If you close your eyes tonight and look across the street from Sexton’s Edward Madjeski Stadium, you might see night-shift workers lined along the balconies at Fisher Body assembly plant.
They wouldn’t have missed this one.
Everett at Sexton for the CAAC Blue football title — not since 1997 have two Lansing schools played each other this late, both sitting atop of the area’s premier conference.
These days, the symbolism is more meaningful, even if partly a facade for the realities of a struggling school district.
Everett football coach Marcelle Carruthers regularly preaches to his players that “everything matters,” a lesson in how they present themselves and how they’re perceived.
To be above suburbia in the standings, next to another city school, nearly two decades after schools of choice began needlessly fleecing the district — that matters.
Even if not as much to the kids playing tonight — many of whom were born between when Michigan enacted its schools-of-choice legislation in 1996 and when Sexton beat Eastern 17 years ago.
To them, this is a backyard brawl between friends, some still neighbors. It’s personal, and more fun that way.
Sexton is 7-0 overall and 5-0 in conference play, two wins from its second straight undefeated regular season. Everett is 5-2 and 5-1, after beating Grand Ledge last week to earn a chance for a share of the title if it can beat the Big Reds.
“I think of (Sexton) just like that bully that’s across the block, that just keeps picking with you and picking with you, and one day you’re going to hit him in the mouth,” Everett senior captain and lineman Julian Mills said. “And, here it is, here it comes. Let’s do this.”
Thriving while dying
Sexton football coach Dan Boggan tries not to glance across the street these days, toward an empty sky filled with memories of what used to be.
The 2006 demolition of the massive light green General Motors plant, the heartbeat of Lansing’s Westside neighborhood, makes Sexton worthy of a Bruce Springsteen Rust Belt song.
Fisher Body, the shuttered nearby businesses, the closed little elementary school down the street — these were part of the fabric of the Sexton community.
“I don’t even look that way anymore,” Boggan said during Wednesday’s practice, nodding at acres of barren land.
“We took a lot of punches in a lot of different areas.”
Most noticeably, enrollment.
What’s remarkable about tonight’s showdown is it comes in a sport that requires large participation, and large people.
Fisher Body’s exit, though partly coincidental, coincided with a sizable dip in Sexton students, from 1,113 in 2004 to 980 two years later. By 2010, the hallways that once held 2,000 (and still more than 1,500 in the mid-’90s), were home to just 742 kids.
Today’s numbers are exaggerated on paper because seventh- and eighth-graders are in the building. Sexton’s high school athletic enrollment by latest count — just 652.
That’s fewer than Eaton Rapids and Williamston, which play in smaller CAAC divisions with similar-sized schools, and more than 1,000 fewer students than the two largest student populations in the CAAC Blue — Holt and Grand Ledge.
Sexton and Everett high schools see themselves everywhere they go. Former classmates, some of them still neighbors, who have opted to attend other school districts.
“Each week we face different teams and we’ll see young men, our kids will say, ‘Coach, that kid lives in Lansing. We play basketball with each other all the time,’ ” Carruthers said. “But we can’t worry about that. The only thing we can worry about is what we have at Everett High School. We know that it’s a concern. But there’s really nothing we can do about it.”
Actually, there is one thing, Marcelle. Keep coaching. Same for Boggan.
Sexton has 75 students in its football program, about one-fifth of its male enrollment.
Everett, which still has nearly 1,400 high school students, has 103 kids out for football.
Both coaches estimated more than half of their players would be at other schools, and possibly in other districts, if not for their relationship with the Sexton or Everett football program.
“I don’t want to think about it.” Boggan said. “It’s nightmarish.”
Football is a source of pride at Sexton. But it also presents a front for deeper issues there and throughout a district that no longer fields competitive teams — or teams at all, in some cases — in many sports, especially girls sports.
Minus Boggan or Carruthers — longtime friends who both played at Eastern, though not together, in the 1980s — it could easily happen in football.
Boggan, who joined the Sexton program in 1996 and took over as head coach in 2002, is sustaining something seemingly unsustainable. Carruthers pulled Everett football from the scrap heap in 2000. Without him, who knows?
A different era
Former Eastern star Josh Thornhill still believes Sexton’s Shawn Foster was out of bounds, before Foster’s game-winning touchdown run up the muddy sidelines in 1997.
“A couple of guys I stay in contact with, we joke about it all the time, that one long run he had, we swore he stepped out of bounds,” said Thornhill, who, like Foster, went on to play at Michigan State.
“I remember we worked so hard that week at stopping Shawn Foster,” continued Thornhill, now working in orthopedics and sports medicine in Tennessee. “And we did that week except for that one play.”
Boggan also remembers the critical moment of the Big Reds’ 7-6 victory, a game held at Everett, the last intra-city game of this magnitude.
“By the third step, I knew he was gone,” Boggan said of Foster’s run.
Late-season championship clashes between city teams were once commonplace — though less so after the mid-’80s, with the emergence of East Lansing, Grand Ledge and Holt. To alums of Sexton and Everett, and even Eastern, tonight matters.
“That’s bringing it back home, in our area, where it needs to be,” said former Sexton and MSU standout James Moore, who starred in those mid-’80s games, against Boggan at Eastern.
“Dan and I grew up together,” continued Moore, an assistant coach at DeWitt. “I used to idolize Marcelle when he played at Eastern. What these two have going on, and the way it impacts the community, it’s just phenomenal. I just hope and pray it continues.”
If you ask the players on either side of tonight’s game about the perils of schools of choice or games before they were born, they’ll look at you politely but without sound.
Their lives are happening now.
More recent history history, though, has weight.
These teams aren’t approaching tonight with the same goals, because they aren’t coming from the same places.
Everett is looking at Sexton. Sexton is eyeing a state title. The Big Reds haven’t forgiven themselves for a loss in last year’s state semifinals, and are the rare team that has enough returning pieces to get another shot.
“We’ve been working out together since the week after the loss,” senior running back Avonte’ Bell said. “We just couldn’t live with ourselves with how we played against Marine City.”
Everett, which beat Sexton two years ago before most of its current roster was on varsity, views the Big Reds, as stated previously, as a physical bully.
“They’re a good team, they run the ball hard, they play tough,” senior running back and linebacker Marvin Wright Jr. said. “You have to match that.”
Neither coach will claim this year’s team to be his most talented. But both boast about the cohesion, the brotherhood, and their players being unusually nice guys.
“It’s the best team I’ve ever been associated with, the way they play together, how much they care about each other,” Boggan said. “How hard they play for each other is something that’s special and it’s fun to see. They elevate each other’s play. And those things are characteristic of great teams.”