LANSING — Glowing wristbands filled the night sky at Grand Ledge on Friday as football players paid tribute to fallen heroes following a victory over Okemos.
A similar type of event will take place Saturday night at Okemos where a large crowd is expected when the Chiefs host rival Mason in a soccer game designed to raise awareness and funds for pediatric cancer.
Those events are part of what’s become a growing trend in mid-Michigan and around the state: High school athletic events becoming a resource in raising money and awareness for various causes.
“I’ve been really impressed with how many sports teams and school districts have really stepped up to try to use athletic events to help give back to their communities,” said Steve Baker, who is in his 15th year as an athletic director and sixth at Grand Ledge. “We do an amazing job of it here in Grand Ledge and almost 100 percent of it is coach driven. These are things that our coaching staffs are coming up with, and these are things that our coaching staffs are committed to because they believe in the message that it’s sending to our kids to give back and to give back to the community.
“I see it here in Grand Ledge, but every place that we go it seems like somebody has something or some cool event that they come up with that gives back to their community. I didn’t see that when I first started, you’d see it sporadically. You see it a lot now, and I think it’s a really, really nice thing that our coaches in the area are doing.”
It’s more than giving back, and high school athletes said they have learned valuable lessons from participating in games for causes.
“I think it kind of puts things in perspective,” said Mason senior Holden Dippel, who has played in soccer games to raise money for cancer the last three years. “Obviously we take our high school seasons very serious and we want to do the best that we can. At the same time (the game is) bigger than high school soccer. It’s for cancer, which is a huge, huge disease and it’s terrible. It just really puts things in perspective and it’s really cool that we can go play soccer and raise so much money for such a serious thing.”
Friday’s football contest at Grand Ledge marked its sixth annual “Fallen Heroes” game and included players wearing the last name of a fallen soldier on the back of their uniform. Comet football coach Matt Bird and Beth Boyd started the “Fallen Heroes” game at Grand Ledge to honor soldiers and educate their student-athletes. Proceeds from the wristbands went to The National Gold Star Family Registry, which benefits military families.
Many of the other teams at Grand Ledge have participated in events for causes, which included the boys and girls basketball programs teaming with rival Holt for a Coaches vs. Cancer game that raised money for the American Cancer Society.
Several teams at Okemos have also participated in events for causes such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. But the Compete for a Cause soccer game, which was started by Mason assistant Kevin Gunns four years ago, has become one of the area’s biggest events for a cause.
“We play a lot of big games at Okemos, but games like this mean the most to me because there’s something beyond the game that’s important,” Okemos athletic director Ira Childress said. “When you talk about athletics, that’s a great tool to really help for a lot of things besides actually playing. When you talk about games and causes like this, it’s a tool to something greater.”
The cause being played for Saturday hits home to Okemos senior captain Josh Duren, whose sister Paige was diagnosed with cancer when he was 11.
“It means the world (to play for my sister),” Josh said. He wore Paige’s name on his back during the contest last season. “Watching her go through two years of chemotherapy and radiation — it was amazing to see her fight through all of that.
“It means a ton to have her name on the back of my jersey when I go out there.”
Okemos was part of the Compete for a Cause event for the first time last season and teamed with Mason to raise $11,000 for pediatric cancer. Mason and Okemos hope to raise even more money Saturday for a cause that has impacted both communities.
“We have kids in our school right now that are dealing with childhood cancer,” Mason athletic director Greg Lattig said. “To make awareness of it, to give an understanding of what they’re dealing with and going through can impact the rest of the student bodies and both of our communities.
“It’s pretty amazing to see our kids rally around these kids that do deal with these kinds of cancers and such. The game brings a focus to that. It’s a nice avenue to use high school athletics for.”