RIVALS SERIES: Port Huron, Port Huron Northern face off for 53rd time, playing for ‘The Brick’
PORT HURON — Both coaches in Friday’s intra-city rivalry between Port Huron and Port Huron Northern can commiserate with exactly how Dawson Leffler and the rest of the Big Reds seniors are feeling, wanting to get ‘The Brick’ back.
“It means a lot. Since I’ve been on varsity, we’ve never been in possession of it. It would just mean a lot to end my last year, with all my teammates — we have a lot of returners that just really want it back,” said Leffler, a PHHS senior who plays free safety and wide receiver. “Like absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
It’s the same thing both coaches went through.
When Mullins was a senior for the Big Reds in 1990, they hadn’t had possession of ‘The Brick’ — the rivalry’s traveling trophy — in six seasons. Unfortunately, Port Huron would lose the rivalry game that season, 28-13, and wouldn’t get ‘The Brick’ back until 1996.
When Roelens was a senior for PHHS in 2003, playing quarterback under then-offensive coordinator Mullins, ‘The Brick’ had been at Northern since 1997.
“Yeah, I do, because Northern had beaten us for seven, eight years in a row. It was one of those things, the first time winning it for a while. That was nice as a player, for sure,” said Roelens, now in his fifth season as the head coach at Northern, who has been able to walk past the traveling trophy in the Northern athletic office each of the last two seasons. “It’s awesome, because it’s a representation of the time and work the kids have put in, and you have put in as a coach. It’s just nice to have that feeling that ‘Hey, we have this for another year.’”
Named after Cecil V. “Brick” Fowler, the trophy — known affectionately by the combatants as ‘The Brick’ — was created in 1966 to celebrate the incipient rivalry that was birthed with the opening of Northern high school two years earlier. Port Huron won the first meeting in 1966 by a 33-7 mark, but the Huskies own a 34-18 mark in the rivalry headed into Friday’s 53rd meeting.
“That’s definitely something the kids look forward to, is trying to win, so that trophy stays in our building for the next year. Obviously, that’s a nice incentive to have that, because there’s a lot of history with that. That trophy’s been around for a while, basically documenting it since the inception of the rivalry. … That’s pretty important, something that we take a lot of pride when that trophy’s in our building,” said Mullins, who noted that the trophy also goes in the Port Huron athletic office when the Big Reds have it. “It’s something that we’re going to put on display, as a reminder for our kids and for everyone who come into our building that that’s ours. It’s obviously important to Port Huron alumni that it stays on this side of the town.”
Mullins passed Fowler (1929-39, 61-24-7) for second on the school’s all-time wins list in 2016, and became Port Huron’s all-time wins leader this season with a Week 3 win over Fraser, surpassing Bob Hayes (1948-63, 71-61-7).
Both of those men were instrumental in the growth of athletics in Port Huron, and both started out as the head football coach at what was then the lone high school. Fowler led the Big Reds to their second ‘mythical’ state title in 1937.
He was also instrumental in building the stadium the two schools share today — 5,500-seat Memorial Stadium, dedicated to the town’s World War II veterans. The Big Reds played at South Park Field in the 1930s, then moved to Grand Trunk Park — which had lights for night games — in 1944, then into Memorial Stadium in 1947.
That’s where the memories of most modern participants in the rivalry were made.
“Oh, I loved coming to the games. Just coming with all my family,” Leffler said. “We’d all come on Fridays to the home games, sit up high in the stands, get to watch — Mark Chapman was a big idol when he played here, for sure. … I always liked being around it, liked the atmosphere.”
Same with his coach.
“Oooh, man, it goes way back, because I had older sisters who went to school here. Shoot, I was second or third grade when I first saw the Big Reds play. It goes back quite a ways, then obviously being a player, too. Just to remember what it was like to be in Memorial Stadium, even as a kid, to watch games — you know, I think that’s when I fell in love with football — but you could tell at a young age that it was important to a lot of people, and the community really was supporting it. I think my first thing was just realizing, man, there are a lot of people who watch football, like football,” Mullins said of his first memory of the rivalry.
