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Big Red State Champions 1986, 1989, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2017. State Runner Up 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016

Muskegon Big Red Football Legacy:  A Family Tradition

  By now, it is no secret about the legacy that has been established and maintained in Western Michigan's small city of Muskegon that sits just on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, the state’s second largest city – The Muskegon High School (MHS) "Big Red" football team! In fact, we love to hear the stories again and again about how it all got started way back when...Classic lyrics by Emcee Shan. 

By far I am no Big Red historian, yet what I share is rooted in history and is one story of many that should be shared as it relates to Big Red Football tradition and the standard of excellence. The Big Reds boasts the winningest football program in the state, and one of the nation's top 10 winningest programs. With more than 800 victories over the course of time, there is room for a lot of history, information, and stories to be told. This particular story reveals the history of one family’s contributions to more than 100 of those victories. 

No matter how great or small the contribution, it must be duly noted that we were there, and in many instances played integral roles and participated in some monumental Big Red moments. Well before many of us started at MHS, we began perfecting our respective talents, abilities, gifts, and skills coming up through the ranks of little league football by way of the Port City Football Program. If you had the honor to wear the Big Red uniform over the past 40 years, then the first taste of organized football more than likely came by way of my fam, my main man, and Great Uncle, Willie Cunningham.

Willie Cunningham has been at the forefront of the football lives of many of the young men that eventually made that jog through Hackley Stadium’s tunnel on Friday nights and onto the field in front of thousands of cheering fans who had high expectations. The skilled coaching, and the ability to have a keen awareness on how to cultivate the future Big Reds, and their skills at such an early age is indeed quite a gift. Face it, we know how challenging it is, and the many challenges that come with working with six, seven, and eight year old children. Let alone doing it in an organized team sport. Year after year, Uncle Willie does a superb job utilizing the abilities of those children who eventually go on to become Big Reds. Without a doubt, by the time most have reached the varsity level, they have come prepared with an insurmountable wealth of knowledge of the game. Many have been reading teams, studying plays, and executing them for almost ten years coming through the Port City Football squads. I had my first taste of contact at 8 years old, and my life changed in that moment, and spent the next eight years anticipating the moment that I would become a Big Red. 

In a recent conversation that I had with Uncle Willie, he mentioned the advanced mindset, and skill set of the youth out there on the field. "I have had quarterbacks that are introduced to the game at eight years old, and at nine years old they know the plays, and formations to run on their own in different situations, and scenarios." So with that sound, and solid teaching early in life. It is no wonder by the time they become varsity at MHS the skill level is so polished, refined, and destined to add on to the legacy, and victory count. It is a testament to the work that has been dedicated to these young men. Many are veterans by the time they get to the big stage at Hackley Stadium.

Salute Mr. Willie Cunningham for being at the forefront of the lives of many that have moved forward to become Big Reds, and keep the wins adding up. I would serve a big discredit if I failed to mention the role that Unc. plays off of the field with those children as well. For many he is the community elder that the children grow to cherish, and respect as their own uncle. Suffice to say, he is Port City's little league football community uncle. Still going strong at 73 years, and 34 years coaching the lil' guys at Port City.

In one way or another, all of my family members that wore the Big Red uniform can't say that they were not influenced by my uncle Kevin Cunningham either directly, or indirectly.  He was the one that set it off for us to even become interested in Big Red football. As I stated earlier, I am no Big Red Football historian, nor a historian for that matter, but here is a little known historical pearl that many may not know. Uncle Kevin, who somehow became known as Kelvin by the way, was the first Black starting quarterback at Nelson Jr. High. Imagine that! Of course, his quarterbacking days did not parlay into having that privilege as a Big Red. He came up in an era where there was no such thing at MHS as having a starting Black quarterback. That is another story for another time, I suppose.  He was well aware of that before he even put on the #8 jersey as a Big Red on the 1975 squad that had 5 wins and 4 losses on the season.  He had been informed while still quarterbacking at Nelson that it would not happen at the high school level. As I held the phone listening to my uncle reflect on his youth, he stated that Mr. Sherman Burt, his Physical Education teacher at the time told him that he would never be the QB at Muskegon High. So he had been forewarned, and therefore, mentally prepared for the days to come at MHS. Although his quarterbacking days were gone, as a Big Red he did share some solid time as a Big Red safety. You know how young boys look up to the older brothers, and cousins in the family, and want to "be like" them?   He was that guy!  We all took bits, and pieces of him, and his techniques to utilize, and add to our repertoire. Salute to Uncle Kevin Cunningham for being a trailblazer for us to follow. It should also be noted that he has had a strong history with MHS and Muskegon Public Schools after graduating.  Salute to the General, Kevin Cunningham. 

