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HAZELWOOD: From Huron County to the Motor City

Mark Hazelwood • Jan 8, 2020 at 10:27 PM

It’s a pretty safe comment to make at this point.

If you happen to be a fan of college football, a universal thought is there are way too many postseason bowl games. From all the random sponsorship names of the various games, to the locations — and sometimes less than half-full stadiums they get played in — the bowl season has certainly become an exhausting process for all involved.

The fact that the national championship game is being played on Monday (Jan. 13), a total of 17 days after the two playoff semifinal games, kind of says it all. Even the NFL and the Super Bowl is only a two-week gap. It can be hard to get excited and stay engaged.

At times over a two-week period, it was hard to keep track of who was even playing in what bowl game and where, yet alone what channel to find them on television.

All those thoughts were running through my head on Thanksgiving Day when I saw a familiar graphic on the scoreboard at Ford Field in Detroit. It was a promotion for Quick Lane Bowl tickets, slated for the night after Christmas on Dec. 26 back in the Motor City.

It's an ad I've seen many times before — I've attended every single Thanksgiving game ever played in that building to date. My older brother is a Lions season ticket holder of 23 years, and the annual holiday game is one I've attended with him for 19 straight years.

Whenever I've seen the advertisement, I've often mumbled to myself about too many bowl games. The only fans in the NFL who've had it worse than Lions supporters is obviously right here in Cleveland Browns territory. Now, every year the Lions want to straddle their fan base with Quick Lane Bowl tickets? Good luck on that, I've often thought.

Until this year.

As part of a two-week vacation, which is one of the reasons you are just now seeing this, I found myself back in Detroit less than a month after Thanksgiving. At the game I've always mused I would probably never attend.

But hear me out.

On the night of Dec. 8, the Quick Lane Bowl pairing was announced as Eastern Michigan vs. Pittsburgh. I couldn't believe it. Just 39 miles from campus, the home of the Lions was going to serve as the final college football game for EMU running back Breck Turner, a 2015 Norwalk graduate — an all-time player and multi-sport athlete for the Truckers.

And then of course this season, as I chronicled recently, is the first in Pittsburgh for Taylor Wilhelm, the 2011 South Central grad who is the program's Director of Creative Media. In the ever-changing recruiting game, Wilhelm plays a vital role in helping attract players to the Pitt campus and program with his photos and graphic art.

Two Huron County kids who I know fairly well, on opposite sides in a primetime college football bowl game? And I'm off work, and my family is not in school? I was in. Heck, it was even my wife Megan's initial idea to go. And I just happened to know someone who got four bowl tickets per Lions seat, which meant eight free tickets to the game.

Now, that again speaks to the watered down bowl season — eight free tickets in an attempt to draw people to a bowl game? That seems drastic, but I digress.

All eight tickets were used between my family, my mother and father in law, and three nephews. The whole scene was rather surprising, as there was a genuine, energized vibe outside.

With it serving as a virtual home game for Eastern Michigan — a program that was appearing in just its fifth bowl game ever — the place was filled with green and white-clad fans. With Pitt being an ACC school with at the least a solid football tradition from a tradition-rich football state, there was also plenty of royal blue and yellow. Add in a Pistons basketball game happening nearby, and every bar and restaurant was packed, while various pep rallies and a fan fest was held inside and outside the stadium.

Prior to the game, I took my youngest of the three nephews that made the trip down to the player tunnel. It was there I was able to shake hands with Turner and wish him well, and spotted and chatted with Wilhelm for a few minutes. My nephew felt it was worth the trip simply being able to see and high-five the players as they came and went — another perspective you learn to appreciate.

And remember his name, (St. Paul third-grader Casey Fries) by the way, as he once wrote down and showed me what he “believed” to be his football stats of 600-plus yards rushing, three touchdowns and 50 tackles. In just five games.

It was yet another reminder that we were all that age once, so enjoy the small things in life.

It may sound hokey to some, but to know Greenwich and Norwalk were on each sideline and at times on the playing field of the only football game being played that night (a shock in itself) was pretty neat from my perspective.

Turner played at running back, and was also on kick and punt return for the Eagles. He didn't touch the ball much, but each time he was in, the "age 11 and under crowd" that was with me called it out each time, noting a hometown kid was in the game.

A quick note on Turner. He wasn't an every down feature back for the Eagles, but he played in three bowl games, including one in the Bahamas, and scored a game-winning touchdown in an upset win at Purdue. He got to suit up and sometimes play in several Southeastern Conference venues, including LSU, and traveled all across the country while earning a free education in sports management.

In talking with Breck, the trials and tribulations of not being the star player have taught him as much as his degree has.

“In high school, I feel like I never really went through any type of adversity or how to adjust to it,” Turner said. “Everything came easy. Football came extremely easy, and to an extent basketball and track. I had a lot of success early.

“But these last few years, it wasn’t as successful and I had to learn how to handle that,” he added. “I learned how to support and encourage my teammates. I learned how to work harder and stay focused, and my faith got stronger every time something bad happened. I’m not sure if I would have experienced that anywhere else. I might have, but maybe not. I wish these last couple of years had been different personally, but I’ve grown as a person.”

Again, perspective.

On the other side, in the third quarter, Wilhelm was seen with his camera on the big screen, capturing a celebration shot after a Pitt interception that was, well, maybe a little too celebratory. Over half the defense earned a 15-yard penalty (no, really) for posing and flexing in the end zone.

"He had five teammates by his side and ran directly towards me, posing for my camera," Wilhelm said. "This is seen very often on Sundays in the NFL when teams make a big turnover or score, but our players must have forgotten that’s a penalty in college. Our coaches were not very happy with the six of them after, but it did turn out for some of my favorite photos I had taken the whole season."

The game itself was also very entertaining. Pitt was an 11-point favorite, but yet never had the lead until 47 seconds remained on a superb touchdown catch in a 34-30 come-from-behind win. The attendance of 34,765 was a new record in the short six-year history of the Quick Lane Bowl.

In talking with both Turner and Wilhelm, I also came away with a greater appreciation for the bowl season. While spending Christmas in Detroit may not sound as appealing as some of the other warmer climate bowl games, they had great experiences. Turner and EMU volunteered at a food bank on Christmas Eve, while both teams got to tour the Henry Ford Museum — the largest indoor-outdoor museum complex in the U.S. and a National Historic Landmark in nearby Dearborn.

Had it not been for the bowl game, who knows how many of those players would have been able to see some of the artifacts? That included the famous Rosa Parks bus, or the car John F. Kennedy rode in that fateful Nov. 22, 1963 day — not to mention that particular chair Abraham Lincoln sat in on April 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre.

"They provided us with some bowl gifts, too, including a backpack, Quick Lane Bowl gear, a gift card to Best Buy, wireless headphones and a commemorative football," Wilhelm said.

To outsiders, it was just another bowl game of too many. But from the perspective of those involved, these memories will last a lifetime. It took local ties and free tickets while on vacation for this writer to gain that viewpoint.

Even if its simply being able to take photos, playing in the game, or even just the thrill of slapping hands with the players — the experience is what you make of it.

"It was really cool to see Breck Turner out there playing," Wilhelm said at the end of our last conversation. "Being a student-athlete is definitely not as easy as most people would probably think. It takes a lot of dedication, discipline, persistence, and faith to make it through five years of games, practices, film sessions, study tables, weights, eating right, while also being expected to be great in the classroom as well. This is definitely worth it to all these guys.

"Being a Huron County kid myself, it’s great to see him do something that not many from our area have the chance to do," he added. "I wish him nothing but the best in his next chapter of life."

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