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This community finally got what people have been asking for all season: a home football game

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
People gather for a prayer circle in the street before this weekend's homecoming game in Muskegon Heights.

This weekend, there was a high school varsity football game played in the city of Muskegon Heights.

Normally, just the fact that a town has a football game isn't news.

But this season hasn't been normal for Muskegon Heights, and that made this weekend's game - a homecoming game against Ann Arbor’s Father Gabriel Richard High School - something to be celebrated.

And what a celebration it was. 

The road was blocked off on Hume Street, near the high school football field for a block party, organized by Heights alumni. By 11 a.m. you could smell the meat cooking on grills up and down the street.  Along the sidewalk were tents, each one for a different graduating class. Everything and everyone was decked out in orange and black, the colors of the Muskegon Heights Tigers. 

"We have classes all the way from 1960s, 70s, 80s, all the way up to the 2000s," said organizer Kaja Thornton, who was getting ready to sweep out a bounce house for the kids. 

"We have to stand united for our city right now," she said. "We’re going through some bad times right now, so we wanted to just come together, and say we stand united, we’re not for the foolishness, the violence, any of that. We just wanted to come together.”

Most of the people here are a tight group. The Heights is a small town, home to less than 11,000 people, covering not quite four square miles.

But it's a town that's been in the news a lot lately. After a series of shootings, the first home football game of the year was called off. Leaders of from the opposing team said they were warned it might not be safe in the Heights. Then, last week's home game was moved across the state for the same reason. That means this Saturday's game, homecoming, was the first home game of the year.

"I'm not ever afraid to come through Muskegon Heights. I've been in the Heights all my life. And I think a lot of people just take what they hear from the media and blow it up out of [proportion]." - Joe Warren, Muskegon Heights resident.

"With our team not playing at home, it hurts, you know, because the kids want to play in front of their fans," said Jimmy Purnell, a Muskegon Heights parent, and former head football coach for the high school. 

But the celebration on Saturday wasn't just about football. It was about who gets to define a community.

"It’s a perception that people make of Muskegon Heights," said Joe Warren, a resident of the Heights, and president of the alumni association. "I’m not ever afraid to come through Muskegon Heights. I’ve been in the Heights all my life and I think a lot of people just take what they hear from the media and blow it up out of [proportion]."

And everyone I met on Hume Street wanted me to know that. In a place that was said to be unsafe for outsiders, I couldn't walk 10 steps without having someone come up to me, offering me food.

"You go place to place to place, everybody is sharing the food," said Rev. Aaron Lee Morris, one of the few people at the party not wearing orange and black. Morris told me he's from the town across the railroad tracks - Muskegon. He had on a red hat, for the Muskegon Big Reds. Still, he told me, red or orange, people here stick together.

"It’s a beautiful sight to see, and they don’t report this," he said. "This is what Muskegon Heights and Muskegon are all about. Because guess what? We are one community, and we support each other."

The grills kept going, plates kept passing, while much of the block party crowd headed into the stadium for the game. 

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Because of the schedule changes, Roger Kitchen and his wife Alecia hadn't seen their son Devon play football yet this year. "All this stuff is getting out of hand, and we should be able to watch our kids," said Alecia.

The kickoff was at 1 p.m., one hour earlier than it was originally scheduled to be. The reason, once again, was safety concerns.

I went up in the stands and met the Kitchen family.

"This is our first time seeing our son play actually," said Alecia Kitchen, whose son Devon plays safety for the Tigers. "Actually all this stuff is just getting out of hand, and we should just be able to watch our kids … It’s a lot of stress on our kids. You know, I think it affects their performance and everything."

Out on the field, things didn’t really go the Tigers way. They lost to Father Gabriel Richard High School 44-0. It’s been that kind of season.

But this time, at least, when they came off the field, they were cheered, by their friends, by their family, by their community.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.