The Last Crusade
By Todd Davis
Life Lessons, God, and Football in a Northern Town
An August sun pushes its way up a hazy blue sky looking down on the freshly cut grass of a football field where a couple of dozen players are practicing for the upcoming football season. The sun hangs there, watching, knowing that football season means fall and this is summer’s last stand. Underneath the bright sun are the Muskegon Catholic Central Crusaders, practicing a play, and also learning a new language. The H-back hesitates, starts to go in motion, then stops looking back at head football coach Steve Czerwon.
“Alright, everyone in, let’s go over it and run it again.” Coach Czerwon has spent two days teaching his players new terminology that will allow the offense to audible the H-Back from a slot position into the backfield allowing the team to go from a spread formation to a backfield heavy T depending on what the defense is presenting. The quarterback needs to relay this information to not only the H-back, but also the lineman and the other backs; different formations, different blocking schemes, and different responsibilities.
Two days might seem like a long time to run a play until you realize the play is only the result of a foundation being laid, that not only teaches the Crusaders new terminology and offensive personnel packages, it also teaches them lessons about life they will carry with them long after the sun has set on their football careers.
Coach Steve Czerwon
Steve Czerwon, an athletic 46-year-old, former quarterback for the Crusaders who still looks like he could play on a Friday night, has been the coach of Muskegon Catholic Central (MCC) for a decade but that only tells part of the story. He won a State Championship for the Crusaders in 1991 as a player and was an assistant coach with the team for nine years before being hired to replace Catholic coaching legend, Mike Holmes. Counting his playing career with the Crusaders, Czerwon has spent three decades with the team. He isn’t alone in forming deep roots with the MCC community, every current assistant coach at MCC is a graduate of the school, the most recent in 2012 and stretching all the way back to 1973 in defensive coordinator Mike Ribecky. Ribecky will be entering his 47th season with the Crusaders this year.
Czerwon hit the ground running after taking over the reins of the storied MCC football program, a team that has compiled a 513-213-7 record since the school opened in 1953. Steve’s teams won four straight Michigan D8 championships en route to his record of 95-21, including a playoff mark of 26-5 during his tenure. But wins and losses are only a part of the story. Coaching and teaching at MCC is much more than what happens on the field. Czerwon is building a foundation for what transpires after the victories on the gridiron. As a small school in Michigan, virtually no one here is going to end up in the NFL one day. Football here is a time to learn about who you are as a person while developing the faith and foundations that will help you for a lifetime.
Success on the field has brought opportunities for Coach Czerwon, bigger salaries at bigger schools with bigger budgets. And yet, he has stayed at MCC. Why stay, I asked Steve.
“ I think it comes down to having a vocation, a calling for something. A lot of people have jobs. A vocation is different. It’s something that you know inside yourself that is what you were meant to do.”
Czerwon, over the years, has supplemented his salary coaching and teaching students at MCC in history and socials studies, by painting in the summer and he spends many off-season weekends working at the salon, The Finishing Touch that he owns with his wife, Jana. Even so, he’s made sacrifices pursuing what he views as more important than commodities money can buy.
“If I’m not here teaching these young men to become the next generation of Catholic leaders, who would it be? We have something here that has taken decades to build. We can never take that for granted.”
What does Catholic Football mean?
God and Faith are an important part of the players’ lives at Muskegon Catholic. Before each football game, MCC has a full mass conducted by the school priest. Each player gets quiet time with God to reflect on his faith and the challenges he will face in the game ahead. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds have a chance to realize the incredible love that Jesus has for them at that moment. They realize he is an active participant in their lives. Jesus isn’t a distant name from the past enshrined in a big book. He isn’t dead, he lives among us in the sacraments. Wins and losses, successes and failures are important but so is learning about Jesus and how he is a dynamic presence in the players’ lives.
Educating young people in the Catholic faith, and trying to bring them up in the Catholic tradition is part of the mission statement at MCC. As a 17-year-old a player may not know what being a Catholic truly is, but they will years later. Coach Czerwon explains;
“When seniors leave high school they aren’t a finished product. Lessons learned at 17 will show up when they are 37. A lot of teachers express frustration over a student saying they didn’t grow or achieve their full potential. I don’t see it that way. Education isn’t fast food. It’s about installing fundamentals that a person can tap into along their journey through life.”
