It was a beautiful fall Friday afternoon at Kelloggsville’s recently renovated athletic stadium. High school teacher and first-year football coach Brandon Branch was bustling about, lugging sandwiches to the locker room, grabbing a set of rib pads for a wide receiver, adjusting a helmet here and shoulder pads there, talking to his assistant coaches, reminding players to put on their face masks and more.
On the original schedule for the 2020 season, this should have been hours before a home game against Calvin Christian. But Branch’s duties this day were pre-practice due to a COVID-abridged 2020 campaign.
Still, Branch wasn’t complaining.
In 2019, Kelloggsville had to forfeit its final three games of the season out of concern for player safety as the varsity roster dwindled to just a dozen players.
This fall, the first three games of the season were lost when the Michigan High School Athletic Association decided first to move football to spring 2021, and then decided instead to do an abridged 2020 season, starting this week.
As a result, Kelloggsville was looking at six straight scheduled games that had ended up being canceled, a situation likely few other schools in the state could claim.
‘I coach high school football so that I can provide my students with a safe place, one where they feel welcomed and accepted.’— Brandon Branch, teacher and first-year head coach
So, having Kelloggsville players back on the field — a week out from the team’s first game tonight, Sept. 18 against Northpointe Christian — was cause for both celebration and introspection, according to Branch.
“The way the (2019) season ended was heartbreaking,” he said, “but the decision to cancel was the correct one and hopefully the lessons learned will be lasting ones. We tell our players all the time to focus on what they can control, and sometimes I need to remind myself of that.
“So, what I can control is my ability to plan effective practices, develop sound strategy and build a positive atmosphere for our players to thrive in.”
Sports as an Opportunity to Impact Students
Branch was named Kelloggville’s varsity head coach in May, replacing longtime coach Don Galster, who resigned in January. But Branch is no stranger to the school or the football program.
He has taught science and math at the high school since 2008 and has been part of the football program that entire time, including as a junior varsity defensive coordinator for four years and varsity defensive coordinator for eight. He also is the varsity wrestling coach.
A former high school football player and wrestler at Jenison, and a 2007 graduate of Grand Valley State University, he said he jumped at the chance a dozen years ago to become part of the Kelloggsville football program. He figured that as a teacher he had a chance to impact students in the classroom, and as a coach he’d get an extra two-plus hours a day during the season to get to know kids and impact their lives in a positive way.
“I love Kelloggsville,” he said. “I love the cultural diversity of the student body and the overwhelming acceptance the students display towards each other. In my 12 years at Kelloggsville, I have probably learned as much from my students as they learned from me, and I am constantly amazed at the adversity my students have to overcome.”
As head football coach, he said he is excited to deepen his relationships with his students and to help them be thoughtful about the role football can play in their lives.
Reasons For Playing in the ‘Why Box’
Already he and his assistant coaches have created a “Why Box” for the 2020 team, something that will be at every practice and game. Players and coaches were asked to write down why they decided to play football this year. That “why” was then spoken aloud by each player and coach in front of the team before being put into the box to give players and coaches a visual reminder of why they decided to be part of the football team.
As for his why, Branch said simply: “I coach high school football so that I can provide my students with a safe place, one where they feel welcomed and accepted with the hope that they will become successful students and accountable athletes.
“My assistant coaches and I want to help create good people. We want our student-athletes to learn the benefits of hard work and integrity on the field so that they can become positive influences in their community.”
Branch uses the term student-athlete intentionally. Education is important to him. In addition to his undergraduate degree from Grand Valley, a bachelor of science degree in physics, he also has a master’s from GVSU in physics education and a master’s from Western Governors University in educational technology.
And he tries to bring his academic and athletic sides together whenever possible.
Problem-Solving in Both Academics and Athletics
“What I love about math, physics,” he said, “is the similar problem-solving process that students must become fluent in to be successful. You assess the situation, identify what you know for sure, make any necessary assumptions, then you build off your knowledge until you have reached the result.”
With a chuckle he added: “The same process can be applied to developing a game plan for football or a plan of attack for a wrestling match. And if what we are doing at practice can be explained effectively by relating it to physics or math, then I take that opportunity to expand my players’ academic and athletic knowledge.
“Discussions on center of mass and momentum have occurred during tackling circuits and on the wrestling mat, and my students have received ‘pep talks’ during class that closely resemble what my athletes have heard during halftime or in between periods!”
As for Kelloggsville’s long-awaited return to the football field tonight, Branch is sanguine.
“I would like to believe that when the ball is being teed up this Friday I will be at ease, and that we are ready to go have fun,” he said. “But I know that I will be nervous too and probably easing my anxiety with corny jokes.
“Once that ball takes flight though, all the anxiety will go away,” he added, “and I will be laser-focused on putting my players in the best situations possible to be successful.”