ST. IGNACE – Just more than 4 minutes remained in St. Ignace’s Week 7 game Oct. 10 against Ironwood in Gladstone, and the Saints led, 54-0, when one of the receivers approached St. Ignace coach Marty Spencer.
“Coach, you know we got 54,” the youngster said. “All we need is two touchdowns, one extra point and one two-pointer.”
Spencer shook his head in a dismissive manner. He understood his players’ lone goal was to honor their teammate who had worn No. 69 before being involved in a fatal car accident following their previous game.
But Spencer didn’t want to embarrass Ironwood’s players.
“I’m not running the score up,” he said. “I’m not putting the first string back in.”
The starters hadn’t played since early in the second quarter. The second team was running the offense while the junior varsity players, who had no game that week, were playing on defense.
But Ironwood scored a touchdown, and St. Ignace’s second-team offense scored again. Lukas Riordan, whose broken left hand prevented him from playing this season, went out to attempt the extra point that somehow made it over the crossbar.
Ironwood managed another touchdown on its next possession and, sure enough, St. Ignace responded with a touchdown to make the score 67-12.
Ironwood coach Ryan Niemi told his assistant: “He better go for two points.”
Spencer looked at his starting offense and sent them into the game to attempt a two-point conversion.
All of the St. Ignace fans and a bunch of the Ironwood fans knew what was going on, and it had nothing to do with winning or losing a game.
It had everything to do with senior Mitchell Snyder, the St. Ignace player who wore No. 69 and wasn’t at the game … at least not physically.
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Eight days before the Ironwood game, the Saints defeated Mancelona, 60-0, on Oct. 2 in their homecoming game, and Snyder was having the time of his life.
Snyder was the starting center, who recently had been moved to left tackle, and linebacker. He had an exceptional game and celebrated at the homecoming dance.
“He was with his girlfriend the whole time — he wouldn’t dance with any of us,” said Gage Kreski, St. Ignace’s all-state quarterback/safety. “He was just so happy that night, which kind of makes me happy.”
Snyder danced every dance with his girlfriend, junior Jordan Belleville. They had been a pair since she was in the seventh grade, and they had been serious for more than a year.
When the dance ended, Belleville drove her car home and Snyder drove his car to his father’s home in Moran, about 15 miles from St. Ignace.
On his way out of town, he stopped at the Holiday Station Store for gas and asked Abby Lalonde, who was working that night, for a coupon.
“I would joke with him about using a coupon to save money,” she said. “He ran out of gas before, and my brother had to go pull his truck back to the highway.”
Before he left the gas station, Snyder texted Belleville at 11:30 and asked if he could call her. A homecoming princess, she texted back that she was washing her hair — there were gobs of hairspray she needed to get out.
“I texted back about 12,” she said. “I figured he had fallen asleep … until I heard.”
Instead of taking I-75 to his dad’s house, Snyder was driving before midnight on Mackinac Trail in St. Ignace when Darrell Lovegrove’s vehicle crossed the center lane and hit Snyder almost head-on, according to Mackinac County Prosecuting Attorney Stuart Spencer. Snyder, who was wearing his seat belt, died at the scene. He was 17.
Lovegrove, 40, of St. Ignace was charged with operating while intoxicated causing death, a 15-year felony, and OWI third offense, a five-year felony. He is being held on a $1-million bond in Mackinac County Jail. The Mackinac County Sheriff’s Office and the prosecutor’s office did not disclose results of a blood-alcohol test for Lovegrove.
News of Snyder’s death shocked this tight-knit Upper Peninsula community just on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge.
The people of St. Ignace love their high school athletics and love their kids — everybody’s kids. And Snyder’s death shook these people to their core.
The St. Ignace police reached Snyder’s mother, Deb Brandstrom, and his stepfather, Bob Brandstrom, shortly after the accident. The officer asked Deb to sit down, and when he told her the news, her body went limp.
Word spread throughout the night. Deanna Kreski, Gage’s mother, went to Brandstroms’ home to be with Deb, her good friend.
“It was pure devastation,” Kreski said. “She didn’t know what to do or say. We just sat in silence for a good hour and just looked at each other and kind of wrapped our minds around what was to come.”
They had no idea what was to come.
Marty Spencer asked Deanna if the players and coaches could meet at their home that next day. At 1 p.m. that Saturday, Kreski’s basement was packed, but almost silent except for the sobbing.
“I know you guys are looking to me for the answer, but I don’t have it,” Spencer said. “Don’t be alone for a long period of time. I need you guys as much as you need me, because I’m falling to pieces.”
Losing Snyder was a blow to the community because he was such a good-natured, happy-go-lucky youngster who knew how to turn your bad day into a good day with a mere look.
“It seemed that if somebody was in a bad mood or I was having a rough day or practice wasn’t going the way it was supposed to, he was great at bringing us back to what’s important,” St. Ignace basketball coach Doug Ingalls said. “In the big picture, Mitchell was the kind of guy that every coach would love to have on their team.”
School officials decided to have a vigil Sunday night. Spencer was surprised to see some 500 people show up on the football field.
School was in session that Monday, but not much school was going on. Mats and pillows were spread around the gym floor, and many seniors spent the day there.
The funeral was that Wednesday, and the gym was packed with more than 1,500 people, including football and volleyball players from surrounding schools.
Deb is St. Ignace’s volleyball coach, and she was one of the speakers. The size of the crowd stunned her.
“I don’t like to talk in front of people,” she said. “I have a hard time, especially in a big group, but I had to do it for my Mitchell. And when I did look up, I stopped and I froze. It was, wow!”