As the decade of the 70's came to a close, in my opinion, the most serious, and dynamic family talent that donned the #8 jersey embraced his moment to shine under the Friday night lights at Hackley Stadium. My older cousin Daryl Jefferson stepped front, and center, literally as he became a force to be reckoned with, and acknowledged as a fierce leader at the middle linebacker position. Prior to varsity, Daryl too had some time as quarterback coming up. Nonetheless, he found an equally strong suit in the middle of the defense reeking havoc on opposing offenses with his quickness, agility, and laser like precision on the reads of opposing teams. He also served as a starting guard on the MHS hoop squad his senior year. Daryl also has served as a coach at Port City, and has enhanced the skill levels of many that moved on to compete for the Big Reds in later years.

Although his 1980 team struggled in the win column with an overall record of 1 & 8 it was a big win against the eventual Class B State Champion Muskegon Catholic Central. The irony in that...As his high school career came winding down, DJ, as some called him, would be honored as one of the area’s best, as well as All Conference in the then LMAC (Lake Michigan Athletic Conference). At the time the LMAC was a very competitive and talented conference which included Muskegon Catholic, Benton Harbor, Traverse City, Muskegon Mona Shores, and Grand Haven. 

 ​

The 1985 football season had finally brought the time for me to slide into that #8 jersey that I had eagerly waited to wear after witnessing my uncle, and cousin wear so well. (I switched to #1 for my senior season). In my junior year, I was one of 3 starting junior defensive backs. The others were Donald Banks, eventual all stater (1986) Eddie Brown, and the lone senior Paul Jordan.

The 1985 campaign caught a lot of those from around the state off guard, especially sports writers, and commentators from the Detroit Free Press, and Detroit News papers respectively.  They did not see our 8 wins, and 2 loss season coming. However, many of us from around the way had been waiting for this moment since our days at Port City. Just to reiterate the Port City factor that I mentioned earlier. Donald, Eddie, and I played many years together at Port City, and were very familiar with each others many skill sets. We knew as young children that we had something special. We had no doubts in our minds that we were going to be the best. The brief time that we didn't play together, we played against each other in junior high school, and we looked forward to coming back together to do it big for the Big Reds.

Although things didn't go according to plan in 1985 in large part, because we didn't seal the deal in a crucial home game against Traverse City, in which they won on a flea flicker in the remaining seconds of the game, and converted the 2 point conversion to steal our '85 plans for a state title. Traverse City went on to become the state champions of '85, and the only team to beat us that year. Many of us know that we should have won both times against TC, but as fate would have it we would have to regroup, and prepare for our eventual state title in the (12 wins 1 loss) '86 season. The '85 season I must also note that it was an honor to be teammates with my cousin Tome Ellis. Tome served as a backup lineman, as well as a force on special team assignments. He opted to not play the '86 season. However he was a major factor in his role as team manager, wherein he was pivotal in keeping us focused, and our heads up in those moments of pressure filled challenges. Salute, my cousin and comrade Tome Ellis.

I got so much trouble on my mind refuse to lose...The opening line from the song Welcome To The Terradome voiced By Chuck D of Public Enemy. Notably, one of the greatest Hip Hop Rap Groups to ever pick up a mic, and give the people exactly what the people needed. Those lyrics, ultimately is the backdrop to my 1986 year as a Big Red. As it would be every 8 to 10 weeks, or so I had to process a tragic life altering moment. Two of those moments entered my world prior to the start of the football season. Talk about psychologically challenging, mentally draining, and an emotional roller coaster. Those are mild terms that fall short of accurately describing what this teenager had going on entering the 1986 football season.

It was the day of March 7, going into the early morning hours of March 8, 1986 a week before my 17th birthday. I was involved in a horrific car accident, along with two other key Big Red players. My day one childhood friend, and eventual All Stater ('86) Willie Wilson (Port City Alum), and 4 year starter at Eastern Michigan University Charles Nash. Along with long time childhood friend Donnie Boone were victims of my neglectful thinking, bad decision making, and flat-out ignorance that put us within a few seconds, and a few inches of death, or at best major bodily injuries.

