ALLENDALE — The Muskegon Big Reds have made trips to Ford Field a tradition as the most successful program in Michigan high school football history has reached the state championship game in eight of the last 11 seasons.
One of the Big Reds’ enduring staples throughout their championship runs has been an underwhelming offensive line that cleared traffic for their electric playmakers to wreak havoc in the open field.
This year’s offensive line for Muskegon didn’t enter the regular season with much fanfare and accolades, bringing back just two seniors along with two juniors and a sophomore, but they certainly won the respect and admiration of their opponents, the fans, earned and media during his run to Saturday’s Division 3 championship game against Detroit Martin Luther King (9-3) at 7:30 p.m. for Field Field in Detroit.
The group of Karl Brooks, Miguel Botello, Nickarri Lane, D’Andre Hudgins and N-Kye Wynn has overwhelmed every opponent in their path this postseason, highlighted by their performance against DeWitt last week in which they paved the way for the Bigs leveled The Reds (11-2) rushed nearly 500 yards in a 49-21 win in the state semifinals.
“We see ourselves as the secret weapon,” said sophomore lineman N-Kye Wynn. “The skill guys usually get all the hype and accolades, but we’re just doing it for them out there. We’re doing it for the good of the team because we know we have to do our job well for the offensive to be successful.”
“I honestly could care less about individual awards or player of the game stuff,” added junior Miguel Botello. “As long as I see Jake (Price) or Destin (Piggee) running away from the defense with the ball and we win games, I’m fine with that.”
The group had some growing pains early in the season as they struggled to find plenty of effectiveness against stacked defensive fronts in the season opener against East Kentwood and a talented Warren De La Salle squad in Week 2.
A landmark moment against Zeeland East in Week 4 proved to be a turning point for the group as they began fighting for each other on the gridiron.
“During the game between Reeths and Puffer you saw things coming together, but I think the following week against Zeeland East was a big unifying moment for this group,” said Muskegon offensive line coach Matt Bolles. “There was a moment in the game where N-Kye blocked someone and the boy got frustrated because he was being abused and hit N-Kye. That’s when everyone really gathered around and stood up for each other like a bunch of brothers should. That was a big moment in our season and I think they just kept getting better.
“The Mona Shores game was a big game for her too. I think they were motivated to make a statement there as well. I think last week’s win over DeWitt was the best performance they had all season together. They had a boy called Matthew Nehf committed to Central Michigan and we really got him working on every play. After the game he came up to me and told me we had a legitimate offensive line and wished us luck for the final. We’ve gotten quite intense rivalries with DeWitt lately, so it was quite a compliment that he came up and said that.”
Despite beating their first four playoff opponents by 180-64, the Big Reds felt disrespected for being seen both locally and nationally.
“We felt like we should have had more offensive linemen on the all-conference team (OK Green) and having only one of our guys make the all-region team was a little disrespectful,” Bolles said. “These guys don’t care about this stuff as much as I do, but I know they’ve gotten it and it’s driving them on right now.”
Football has been a godsend for some of Big Red’s attacking players as they have forged lifelong bonds and friendships through their journey with the sport.
“I think football saved some of these guys,” added Bolles. “Hudgey (Hudgins) has never played football. He’s always been the type of kid who would rather play on the computer, but he tried it in eighth grade, but then I lost touch with him in his freshman year of high school.
“In his sophomore year, I saw him walking the sidewalk two days a day and I pulled up in my van and told him to get in. When he actually gave football a chance he fell in love with it and I think football has had such a positive impact on his life.
“N-Kye lost his father when he was a little boy and his mother is an amazing woman who alone raised four boys. I think he gets a lot of his strength and willpower from her. N-Kye takes family very seriously because of his upbringing and I think he’s really adjusted to those guys on the football team and they mean the world to him.”
The Big Red linemen are also motivated by former Muskegon greats like Anthony Bradford (LSU) and Evan Towers (Central State), who have excelled at the college level since graduating high school.
“Tony actually came to our playoff game against Sparta and spoke to the team before the game,” said Bolles. “Karl is probably Tony’s biggest fan so he got emotional when he got the chance to see him in person. Tony has had such a positive impact on so many players who have come through our program.
“These guys see Tony and realize what can happen when a kid from Muskegon gets an opportunity like this. It really can happen and he is proof of that.”
For seniors like Nickarri Lane and D’Andre Hudgins, the chance to build on those legacies doesn’t come naturally.
“It really means a lot to me,” Lane said of the tradition of Muskegon’s great linemen. “My freshman year the guys on that offensive line really brought me in and showed me what it’s like to be a Big Red and I’ve just tried to continue that throughout my career. Now that I’m a senior I’m trying to keep that going while also helping some of these younger guys keep improving so they can keep building next year.”
A former Muskegon Catholic Central and Eastern Michigan University standout, Bolles also serves as a collegiate wrestling coach for the Big Reds. Cross-training between the two sports has helped players like Karl Brooks, N-Kye Wynn, Jakob Price and Destin Piggee develop into top-notch performers for the Muskegon football team this season.
“Coach Bolles got us into wrestling in middle school and it’s been a family ever since,” Brooks said. “He also got some of the Skill guys involved like Jake and Destin and he just pushes us hard and that’s bonded over time. Now we’re going to Ford Field because we’ve all grown stronger as individuals and as a group.”
Botello, Wynn, Brooks and Lane also brought their talents to this past spring’s track season when the foursome competed under head coach Shane Fairfield in the 100-dash, discus and shot put.
“I think the track helped us stay in shape during the off-season,” said Botello. “We basically ran the 100 dash to work on our speed and shot put and discus were a good way for us to work on our footwork and everything. We also lifted a lot in the spring so it was just another opportunity for all of us to work together and compete.”
The Band of Brothers are once again the perceived underdogs in their matchup against Detroit King on Saturday, but that’s just how the group likes it.
“Winning a state championship after everyone counted us out would be a big deal for us,” Wynn said. “We love proving the haters wrong. Nobody thought we would make it this far and now we feel like we have a chance to do something special. Everyone who plays at Muskegon wants to win a ring and if we did that after the last two seasons have ended it would feel great.”
Replaying the 2018 state championship game, which King won 41-25, is a chance for the Big Reds to further cement their status as one of the country’s premier football programs. For Bolles, the chance that years of hard work pays off for a group he cares about is the greatest reward he can imagine.
“It would mean everything to me,” he said. “The last game of the season always sucks because you know it’s the last time you coach guys like Nickarri and (Hudgins) but if we could win a state championship at Ford Field and just see the looks on their faces , when they hold up this trophy would be amazing.
“This group of guys is one of the most incredible collections of people I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching. They’re just great guys and after seeing them fight and putting so much time and effort into this program over the years, I think a state championship would outweigh any other award they could possibly be given.
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