Where does Wisdom come from? Philosophers and theologians have struggled with this question. With age, for certainty, but not all old people are wise. Experiences in life make wisdom grow in people, however, nothing grows without seeds and nurturing. The coaches at MCC plant lessons on and off the field into their players so years later a running back can look back and tap into what they learned during their time with the Crusaders. Something learned on the field in August, or a message from God experienced in a Mass on a Friday in October pays dividends down the road.
Catholic Football in a Changing World
There used to be three Catholic schools in Muskegon. MCC is the only one that remains and it has an enrollment of 125 students. Muskegon is the type of mid-sized industrial town that used to provide the economic backbone for America. Towns in Michigan like Muskegon, Saginaw, and Flint were hubs of production in the automotive industry bringing people out of poverty and providing a middle-class lifestyle. Muskegon built tanks in World War 2, sending Shermans to Europe to fight fascism.
Most of those factories are gone now. Those that remain, after decades of union busting, no longer pay the wages that once provided a great life to men and women without college degrees. In towns across the state of Michigan, from Muskegon to Kalamazoo, to Saginaw, multiple Catholic high schools have closed and been merged into one, like Kalamazoo United or Nouvel Catholic Central over the past thirty years. Enrollment in all these institutions has been on a steady decline. The Detroit Free Press reports that 46 Catholic schools have closed in the last decade.
The reality of these enrollment numbers has tangible consequences for MCC and presents challenges for the football program. The Crusaders have no freshman or junior varsity teams; everyone is on the varsity. In 2023, that amounts to 27 kids. Steve has 8 seniors on this year’s football team. Far from being uncommon, that is right around the average that he has to work with each season. Quick math will tell you that the 27 players on the team represent ⅕ of the school’s population, but since we are only dealing with boys, 27 students out of approximately 63 at MCC play football. That comes out to a staggering 43% of boys enrolled at MCC have a football career, a number far higher than you’ll find at public schools.
Coach Czerwon achieves such a high level of participation by being active in all facets of Crusader football which extends from the varsity team all the way down to the grade school level. The coaches who teach 7th, and 8th graders are teaching them football and how the Crusaders play it. They are, in essence, a farm system for the varsity team.
Czerwon also has a philosophy that every single kid matters. No matter what a kid looks like in 7th grade, regardless of size or athletic ability, you have no idea what they will be as a junior in high school so you have to invest the same amount of time, teaching, and effort into each one of them.
This attention to players continues throughout their careers in the MCC football program. At large schools, there might be as many as 80 to 100 players on the team. A player could be the 6th wide receiver and they are lost in the numbers game. Whether he succeeds or not isn’t a concern for the coach, he has so many players to replace him.
No one is disposable at MCC. Coach Czerwon finds a role for every senior, regardless of how their athletic prowess turned out.
“Not everyone is going to become an all-state player. If you’ve been a Crusader since 7th grade, put in the time and work, you’ve earned a role. Whether that’s as a starting linebacker or a leader on special teams, you are going to be a big part of the team. Development matters. You have to develop everyone, not just the players you know will be your stars.”
Muskegon Catholic has faced the challenges caused by declining enrollment with a comprehensive systematic organization of Crusader football and by personalizing the football experience for players within the system. Everyone matters when building the team.
The Future of Catholic Football is Unclear
Can the enrollment declines in Catholic high schools in mid-sized towns like Muskegon be reversed? Muskegon County has a population of around 150,000 with around 7% registered Catholics. This is half the number of Catholics from Mike Ribecky’s era in the 70s. Catholicism, even as the largest religious group in Michigan, has seen membership in Michigan’s Catholic parishes drop from 2.2 million to 1.8 million, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). A deeper dive into the numbers reveals a situation even more striking. Enrollment in Catholic schools is down 49%. Among American adults who were raised Catholic, 41% are no longer with the church.
