Honoring lost teammates fuel Walled Lake Central, Western football teams

By Matt Schoch
Special to The Detroit News

As they prepare to open their high school football seasons in high-profile games at local colleges, players at rival Walled Lake Central and Walled Lake Western won’t have to look far for motivation.

In addition to a huge stadium and a big crowd, players will be reminded by season-long memorials they can’t miss about fallen teammates they won’t forget.

Walled Lake Western head coach coach Alex Grignon says his team will play each game for Justin Lee, a teammate who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in June. "Our message to his mother and father is, 'We're all Justin Lee ...'"

“It’s been tough. It’s been the worst offseason in my coaching career,” Walled Lake Central coach Bob Meyer said. “Walled Lake Western called me when they had their tragedy and asked, ‘How did you handle it? You guys were amazing.'

“I said, I don’t know if it’s amazing when the pain never goes away, and the kids struggle every day with it.”

The healing continues for Central, which lost Tanner Bryan, and Western, which lost Justin Lee, as their football teams take the field this week to open the season.

With Bryan’s No. 43 on their helmets, and tattoos remembering their teammate on some of their arms, Central opens at 1 p.m. Saturday against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium in the "Battle at the Big House."

Western will open its season at 7 p.m. Thursday against Detroit Catholic Central in the Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University. There, the Warriors always will have a flag on the sidelines, as they have all training camp and in the weight room this summer, with Lee’s No. 93 and “Forever A Warrior” stitched on it.

“It’s in the locker room and we bring it out on the field when we’re practicing, just for motivation,” said Western senior quarterback Sam Johnson III, who has committed to play at Boston College. “When we’re tired, or sometimes feeling sorry for ourselves, we can look over at the flag and gives us some motivation.

“It’s a reminder to just have fun and be sure to ball out.”

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New Western coach Alex Grignon took over the football program shortly after Lee’s death, and the team presented the flag and banner to his parents.

“It’s going to lead us out into games where he’s just kind of always with us,” Grignon said. “Our message to his mother and his father is, ‘We’re all Justin Lee. We want you to come to all our games and feel a part of it and be able cheer on all of us just like we were Justin.’

“When things get tough and push comes to shove, we can remember him and he’s not able to play the game anymore, and that’s something we can’t take for granted.”

Western retired No. 93 for Lee, who would’ve been a sophomore this season. The 14-year-old was killed in a hit-and-run accident while riding his bike home from a friend’s house on June 11. 

Bryan, 16, died Feb. 5 from injuries suffered during an accident while he was working on his car in his driveway. He was to be a senior team leader at Central this fall.

Bryan’s close friend and Central teammate Joey Brincat joined teammates Jake Perry, Justin Blackburn and Reid Oblak in getting tattoos for Bryan on their arms.

The team had a ceremony Monday to open practice week for Saturday’s opener, putting Bryan’s 43 on their helmets for the season instead of the traditional Vikings horn.

“We play in remembrance and with motivation to just honor him, to play and win games for him,” Brincat said. “He worked harder than I think any of us, in practices and games, we’ll have the 43 on our helmets and our team shirts say ‘Tanner Tough’ on the back, so we just honor him in every aspect that we can.

“After he passed, we thought we need a big way to honor him because this season is not about us anymore, it’s about him and making him proud.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.