“It’s one of the best places to play, just because the fans are so tight to the field. There’s no track separating the sidelines. Everything’s right on top of you, and our kids really appreciate playing in a stadium like that. It’s something we talk about for all our home games.”
As Port Huron’s athletic director, Fowler made the 1948 decision to hire Hayes, who would lead the Big Reds to two more ‘mythical’ state titles — 1950 and 1953 — in the pre-playoff era of titles awarded by rankings.
Hayes stepped down at Port Huron in 1963 to become the first AD at the newly-created Northern, and took along with him Jim Bates, who would coach the Huskies from 1965 to 1982, going 12-4 against the Big Reds.
Mullins’ initial memories of the rivalry probably came in the era of Ken Semelsberger, who stabilized the Big Reds program when he arrived in 1978, after it had lost 26 straight games, and gone through six coaches in 15 years, less than 20 years removed from Hayes leading PHHS to a 28-game win streak in the early 1950s.
“I just knew I wanted to be around football and wanted to teach. … I appreciate being part of the game, and just trying to make a positive experience for the kids,” said Mullins, who only missed games in the rivalry when he was away at college at Saginaw Valley State.
This year, there’s an added bonus to the mix — the lead in the Macomb Area Conference’s Blue Division. Both teams come in 5-1 overall, and 3-0 in the MAC Blue. Since joining the MAC in 1990, the two schools have only been in the same division for nine of 30 seasons.
“MAC Blue, rivalry, playing for ‘The Brick’ — that’s a lot of our season,” Leffler said. “We just try and have a lot of energy all week at practice. … After Friday, we got a little bit to celebrate it (the win), but as soon as Saturday, Sunday came, we were watching film, getting prepared, just staying as focused as we can. We’ve been focused all year, done a good job with it, but this week’s just a little different. …
“It’s so big — the whole town is going to be here. The ‘Crosstown Showdown,’ that’s what everyone knows it as. It’s not just a normal ‘Friday Night Lights’ game. It’s different. It’s more amped up. The stands are always packed, and people are always in the end zones. Both sides of the town come together.”
The added juice for this year’s game is just a bonus.
“The people in Port Huron really get behind the game for both high schools. Being that both teams are having good years, I think it’s even more people that have some interest in it, so that’s a good thing,” Mullins said. “Regardless of the records of the two teams, it means so much to the kids involved. I don’t ever remember it being less emotional from year to year. It’s always an emotional game, and it means a lot to the seniors who are playing from both schools — it means so much to them, to have that a part of their resume. … I know that’s cliche to say the records don’t matter, but if you look at the scores, there’s a lot of competitive games, close games. You know that you’re going to get their best — their best focus, their best effort in a game like this.”
The rivalry hasn’t necessarily been a bitter one over the years, and it’s been much closer in recent seasons than it was in the past.
“I respect coach Mullins as much as possible — I mean, I played for him when I was there — so we have much respect for each other. That makes it nice, because the kids can see that we’re not trashing and bashing each other. It’s just not something we want to do, because at the end of the day, we are the same community at large,” Roelens said. “In recent years, it’s a pretty packed house. It’s just a fun thing, because if you grow up here, you either went to Northern, or you went to High … and this is the one that brings out the ‘Go Big Reds’ or ‘Go Huskies’ in whatever alumni you represent.”
Both coaches went through this rivalry week as players, but now it’s a bit different as coaches — neither of them want their teams to get too amped up too early in the rivalry week.
“It’s a totally different mindset, because I’m a firm believer that the kids are going to be a reflection of you a little bit, so if you stay calm in practice, and stay calm in the game, and just remind them, generally the kids are going to respond to how you are. If you’re flying off the handle, they’re probably going to start flying off the handle,” Roelens said.