And while the overall decline and participation of Catholics has a direct impact on how many students attend MCC, this is not the only reason. Over the past three decades, public schools in America have gotten much better. A large influx of funding with modern facilities and resources has made public schools, especially suburban ones, an attractive choice for parents. There is a never-ending supply of money for public schools. There are no limits on the number of times a millage can be on the ballot asking for increases to school spending. If the millage fails five times, it can be put on a sixth, and in many cases, millage proposals end up passing on random dates in the calendar year during a special election when voter turnout is extremely low.
Catholic Schools charge tuition, and while there are grants and scholarships for parents who need financial aid, for many parents it is an out-of-pocket cost they no longer want to pay. Demographics within the middle class in America are no longer the same as they were decades ago. Outsourced, downsized, and underpaid the American middle class has bled money since Ronald Reagan. The Polish, Irish, and Italian factory workers and small business owners who sent their kids to Catholic schools have almost disappeared as a social and economic bloc.
Upper Middle-class parents have different priorities. Having a large house in Spring Lake and status in a lake community with social club memberships takes up the money that was used to go to Catholic education in years past. Parents increasingly want their kids to be happy in an environment they see as welcoming and diverse. Millennials and Generation Z have a tendency to equate Catholicism with conservative politics.
There are some within the Catholic school system that advocate for raising tuition for more exclusivity. This has worked on the East Coast and in certain affluent areas of Michigan like Traverse City and the Detroit suburbs. Counties like Muskegon and Saginaw, due to the deindustrialization of America, no longer have the economy to support this financial paradigm.
Coach Czerwon is aware of the trends and he admits there are no easy answers.
“Are we ever going to have 300 kids again? Probably not. But there will always be a need for Catholic education. We offer something here that kids can’t get elsewhere. Something that matters. And that’s important to remember.”
The world changes and yet demographics do not equal destiny. As people grow more and more disillusioned by the coldness of technology and the displacement they feel from modern living, there might very well be a movement back toward community and interpersonal relationships. If that happens, people might once again seek the comfort that faith and religion provide.
The Team, the Team, the Team
This season Steve has put up a sign in the locker room that says;
The Only Thing That Matters is the Success of the Team
“I gave my upperclassmen their anti-hazing speech this week. We need to be inclusive with no freshman or JV squad. Every person is on this team. If it’s between you hazing some freshman and having a TEAM, that choice was decided long ago.
Every role at MCC is vital, from the quarterback to a player on the scout team. With only 27 players, there are no disposable parts. Every player is part of a fraternity that stretches back for decades; from Mike Ribecky in the 70s to Steve in the 90s to the current roster today. Framed pictures hang on the walls of a hallway in the high school of past players who achieved All-State status but leading into the locker room are the larger, framed pictures of the Crusader teams that won 13 State championships. Individual accolades will happen, but only in the greater framework of the team. Steve reflected on this;
“You’re trying to give the kids a moment on the field where they win games. I listened to a conversation a while ago and this guy was bragging about how many yards he ran for and how many touchdowns he scored. Then someone asked him, weren’t you guys 2-7? And what could he say? What do all the numbers matter if your team wasn’t a success? At Catholic, we want to maximize success in relation to the team. A wide receiver might go three games without catching a pass, but what they’ve been doing downfield throwing blocks on the second level is just as important to the team’s success as catching a slant for a touchdown. Teaching young men to set aside their own ego for the good of the team is what I’m trying to acomplish with every practice and every game. Those are values you only find when you’re part of something bigger than yourself, a team. That’s not only Crusader football but also a part of community and faith.”
Memories, good and bad, from high school, will stay with a person for the rest of their lives. And so will lessons learned, even though we don’t know it at the time. Almost all of us remember the coaches we had in high school; men and women who taught us the rules of the game and life lessons that we’d only realize many years later. Muskegon Catholic Central is a small school in a Northern town. In the scope of our national landscape, it is insignificant, and yet, what they are doing there has value. Steve Czerwon and the Crusader staff are teaching 27 young people how to be men. They give them a strong foundation on which they can build their lives in this increasingly chaotic and aimless world. And that matters.