West Bloomfield —Typical of late October in Michigan, the west sky is a mix of gray clouds creased by shafts of blue and sunshine. The temperature is dropping. A breeze has kicked up, cold and penetrating.
In the background at West Bloomfield High’s football field, precisely at 5:30 p.m., practice has halted, at least for players and coaches. But a couple hundred yards away, one can hear the beat of drums and blare of brass as the marching band rehearses its show ahead of Friday night’s state playoff game against Novi.
It seems the band is working in tandem with the football team for what could be a long November run.
A rather elite product coach Ron Bellamy and his Lakers have crafted. West Bloomfield is 9-0 after beating Farmington Hills Harrison and coaching maestro John Herrington in last week’s classic on this same field, 20-14, thanks in part to a waning-moments, 60-yard punt return by Trishton Jackson, the team’s quarterback and star athlete who is headed next year to Michigan State as a wide receiver.
West Bloomfield is slotted No. 3 in The News Super 20 rankings, behind Detroit King and Saline. The Lakers have wrapped up the school’s first unbeaten season since 1962, this one a tad better in that it doesn’t include a tie that blemished the ’62 surge.
“Friday’s victory was great for the community and the school, but the big reason Friday was so special is to have seen how ecstatic our kids were,” said Bellamy, 33, a New Orleans native and former Michigan wide receiver who has been coaching the Lakers five seasons.
This business of winning has become something of a habit at West Bloomfield. But it wasn’t always this way. Not in recent decades.
West Bloomfield lost regularly. It watched talented kids enroll elsewhere: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, Brother Rice, Country Day, Catholic Central. As freshman coach Darryl Bingham said while he eyeballed the closing moments of Tuesday’s practice, “Football used to be ho-hum here.”
Not anymore. The Lakers were 8-1 last season and enjoyed winning so much they decided to make a party of it in 2015. West Bloomfield has had three shutouts (Troy, Stoney Creek, and Lake Orion) and has outscored its victims, 340-117.
Many showed the way
Bellamy got here by way of Lloyd Carr, the retired Michigan coach who had recruited him. Bellamy spent time with three NFL teams, including the Lions, but was ready by his late 20s to consider a new life.
But what would it be? Selling medical devices, which he had been invited to do for a promising payday, didn’t thrill him. He instead wanted to do something that would leave a mark. Something that might influence a community.
He talked with Carr, who had just left the sidelines to become an associate athletic director at Michigan.
“Why don’t you try high school coaching and teaching,” Carr suggested.
Now this had a ring to it. Bellamy had his undergraduate degree from Michigan. Quickly, he got busy wrapping up a masters in education from Wayne State.
He was going to coach and teach full-time. At just the place that needed him.
“It was tough at first,” Bellamy said, sitting in West Bloomfield’s athletic offices an hour before practice. “I was from Louisiana and the culture was different there. High school football there was like a religion. We (Archbishop Shaw High) had a top-10 program.
“And so, here I was, 28, and I really had no idea what was ahead. My high school coach (Hank Tierney) said it would take four to five years. And at first, I tried doing everything, and I just got so stressed and tired.
“We had some three-win, two-win seasons, and that had a lot to do with my inexperience. I learned by failures. The biggest thing was being thrown into the fire. Outside of the Catholic League, this (Oakland Activities Association) was the most competitive league in Michigan. Five coaches here had won state championships.”
One of those coaches, Lake Orion’s Chris Bell, had given him some important assurance.
“Once you figure it out,” Bell told him, “you’ll have success.”
The same thought was shared by Tyrice Grice, Bellamy’s defensive coordinator, who saw West Bloomfield’s challenge as similar to one he had inherited and revamped earlier at Detroit Renaissance.
Like a father
Soon, Bellamy made his own discovery. It wasn’t what he had anticipated.
“What I found was that there were elements — social, academic and home life,” he said. “That was the missing link I had to understand and address.”
