been sleeting and in the 30s.
The Bengals were locked in. They weren’t out here to enjoy the weather. They were getting ready for a football game. And not just any game - the 2022 Homecoming game.
Friday, October 14, 2022 | 7:00 pm | Friday night lights at Houseman Field
The opponent: Forest Hills Eastern.
The goal: A win in the second-last week of the season to send the team’s 12 seniors – Mauricio Posey, Thaddeus Pratt, Christopher Grady, Omaris Hunnicutt, Kamani Jones Jr., Anthony George, Isaiah Bradford, Saquan Allen, Keymarion Gibson, Jkwon Brown, Damarion Leblanc and Jeremiah Brown – out on a high note.
So, on this perfect fall day, at different stations on a dusty field just south of Burton Street, coaches were getting the Bengals ready for the different schemes they might see from their Homecoming opponent.
And in the middle of everything was the unmistakable presence of seventh-year head coach Christian Verley, a 2006 Ottawa Hills graduate and four-year varsity standout who went on to play nose tackle at Trine University.
For Verley being at his alma mater as head coach is all about tradition.
He played for Charles Ruffin who took over for Jerry Dutcher. Recently Verley had Dutcher speak to his team prior to a practice about what it means to play for Ottawa Hills.
“Tradition is key,” Verley said passionately. “Dutch wasn’t sure when I asked him to come speak to the team and I just said ‘Dutch, it’s always a tradition to have you here.’ So, he came out and he helped these players understand a little bit more about the tradition and the culture we have had here and that we are trying to build upon.”
That culture and tradition isn’t just what happens between the lines where the Bengals run a veer shotgun that has been a staple for years. It’s also about what it means to be an Ottawa Hills football player away from the field.
“A couple of my players are homeless,” Verley said. “But they’re here every day, doing the work. A lot of our kids take care of a lot. They work, but it’s not for them. It’s to help pay the bills. They’re learning how to persevere, and what we’re doing here is more than football. We’re building community stewards.”
That’s one of the reasons Verley and his staff were so proud of the team winning the Youth Community Service award at the recent LINC UP Community Spirit Awards, an annual event hosted by LINC UP to highlight the individuals and organizations that have a significant impact on the Grand Rapids community.
"The award recognizes the unsung heroes," Verley said, and the Ottawa Hills football team was honored for logging over 400 hours of community service in the summer of 2022 via numerous projects that made a difference in Grand Rapids.
“Ottawa Hills football goes by the motto of being Ottawa FAST,” Verley said. “That stands for flourishing in the community, academically striving, selfless to the team and tough as nails. Volunteerism for Ottawa Hills football players is a huge part in them to be flourishing in the community. We must be good stewards, and we must take care of where we come from.”
"That applies to all of life," Verley added, not just football.
“Still,” he said with a smile, “we’re hoping to get a win on Friday.”