Mind you this is Michigan, and winters can be rough. If you are from the area or the state, then you know that all precautions must be taken when out in those streets. Nevertheless, I attempted to go around a curve in Muskegon Heights where the normal speed limit, under normal driving conditions is probably 25-30 mph. I hit that curve at 113 mph.  I side swiped a telephone pole, and the rest is pretty much a miracle what ensued. The car, which was a hard body 1973 two door Chevy Nova repeatedly rolled down the street, eventually stopping with all four wheels in the air. As the car was rolling, I literally saw different segments of my life, past, and future rolling in my mind's internal camera. Since I saw glimpses of the future, I knew that this was not the close of my final chapter. Fortunately, all of us escaped that traumatic experience with no bodily injuries. My dude, Donnie Boone had a minor scratch on his forehead. The others suffered minor pains similar to those associated with a Friday night gridiron game.

Fast forward a few weeks to the beginning of June. There is an early morning knock at the door which is not unusual, but can't say normal, as many family members often would come to my Great Grandmother's home if they felt it necessary while under the influence of...This particular morning it was my father's sister. My Aunt Bev. Now for her to be the one at the door was quite rare. I could tell by the tone of her voice, and the "let me talk to you" that this was something that would be a little too much. Those type intros usually are attached to something dramatic, and, or tragic, namely death.

She had come to inform me that my dad had been killed. That was quite alarming news to have to process at the age of a newly turned 17 year old. As she continued to give me the information, and details she went on to explain that my father's brother was the one that had actually done the deed. Now it is one thing to have to wrap my teenage mind around the death, but it is a whole other level to have to process the fact that it was done by my uncle.

So as it was, I barely had time to deal with the near death auto accident two months prior, and now, in a mere 8 weeks, I am going into the fall football season with a lot on my mind. Personally, I don't think any of the coaches were equipped to handle that type of trauma. Nevertheless, I was there, and ready to compete, and give it my best. As a result, and oddly enough there was never certainty on which part of me would show up. The one that many knew could compete at a high level, the one that would show glimpses of greatness, or the one with the nonchalant moments, and movements that are often misinterpreted as unconcerned. The funny thing is, hell I didn't even know.  As it was, I never consistently played at, or maximized my full potential. However, I participated on two of the greatest teams of MHS history, and was instrumental in helping  the team reach the state championship in '86 as a starting defensive back.

Watch the video clip of one of the first interceptions in the first playoff game ever at historic Hackley Stadium.  The picture (right) is the take away interception.  #1 Elliott hauls it in, and #3 Reggie Moore in the background.

The interesting thing about destiny, and fate is that you know that it's happening in real time, yet you don't know the what, the when, the why, and so forth until after the fact. As destiny and fate would have it my playing time was minimal at the Pontiac Silverdome in the 1986 finals. Prior to the beginning of the game while in the locker room, and during pre-game warm up. I was having shoe issues. We were playing on turf for only the second time.  I was accustomed to playing on grass, and didn't adjust well to the grip of the turf. I changed my shoes a few times. I had a pair of sneakers that wasn't quite the feel that I wanted. Assistant Do Funny aka William Anderson gave me a pair that he had. Those weren't quite right either, and so I eventually decided on the brand new turf cleats the school had bought us. They were not broken in and very uncomfortable on my feet.

The game was set to begin, and we would be on defense first. I always liked for us to start on defense because it meant that I would go right from warm ups to the game. It was always good for me to keep my energy high from warm ups. I find that is when I was at my best.  We kick off to Sterling Heights Stevenson, and I am racing down field. In my vision I have a straight b-line to put a good hit on the ball carrier. I saw a Sterling Heights blocker approaching to block me out of the corner of my right peripheral. Now in my mind, I thought that I would be in contact with the ball carrier before the blocker would make contact with me. That was not the case. As the body blow landed on me from the Sterling Heights blocker. My feet stayed cemented in the turf, and the rest of my body did a 180 degree turn left from the momentum that he hit me with. I was down, and couldn't get up. A few plays later after "running it off" on the sidelines, I was inserted back in the game at my usual cornerback spot. First play I am out wide on a receiver. The ball is snapped, and I commence to back paddle, turn to run, and get in position on the receiver, and I fell for no reason. Knee just buckled. Actually it was a reason. I had torn my left ACL (anterior crutiate ligament). So, I remained sidelined for the duration of the game watching in a festive and disappointed mood.

