Unbeaten Dearborn Heights Crestwood playing for 'father figure' coach

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Dearborn Heights — Crestwood’s football team has a state playoff spot in its back pocket for the first time since 2005, playing its biggest game in more than 25 years Friday night when it faces Dearborn Heights Robichaud in a battle of unbeatens for the Western Wayne Athletic Conference championship.

Crestwood’s players are full of enthusiasm and confidence, and should be since they are off to the program’s first 6-0 start since 1980, the year after its only unbeaten season. Its homecoming Friday has the players excited, knowing they could possibly host a playoff game with an unbeaten regular season.

Ja'Quan Smith defends against a pass to Hawlo Tlais during Dearborn Heights Crestwood's practice Thursday.

“It’s my senior year and I’d like to end it like this, going to the playoffs since Crestwood hasn’t made the playoffs in a while, and we’d like to host one (postseason game) too,” senior linebacker/tight end Gus Murray said. “I think if we win this game we can go undefeated. Our offensive line has to execute (in the wing-T) and we just have to stop the big plays on defense.”

Said senior receiver/cornerback Mahdi Fadel: “We’ve worked hard in the weight room all winter, so it’s good to see it all paying off since we’re 6-0. Coach (Mike) Berry came in my freshman year and said we might not make it our first year, second or possibly third, but we’ll get it done by the time you leave here and we’re getting it done. He preached hard work and it’s now paying off.”

The homecoming parade gets underway at 5:30, while fireworks will follow on the field in the way of Crestwood’s defense trying to slow down Robichaud freshman phenom David Williams, who has thrown for 1,884 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Berry has experienced tremendous success as a player, playing on Dearborn Fordson’s unbeaten team in 1971 before becoming an All-American defensive lineman, helping Northern Michigan win the Division II national championship in 1975 as a teammate of Steve Mariucci.

Berry, 64, went on to coach at multiple schools, including head coaching stints in Indiana (1980-87), Lake Orion (1988-92) and Waterford Kettering (1993-2000) and an assistant at Fordson under Walker Zaban before taking the Crestwood job.

Berry guided Lake Orion to consecutive 10-1 records in 1988 and ’89, reaching the Class A regional final both years.

Berry took over Crestwood’s program prior to the 2015 season with a plan, trying to end a run of seven straight losing seasons. Crestwood finished 4-5 in Berry’s first season, then 5-4 in 2016 and 3-6 last year before this year’s impressive turnaround.

Berry has battled through adversity to get the job done with the help of his staff, including offensive coordinator Dan Regan and defensive coordinator Jamal Al, along with offensive line coach Billy Amen.

Berry was diagnosed with cancer — amyloidosis with low-grade lymphoma — this past June, still making his way to daily practices despite chemotherapy which has slowed him down at times. He missed practice Monday and Tuesday due to his eyes being swollen shut from the effects of the chemotherapy.

“My wife has been taking good care of me," Berry said. "My family is behind me and I wanted to get this season in with these guys and see how it goes. I’ll know in November when the treatment is over if I have to do stem cell. I certainly hope I don't have to do that."

Berry feels fortunate to have great assistant coaches and players who want to hold on to every word they give them to be successful.

Berry and his staff have built great depth, which was needed after losing four key starters to early season injuries, including quarterback Adam Husseini in Week 2. Sophomore Ali Kathem has filled in and done a solid job, throwing for six touchdowns while running the wing-T offense.

Quarterback Ali Kathem has taken over as starting quarterback at Dearborn Heights Crestwood.

“I have good kids, great assistants, took four years to put them together and I feel very confident with them running practices and everything else," Berry said. "I just let them go and drive around (in the golf cart). All the plays go through my headsets during the game and I can change any one of them that I want, but generally 90 percent of the calls come from the coordinators.

“It’s exciting, the school year is going better for the kids. Everybody’s real focused, nobody’s getting into trouble, all those good things are coming along with winning.”

Amen said Berry is well respected by the players and coaches.

“He’s brought discipline and respect to the kids, basically changed the whole program around completely,” Amen said. “If you would have talked to anybody, would they see us this far? Probably not, but the kids respect him. They love him and they’ll do whatever for him.

“With all the health issues he has, people would have walked away a long time ago, but he’s still here, doing everything he can for the kids and the kids love him for it. They work 10 times harder because of him. He’s like a father figure to all of us.”

Murray and his teammates are all inspired by their head coach.

“We just want to do this for him since this could be his last year,” Murray said. “We just want to make him proud, not have him stressed too much at practice, just have great practices and get out of here.”

Senior linebacker/running back Ja'Quan Smith recalls the message that Berry and his staff gave them his freshman year.

“The message they gave us was we have a plan and the plan is for you guys to succeed,” Smith said. “We’ll have to go through tough things, put in a lot of hard work and then we’ll put it together and we’ll come out winning."