The turnout was surprising, but not as much as the overwhelming number of people and schools that reached out to the family. Flowers came from the football team at Harbor Beach, and the family heard from the football program at Temperance Bedford, which is about as far south as you can get and still be in Michigan. Temperance Bedford had a football player die in 2013 after his car collided with a garbage truck.
Deb was contacted by a woman in Tennessee whose son has heard about Mitchell and asked if he could wear Mitchell’s number in the next game.
“In Mitchell’s last game he had eight tackles and recovered a fumble,” Deb said. “The next game, the player in Tennessee wore Mitchell’s number, and he had eight tackles and recovered two fumbles.”
Although he loved playing football and basketball — at least during the games — Snyder’s true love was the outdoors. He wanted to become a Department of Natural Resources officer, and he loved to hunt and fish, especially with his father, Brent.
“Since he was 3 years old, we’d go up to Dog Lake in Canada and fish,” Brent said. “He sat with me when I was hunting since he was 6. He didn’t have ton of decent bucks, but I know he had quite a few does that he had shot as a young kid.”
The youngster still talked about the time when he was 11 that his father got a bull moose with his bow, and he was looking forward to hunting moose with his father a year from now.
“He was going to go and totally hunt by himself with me,” Brent said. “He just loved life, period. Wherever he was at was his favorite thing.”
Snyder often spoke about living in Alaska, and he liked to watch TV shows about Alaska state troopers.
“He’d rather go hunt or go take a ride on the back roads,” Belleville said. “He was an outdoors person.”
But come game time, he was a football player through and through. And he was not someone you wanted to mess with on the field.
“The best thing about him was that, on the football field, he could be just a mean, tough hitter,” Kreski. “And off the field, as soon as he got off, he was the nicest person you could have.”
Snyder also made his presence felt in basketball, where he was not a big scorer, but he was an amazing passer for someone who was 6-feet-2, 220 pounds. He played basketball with a reckless abandon that endeared him to teammates and coaches.
“When he dove on the floor, the whole crowd had a smile on their face,” Ingalls said. “Here was a big boy on the floor. He made some tremendous passes. He’s made as good of passes as anybody we’ve had here in my 24 years now. He’s that kind of guy that wasn’t a scorer at all, but he could do a lot of things. He could guard post guys, he could guard perimeter guys.”
Senior Dylan Marshall met Snyder in day care when they were 2. They were in the same head-start program and were classmates ever since.
The neat thing about Snyder was that he was friendly with everyone in school — whether they were the best students, like Marshall, or the best athletes, like Kreski.
“He was always there for you — anybody who needed him,” Marshall said. “There was no one who he didn’t want to hang out with.”
Deb always knew that the middle of her three children was popular, but she had no idea how many lives he touched.
“He could always make you laugh if you were having a bad day,” she said. “I’ve had so many kids tell me they were having a bad day and Mitchell would give them a smirk and look at them, and he’d keep giving them that smirk until they laughed.”
Neither Deb nor Brent know when the hurting will stop, or at least lessen a bit so they aren’t overwhelmed with grief. Brent said his brain is mush now, and Deb feels like she has been in a constant fog since the accident.
She has returned to coaching volleyball and misses hearing her son cheering at the matches. One of her players is Belleville, which works well for both of them.
“I know when I’m having a rough day, she can always make it better,” Belleville said, “and when she’s having a rough day, I make hers better.”
Few people in town have had many good days since the accident — but in the closing minute against Ironwood, there was that special moment when the team scored to make it 67-12.
St. Ignace’s first-string offense rushed onto the field, and Kreski called “122,” an off-tackle run. The play called for Andrew Goldthorpe to carry the ball.
“All the running backs were like: ‘Block like you’ve never blocked in your life!’ ” Kreski said. “The linemen said: ‘I swear Andrew, if you don’t get this ball in, we’re going to kill you!’ ”
Goldthorpe has scored several touchdowns and a few two-point conversions this season, but this one was different.
“Before the snap, I was worried,” he said. “Just knowing that I was going to get the ball on that play, I was going to do my best to get into the end zone.”
As the players broke from the huddle, Goldthorpe remembered the players saying: “Do it for Mitchell.”
Kreski took the snap from center, handed the ball to Goldthorpe and watched as the St. Ignace linemen drove a wedge through the defense.
“It just opened right up,” Goldthorpe said. “Everybody did their jobs, and I got into the end zone easy.”
As Goldthorpe crossed the goal line, the fans went nuts. A few minutes later when the head coaches met at midfield, Spencer explained why he went for two points.
“If you wouldn’t have gone for two,” Niemi said, “I would have kicked your (butt).”
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In the stands, Belleville was sitting next to Deb, and the tears flowed when the score reached 69.
“Me and Deb just sat there,” Belleville said. “We were holding each other’s hands. When they got the two-point conversion, we just screamed and hugged each other until we couldn’t hug anymore.”
As he returned to the bench, Spencer sat down and looked at the scoreboard and broke down crying.
The players celebrated on the field. It was their way of paying tribute to their most popular teammate.
“We knew he was with us for sure,” Kreski said. “He’s going to be with us forever, especially on the football field.”
The Brandstroms continue to attend St. Ignace’s football games because they are sure Mitchell is there with his teammates. The players still visit the Brandstroms, and Deb hopes that continues because it is better than being alone.
“I love hearing the stories that people have to say, seeing pictures I haven’t seen before,” she said. “Trying to sleep is hard because I never want to wake up to that again. I don’t know how I’ll be able to thank everybody for the support. It matters. I mean, it helps.
“I’m just hoping that I wake up out of this.”
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Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.