More than just a game: Hancock embraces, learns from Hietala

Despite the Hancock Bulldogs football team jumping out to a strong 4-2 start, only to drop two tough games to the Gwinn Modeltowners and the West Iron County Wykons, they still have a chance to finish the season with a winning record with a win over rival Houghton during the Copper Bowl on Friday, something that might have seemed a long shot 12 months ago as the Bulldogs were mired in a 1-9 campaign.

Head coach Ted Holmstrom was brought back in to attempt to stop the bleeding. He was hired in mid-June to prepare the Bulldogs for the 2016 season. While certainly that is not a lot of time to get things righted, Holmstrom does not accept that as an excuse. Clearly neither do his players, who have gone out and beaten Ironwood, Northland Pines, L’Anse and Hurley this season.

The 2016 season for Hancock is about more than just wins and losses, runs and passes, sacks and touchdowns. The Bulldogs have a very special player on their team this season, a senior named Matthew Hietala. Hietala has not made a catch, not recorded a tackle, not touched the ball. In fact, not even played a down. And yet, he is as important a member of the team as any of the rest of the Bulldogs’ deep roster.

Hietala has never played football before, mainly due to the fact that he had down syndrome. However, that did not stop him from developing a love of sports, something his classmates and coaches have noticed and are working hard to help him embrace through football and mentoring.

Hietala supports his teammates any way he can.

“Bring the noise,” said Hietala, when asked how he helps his teammates. “I like the team. We can win.”

Kicker Trevor Rowe has spent a lot of time around Hietala the last few years.

“I’ve been mentoring him for like three years now,” said Rowe. “I’ve been in class with him and it’s nice for him. I know he has a passion for sports, so it’s nice to see him come out and help us out.”

Another kicker, Devyn LaCourt – who has also made some big plays on defense – has helped Hietala in other ways, mainly by offering him a ride from the school to practice on a daily basis, giving the two a few minutes to bond.

“I drive him down every day and he is always smiling and ready to go for practice,” said LaCourt. “He’s kind of a team motivator. He shows up to practice every day[you can] kind of look over and see how lucky you are to play this sport.”

A member of the Bulldogs’ offensive and defensive lines, Will Blau enjoys having Hietala on the sideline, cheering him on no matter how each play develops.

“He’s the most excited on the sidelines, always fired up,” said Blau. “Whenever we made a big tackle or a touchdown, it’s great having him on the sideline.”

A wide receiver and defensive back, Cam Murray has learned nearly as much from Hietala as Hietala has learned from him.

“It’s quite humbling having him here,” said Murray. “Growing up with him, you do see that he loves sports. It’s just amazing that we can have him be a part of what we are doing, see how happy he is.”

Holmstrom is proud of his players learning that there is more to life than just football or sports in general. He feels they are getting the type of lesson that cannot be taught in the classroom or on the field.

“That’s the special thing about it,” said Holmstrom. “They have taken leadership and responsibility. I always say leadership is service to others, so this has been a great thing with Matthew.”

Hietala is learning from the players as well, something that makes Holmstrom glow with excitement.

“They are willing to give of themselves for a young man that needs their help along the way,” said Holmstrom. “Really, it’s about building leaders for tomorrow.”

The players themselves have learned much from this season in so many ways – both on the field and off of it – but they are perhaps most happy with the lessons they have learned from helping out a teammate.

“Honestly, I think it gives us a little more motivation, just to see how fortunate we are” said Murray. “Don’t take life for granted. It could be so much worse. He really does show how much more life has to offer.

“He’s such a positive character, it’s just nice to have him here.”

Hancock faces Houghton at Alumni Field on Friday at 7 p.m.