As we went on to become victorious, and bring the first official state championship home for the Big Reds. Apparently, I got lost in the hoopla that followed. Needless to say there was not much for me to celebrate once the smoke had cleared, and the dust had settled.  There was very little follow up from coaches, trainers, or doctors. I was given some pain killers from the team doctor, and that was it. I was not a footnote in the minds' of the adults that I had committed much energy attempting to please, and satisfy. I eventually could afford the necessary knee surgery in 1998 after signing a teacher contract with BCPS. Sadly, it wasn't until the early 90's while attending Eastern Michigan that I actually learned that I had torn my ACL in the opening kick off of the 1986 championship game. The biggest game of my life, and I played a mere 20 or so seconds.

Closing out the decade of the 80's brought another state championship to the Big Reds program, as well as bringing the second one to our family. Sam Cunningham (my cousin) #8 JV year, and #21 varsity, was an active participant on the 1989 number one team in the state. The MHS team of 1989 finished the season with 12 wins and 1 loss as they were crowned the gods of the gridiron in late November. The following season 1990, the Big Reds finished with a 9 & 1 mark. The 9 wins earned another playoff birth, but it was cut short in the playoff opener by Saginaw in an overtime victory at Hackley Stadium

Although Sam played limited minutes as a back up running back, and nose guard, his contributions are nonetheless as significant as any others. As stated before, no contribution is too great, or too small. They are all connected, and a piece of the greater good, and overall accomplishment of being the best of '89. Salute to my cousin Sam for a job well done. 

In the early years of the 90's the wins continued to be fast and steady for the Reds true to the established history, traditions, and expectations. The fall of 1992 yet another Cunningham sported the #8 jersey. Embarking on his endeavors to add to the legacy of wins for MHS, and to share his moments in the spotlight as a major figure for Big Red teams that went 5 & 3 his junior season, and adding 8 wins and 2 losses his Senior year. The latter earning a spot in the fall post season play that eventually ended to the team that gave them the two losses on the season, Grand Rapids Union.

My cousin Lawaun Cunningham perhaps was the shortest linebacker that has ever held down the middle for the Reds. Standing at barely 5 feet 6 inches he had a heart that was just as strong as his will to compete, and put it all on the line, and left it all on the field after each contest. During his senior season, he was a team leader in interceptions which helped solidify him as a second team all area pick for the 93 season. Closing out his 1994 school year at MHS, he was the 3rd recipient of the Larry Harp Scholarship Fund, and the first to receive a $1,000 award which honors players who exhibit the qualities of pride, hustle, citizenship and academic achievement. Salute to Lawaun for a job well done. 

It would be more than 20 years before another relative would have the honor of wearing the Big Red uniform, and continuing the traditions of winning, and holding up the family legacy, and tradition. So, I guess it can be said that not only is this a new era of football, it is a new era of Cunninghams and family, because this ushers in the children of the players, or the offspring of some of my family peers age group.  With new eras and new generations come new thoughts, ideas, and a new swag. The 2014 season began the era of the new, as an Orchard View transfer decided to come to MHS and get a little taste of the Big Red spotlight. Prior to his arrival the young man many refer to as Big Country, at some point between JV, and varsity most family members had sported the #8 with the exception of Tome.  I wore it the year Tome, and I were teammates.  Khari Cunningham, a 6 foot 2 defensive lineman opted for the double fours. That's right #44. Anyone that knows numbers also know that is actually 8 as well. So, although it was not the same. It was still the same!

In his only season as a Big Red, Big Country managed to fit right into the scheme of things and became a defensive force from his defensive tackle position. Khari's only season as a Big Red was the 3rd consecutive year the Big Reds made it to Ford Field to compete for a championship, and came up short. As history would record it, it still was an amazing season for the 12 wins, and 2 loss Big Reds.

During the process of writing this article, I learned of another relative competing this 2017 season for yet another chance to be crowned the best in Michigan. It was brought to my attention that Tome Ellis's son is a sophomore, and a starting offensive lineman on one of the most exciting team’s ensemble at MHS. So far in the 2017 season they have amassed some immaculate numbers both offensively, and defensively. As it stands, D'Andre Mills-Ellis has been a major factor in protecting the QB, and opening gaping wholes for the runners to gain ridiculous yardage per carry, as well as creating enough time for the QB to hit his downfield receivers on pass plays. 