But does he still get amped up for it, himself?
“Oh, yeah. If you’re not, you’re not living,” he said. “This is the best part about high school football.
“We have two high schools in one community, and it’s one night when we can both put on a show for our town. It’s awesome.”
PORT HURON vs. PORT HURON NORTHERN PRIMER
Playoff seasons: 9 (2003-04, 2007-12, 2014)
District titles: 1 (2011)
Mythical state titles: 4 (1925*, 1937, 1951, 1952) — won 68 percent of their games from 1923-1952. 1925 team was unbeaten, unscored-upon
State title coaches: Charles Bonnett (1924-26), Cecil V. “Brick” Fowler (1929-39), Harry Anderle (1944-47), Bob Hayes (1948-63)
Conferences: Eastern Michigan League (at least 1950-1989), Macomb Area Conference Red (1990-92), MAC White (1993-2000), MAC Blue (2001-11, 2016-present), MAC White (2012-15)
Conference titles (1955-present): 1958, 1964, 1995, 1996, 2003 (tie), 2004 (tie), 2007 (tie), 2011, 2012, 2014 (tie), 2017 (tie)
Port Huron coaching history (modern era)
Tubby Meyers — 1920-22 — (14-13-5)
Ralph “Sod” French — 1923 — (4-3-1)
Charles Bonnett — 1924-1926 — (17-11-1) — 1925 mythical state title
Ernie Gerke — 1927-1928 — (10-7-1)
Cecil V. “Brick” Fowler — 1929-1939 — (61-24-7) — 1937 mythical state title
Charles Cook — 1940-1941 — (4-11-1)
Frank Secory — 1942-1943 — (9-5)
Harry Anderle — 1944-1947 — (24-10-1) — 1947 team unbeaten, ranked No. 3
Bob Hayes — 1948-1963 — (71-61-7) — 1950 and 1953 mythical state titles
Jim Bates — 1964 (3-5-1)
Hal Willard — 1965-1966 — (2-15-1) — 1-0 vs. PHN
Jim Dickinson — 1967-1968 — (4-14) — 0-2 vs. PHN
Mike Maul — 1969-1971 — (1-16-1) — 1-2 vs. PHN
Art Willick — 1972-1975 — (7-29) — 0-4 vs. PHN
Rich King — 1976-1977 — (0-18) — 0-2 vs. PHN
Ken Semelsberger — 1978-1982 — (17-18) — 2-2 vs. PHN
Tom Rodenbaugh — 1983-1991 — (40-41) 2-7 vs. PHN
Jim Rathje — 1992-1997 — (23-31) 1-5 vs. PHN
Eddie Kindle — 1998-2006 — (31-52) — 2-7 vs. PHN
Ryan Mullins — 2007-present — (74-49) — 9-3 vs. PHN*
* — passed Fowler for 2nd on PHHS all-time wins list in 2016, and became school’s all-time wins leader with a Week 3 win over Fraser this season, surpassing Hayes.
PORT HURON NORTHERN
Playoff seasons: 6 (1986, 1999, 2010, 2016-18)
District titles: 1 (2018)
Conferences: Eastern Michigan League (1966-89), Macomb Area Conference Red (1990-01) MAC White (2002-07), MAC Blue (2008-13, 2018-present), MAC Gold (2014-17)
Conference titles (1966-present): 1970, 1986, 1988, 2002 (tie), 2018
Port Huron Northern coaching history
Jim Bates — 1965-1982 — (78-63-3) — 12-4 vs. PHHS
Pete Woods — 1983-1985 — (5-22) — 1-2 vs. PHHS
Craig Dahlke — 1986-1996 — (70-31) — 10-0 vs. PHHS
Casey Kucsera — 1997-2009 — (44-74) — 8-5 vs. PHHS
Pat Connell — 2010-2014 — (18- 28) — 1-4 vs. PHHS
Larry Roelens — 2015-present — (34-14) — 2-2 vs. PHHS