SAVELA: Portagers’ muddy celebration captures essence of the game

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Even in the mud, it was clear: The Onekama Portagers were having the time of their lives.

Their semifinal win over Portland St. Patrick on Saturday was hard fought and the field alone told the story.

A little snowy — and mostly sloppy, wet and muddy — it was a battlefield for four quarters but a playground when the final horn sounded.

The Portagers put together another impressive playoff win, this one to punch their ticket to the 8-player Division 2 state championship: a stage no Portager in the history of the program has ever reached.

As the victory and its spoils began to sink in, to the sound of the bell they proudly rang, the players found themselves back on the field and in the mud. Most were already caked in it from the game they just played, some to the point of illegible jersey numbers and team name. But there was no question: They were Portagers, and they were going to celebrate together.

Bellyflops, baseball slides and mud angels where yard lines used to be… Laughter, sloppy hugs and shouts of joy… After all their hard work, they owed it to themselves to be kids.

“I can’t even explain the feeling right now,” said Onekama senior Ben Acton, overjoyed with the win. “It’s just insane. … Everybody on this football team has given 100 percent and I couldn’t ask any more from them. I love playing with these guys.”

About an hour earlier, the Portagers were trailing 8-0 at halftime. A celebration — muddy or otherwise — certainly wasn’t a guarantee.

“At halftime, we said, ‘hey, we’ve got to play beter,’ and they knew that,” said Onekama coach John Neph. “They looked at each other and decided to play hard for the guy next to them.”

Young men are being molded through these lessons of teamwork, dedication and grace in both victory and defeat. But football — or any sport for that matter — is fun at its core. And there’s a real beauty in the combination of it all.

Organically, a crowd circled the soggy Portagers — family, friends, classmates and fans — all enjoying the celebratory scene, making it truly a family affair.

“I can’t even describe what it means to us,” Neph said. “So many people have been supporting these players, because they’ve put in so much time and effort to get better. They’re a goofy bunch, but when it comes time to do the work, they do the work.

“And these are moments these young men will never forget. They’ll carry it with them for the rest of their lives.”

Magnificently muddy memories.

On what he called the “spur of the moment,” even Neph joined in on the action. With his players egging him on, he slid face first into the mud at the 50-yard line… or maybe it was the 45.

Either way, another line was blurred at midfield on Saturday: the one that rests between young men and the young at heart. In the mud, you couldn’t tell a difference between the two.

And that’s what this is all about.

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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