Although I have not seen this group, it has been exciting to hear the hoopla that has surrounded them this year. At the current time of this writing, they have 13 wins in the books, and 0 losses. As a matter of fact, I will conclude by saying that this is the year to add not only more wins, but also another state championship trophy to the Big Red trophy case, and add number 3 to our family showcase. As it stands right now my family has contributed, and participated in a total of 85 of those 800 plus wins in Muskegon Big Red History, plus the 1 that is the 2017 Championship. That is quite a testament to one family’s contribution. 

Let the record show that we are here, and we have been a part of the Big Red tradition, and added value to the richness of the legacy for 4 decades!

Thanksgiving Day Edit 11:21 am

I get a text from Daryl informing me that his son participated​ on the state runner up teams of 2012, and 2013.  Jamas Jefferson #51 (Port City alum) was a starting guard for those teams that made it to Ford Field, and came up just a little short of the state crown.  This increases the family victory count to over 100 games that we have collectively had an influence in.  The 2012 Big Reds finished the year 12 wins 2 losses, and 2013 added another 12 and 2 season. That takes the family total victory count to 110 total wins that we have helped put in the books for the Muskegon Big Reds.

Back to our regularly scheduled wrap up 11:30 am

It is of great importance to put on record the many stories that have come through the Muskegon Big Red football dynasty. As previously stated, more needs to be told, and this is just another layer to the many that have served, and contributed to the Big Red victory count by sporting the burgundy (cardinal red), and white of MHS.

As always, thanks for taking some moments out of your life to read my mind/thoughts. Remember...As my Great Grand Dad would say "WHATEEEEVVAAA YOU DO" Laugh, Have Fun, and Be Happy in the experience!

Comments & Other Stuff: wellness@elliottc.com

Elliott Cee
Making Change One Thought, And One Mind At A Time™
​The Book Of El
Jersey #8, 1985, Jersey #1, 1986

If you have a Big Red story to share email wellness@elliottc.com so we can put on record your Big Red history, and contribution.

SIDELINE NOTES

  • Family contribution 110 wins at the close of the 2017 season.
  • The family collective has 3 titles 1986, 1989, 2017 (I was there 1986)
  • The family collective has 3 state runner up 2012, 2013, 2014.
  • 1985 1st ever playoff appearance under the state sanctioned playoff format. (I was there.)
  • In 1986 & 1989 there were only 4 state champs crowned in each Class: A, B, C, D. Unlike today where there are 8 or so divisions.
  • 1986 first-ever Muskegon Big Red playoff game (I was there).
  • 1986 first official state championship (I was there).
  • I participated in two of The Ten Greatest Games in Big Red Football History as published in Muskegon Big Reds 100 years of football 1895-1994. #2 on the list versus Traverse City Friday, October 11, 1985 at Hackley Stadium. #4 on the list versus Sterling Heights Stevenson Saturday, November 29, 1986 at Pontiac Silver Dome.
  • Sam Cunningham participated in one The Ten Greatest Games in Big Red Football History. As noted in the publication Muskegon Big Reds 100 years of football 1895-1994. #6 versus Detroit Martin Luther King Saturday, November 25, 1989 at the Pontiac Silver Dome.
  • 1986 first Black starting quarterback, Rodney Burks (Port City Alum) in Big Red History. Rodney quarterbacked the 1986 State Championship team (I was there).
  • 1986 ranked in the top 25 in the nation (I was there). I can't recall the exact publication. Feel free to check the records. I do recall there were quite a few teams from Texas, and Florida.
  • Extra Strong Rest In Power Salute, and Shout out to #20 Larry "Gig" Williams (Port City Alum) who was very instrumental in the 1986 success. August 15, 1970 - May 10, 2000.
*Feel free to fact check EVERYTHING stated in this article. Most data, scores, etc. Were derived from the Muskegon Big Reds 100 years of football 1895-1994 By Big Red Historian Ron Pesch

Photo Credit: 1st two The Muskegon Chronicle (Mike Robb) & last one M. Elaine Top Row

 

 

#8 Elliott hauls down a TC runner              #8 Elliott runs down Chester                 #8 Elliott plugging the whole against a
#14 Donald Banks in pursuit 1985             Jackson Detroit Murry Wright 1986         Traverse City Runner 1985
   
#8 Elliott vs Muskegon Catholic 1985 1986 Pontiac Silver Dome #1 Elliott           1986 Silver Dome                          D'Andre
 
                                                              Daryl, His Mom, and Kevin

 

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