He had to keep good kids “in the neighborhood,” as he refers to it, and away from the prestige private schools. He also had to meld into an academics and athletics galaxy kids who might not have been raised with the same resources and opportunities.
It was a message echoed by his wife, Aamira, daughter of former Lions running back Dexter Bussey, who was from Bloomfield Hills and knew something about the connecting threads of community and students’ dreams, especially if those teenagers had options, as athletes often do.
“Sometimes, we take things for granted,” said Bellamy, a cordial man who can turn serious as quickly and crisply as he once ran pass routes. “I grew up with a mom and a dad. Some of these kids didn’t.
“Sometimes, if there’s an issue at home, they’ll ask: ‘Coach, what do I do? I need to get on a website to check the NCAA clearinghouse. How do I get online.’
“Or, ‘Coach, I don’t know how to talk to my teacher about this.’ Or, ‘I have to baby-sit tonight and I don’t have any transportation. Can you pick me up?’
“You have to realize, I see these kids from 7 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. — they see me more than anyone else. And yet you had so many of these kids, who haven’t had father figures. Kids who had lofty goals of playing college football before 100,000, but who in some cases lacked the GPAs, or the support, or the test scores.
“You have to be a father, a family figure, to these kids.”
He gets help on the mentoring side, he said, “from the entire staff,” and from so many faculty members.
Herrington a big help
But the man who is big on relationships also knew construction had to begin early. It is why he coaches middle school basketball during the winter. There, he got to know Jackson, as well as Eddy Wilson, a West Bloomfield defensive tackle now playing at Purdue, not to mention Khalid Kareem, the superstar defensive end from Harrison who is headed for Notre Dame.
He wonders also, in a sweetly ironic way, how much that man whom he hugged last Friday night, Herrington, had to do with West Bloomfield’s turnaround.
Herrington and Bellamy were introduced a few years ago by Drew Stanton, the former Michigan State star and Lions quarterback who played for Herrington. Bellamy and Stanton had become friends during their Lions days and Stanton thought two coaches, one esteemed and established, the other on his way, should talk about kids and programs and success.
“We’d grab lunch, or he’d send a coach over to consult with us — whatever he could do to help me get things going,” Bellamy recalled.
“Three years ago, in a kind of teacher-versus-student game, we lost to them (Harrison) by 20 points.
“Friday night,” Bellamy said, referring to last week’s 20-14 triumph, “John came up to me after the game, gave me a hug, and said: ‘I’m proud of you.’
“And that’s when it hit me.”
What hit him, of course, is that kids and teams and lives in fact could be enriched by something called high school football.
“When he got the job, we talked a lot, and I told him, there’s a lot more to this than Xs and Os, for sure,” Herrington said this week. “He’s a very good leader who has the respect of the kids, he’s got a very good staff of assistant coaches around him, and he just relates so well to the players.
“His team is also very talented, which never hurts. But it’s getting the kids there buying into the program. He’s got them believing in the West Bloomfield program.”
That was the gist of four Lakers players’ testimony as they took a breather following Tuesday’s practice.
Jackson, the Michigan State recruit who was pursued by Michigan and Ohio State, mentioned he and so many of his teammates had “started young” in their student lives and that a veritable “brotherhood” of loyalty and commitment had been forged.
Jacob Phillips, a Lakers offensive tackle, said the victory over Harrison had been “a rush” given his long friendship with Kareem. But more important, he said, was the triumph for players who had bonded tightly, ever since Bellamy had them attend a “lock-in” retreat for three days before August practices began.
Justin Clark, a defensive back, as well as fireplug center Grant Bingham, had similar sentiments, crediting Bellamy for making players feel governed and focused.
“Coach Bellamy always gets us in the best spot,” Clark said. “it’s his style of coaching.”
The Lakers are in a pretty good spot, for sure. They’re in the playoffs. They haven’t been beaten yet. And the way things are going for Bellamy and his boys at high-flying West Bloomfield, they just might keep it up.