GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — On a breezy Sunday afternoon, the Union Red Hawks are back to work after another loss. For 30 minutes they walk, jog, sprint in short bursts, in that order. Their sweat is soaking their shirts, their arms are perched over their heads, and their work has never been more evident.
“All the hard work, everything we do, we’re going to celebrate on Friday. We might cry now but on Friday we’re going to celebrate,” said Junior wide receiver Twanyea Smith.
Inside, near the new weight room, it’s loud. The sound of a team in unity. There’s joking, laughing, there’s an evident brotherhood. It sounds like the gears of a successful football program. Not a Union team that has lost 45-straight games.
“I told the kids on Friday, I said, listen, yeah, it might be embarrassing tonight, but I’m not embarrassed,” Head Coach Don Fellows said. “I mean, I’m in this for the long run.”
Fellows is the new coach at Union, in his first year. He’s the former state champion coach from Grand Rapids Christian. He says now he’s on a mission, dedicating the next 5-10 years to build a program. He’s even moved his daughter from Rockford Christian Schools to Grand Rapids Public.
“If I had my vision on this, three to five years from now we have a hundred kids on the roster,” Fellow predicted. “And we have developed a real program and kids want to gravitate to come here. We’re building a brand-new school. Our facilities are amazing here. We’re getting a brand-new locker room, our practice field got redone, play in a great stadium. We’re getting all the resources to attract and keep our kids here. And if we do that, I think we’re going to be pretty good.”
It’s an investment that Fellows made into these kids and it’s one that is already giving return despite the Red Hawks starting the year with two more losses.
“If you watch us play compared to last year, we had 300 yards the first game of offense, we’ve scored 20 points in two games, they scored 20 points all of last year,” Fellows adds they had 300 total yards in the last two seasons too. “There’s good things happening too. I tell our kids, try not to look at the scoreboard, we’ll figure that out later.”
Since June the Red Hawks have had nearly 50 players show up to each practice. That’s a sharp contrast from the 17 players on the team last year. And according to the players, fewer than that showed up for practice. They were never able to scrimmage, run an offense against a full defense, even lineup properly to be ready for their games.
Day one under Coach Fellows was brutally different.
“A lot of people couldn’t even get through the basics. People was throwing up, tired easily,” Senior lineman Keai Watson remembers. “Couldn’t even line up right just follow simple directions. It was horrible.”
There’s a noticeable change. They can finish those 30-minute sprints without throwing up now. And aside from their new practice gear, new uniforms, new equipment, and the new cleats that were made possible by Miami Dolphin Kavon Frazier, there is a palpable energy. It starts at the top.
“Everything feels different, the energy, the work. Everything’s just different,” Watson said. “The love from the coaches. The attention. Everything’s just different.”
“I have been here since freshman year, losing. I didn’t give up though. There’s a lot of times I wanted to but I just stayed the course and God blessed me with a new coach. And we’re ready to win,” Smith said about Fellows. “He is the program, in the most humbles way. I don’t know where we’d be without him.
In years past, Union players were bought bus passes. It allowed them to take the public transit in Grand Rapids to get to and from practice and events with no charge. It broke one barrier of transportation but couldn’t get past the time commitment. Some players would have to take the bus an hour each way before and after practice. It was a deterrent to play.
“If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be playing football, I don’t think I could go through that, especially in the summer,” Senior Larry Wingfield said about the coaches getting rid of the bus passes.
There are no bus passes this year. Fellows took the home locations of every player in his program and pinned their locations with online maps. He then divided up the players and had coaches pick up the ones who needed the ride. Each coach has between 4-6 players. And apart from getting rid of the transportation on time deterrents, Fellows says these rides have provided so much more, a relationship and trust.
“Some of my best times right now are when I’m driving my five kids to and from practice. You develop a really great relationship and rapport with them and then you realize, they’re kids. Some are in difficult situations, some aren’t but you’re trying to help them,” Coach Fellows said. “I get paid money to coach and if I had to take a bus for an hour and a half, I’m not sure I would come to football either.”
And for the players, the streak looms over their head; they feel that weight from their peers and in the hallways, but they believe right now they’re learning about more than how to win on a football field, their learning how to win in life.
“I’m tired of losing. Anybody would be tired of losing every Friday and going out there and not having no hope. This year we have hope,” Smith said referencing Coach Fellows. “He wants the best out of us so we can go far. It’s deeper than football, football’s just the game but it’s going to teach you a lot.
“I learned a lot. Like, we learn how to never quit,” Wingfield said. “You got role models here, people who actually love you. We don’t get that that much.”
“You learn something from each game,” Watson added. “Every time you lose, you learn from that. So just pick up what you learned and just take note on that and then hopefully change.”
What won’t change are Coach Fellows’ expectations.
“Win a state championship. I mean it really is,” Coach Fellows said. “I don’t know why anybody would coach and that wasn’t the goal.”