It was October 1982 and Cheboygan’s football team was riding a 43-game winning streak, which at the time was the third longest in state history.
Escanaba made its way down from the Upper Peninsula to play at Cheboygan. The Eskymos lead at halftime was only 14-7, but it was apparent Escanaba was clearly the better team.
Jerry Cvengros’ halftime message to his Escanaba players was to try to put the game out of reach as quickly as possible. He knew the impending loss would be devastating to the Cheboygan players and he thought a decisive win might help cushion the blow.
“That was Jerry Cvengros right there,” said Dean Altobelli, who ran for 307 yards that night. “It was so important to him to respect other people — your teammates, your opponents. You always respected your opponents.”
Cvengros passed away Monday night after complications following heart surgery. He was 80.
He is survived by his wife, Shelley and children Michael, Steven and David and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his daughter Lee Ann (Cvengros) Swasey. Visitation will take place at 10 a.m. Monday, April 7at St. Martha in Okemos. A funeral mass will follow at 11 a.m.
After graduating from Ironwood High School and the University of Wisconsin, where he played football, he settled back in the U.P. in Escanaba where he oversaw the student teaching of a Northern Michigan University student named Lloyd Carr and hired an NMU assistant coach named Tom Izzo to spend a week each summer teaching basketball to the school’s players and coaches.
Cvengros eventually found his way to Lansing where he served as the associate director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association and helped expand the football playoff system to include 256 teams.
But most of all, Cvengros was a football coach and he began in era that gave us greats like Ken Hofer at Menominee and Al Fracassa at Birmingham Brother Rice.
He became the head coach in 1962, beginning as terrific 23-year reign in which the Eskymos were 161-42-3. In 1981 became the only U.P. school to win a state title in the state’s largest class or division. One of Cvengros’ attributes was he was also able to relate to all of his players.
“When I started people weren’t allowing kids with long hair out for football,” said Dan Flynn, who assisted Cvengros for 13 years and succeeded him as coach. “He never made it an issue. Jerry’s strength was always respecting people and you worked on integrity and you worked on dignity and honesty every day. He’d look for the good in people and how kids could help themselves through football.”
A member of the MHSAA’s representative council, Cvengros joined the MHSAA on a full-time basis in 1988.
“He was the perfect combination of fairness, toughness and diplomacy, able to draw on a vast knowledge of MHSAA rules and an understanding of educational athletics fostered by his various experiences,” MHSAA executive director Jack Roberts said in a statement. “Jerry was known and respected statewide for his dedication and his contributions have had a lasting impact.”
Altobelli was deeply saddened with Cvengros’ passing, but it gave him an opportunity to reflect on how much Cvengros meant to him.
“It’s a great loss, but at the same time I think of how much I gained because of the affect he had on my life,” he said. “He was always somebody you could count on and I think of the moments, not necessarily the games. It was being at practice — he was like a mentor, another father-figure in your life who was educating you as you grew up during the years that you’re maturing. It affects your traits and your character.”
The last contact I had with Cvengros came in an e-mail on Feb. 23 following a column I wrote about Clarkston basketball coach Dan Fife. Fife coached his three sons and all became all-staters. But he said what the three have accomplished as husbands and fathers far outweighs their accomplishments in athletics.
Cvengros said he had met Fife a few years ago and was impressed with him and the column reminded him of coaching his three sons.
“Years go by, but much is the same with coaching and parenting,” Cvengros wrote. “Shelley and I will be married 59 years in October and stayed with one school in a great city to raise our family and four children. Hooray for the Fracassas, Hofers and Dan Fifes and many others who continue to teach young athletes how to compete and live as productive citizens.”
No one taught them better than Jerry Cvengros.