GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As Don Fellows looked out at the practice field on the top of the hill at Union High School, there were very few differences during his team’s first practice of the season.
Players wore helmets without no stickers, shorts, T-shirts and didn’t wear pads. Whistles were blown and coaches got players in order for drills.
The one noticeable change was players wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19.
Still, the biggest challenge Fellows is facing is one he knew about when he took the job in April: turning a program around.
Union High School hasn’t won a football game since 2015, and even then, it was just one game. The Red Hawks haven’t scored triple-digit points since that season either and they haven’t had a winning season since 2002 (5-4).
Fellows, meanwhile, comes from Grand Rapids Christian, which is known for winning in both the West Michigan and state football levels. In the last decade, the Eagles were 10-for-10 in playoff appearances and had an 80-30 record overall under Fellows. He led the team to a state title in 2012 and won the O-K Gold the last two seasons.
So, after having so much success, it was left to wonder what made Fellows take the job at Union where winning hasn’t been normal in 20 years.
When he was offered the job, he didn’t have to hesitate to make a decision.
“Once you’re around here, you learn there a lot of people who really care about Union High,” Fellows said. “The kids have been great. We haven’t been able to have a parents meeting and there is 48 kids here today.
“There’s a lot of challenges, but man, the opportunity of working in this community with these kids was an easy decision for me.”
Of course, coronavirus hasn’t made anything easier for Fellows and his staff.
With plenty of difficulty added to summer workouts among other aspects in starting a new season, Fellows and his staff just try to focus on keeping the kids engaged in the now.
“The older I get, the more I like practice, so we just need to worry about what we can control,” Fellows said. “We want to keep our kids safe and keep them having fun during (the coronavirus pandemic). If we don’t have a season, we look at it like a spring ball.”
The Red Hawks losing streak is at 43 games, which is currently the highest of any team at the varsity level in Michigan.
Fellows coaches kids who were used to winning games at Christian, and now he has a roster of players who have never felt what it’s like to win a high school football game.
The most important thing for him is to not make a comparison between the two programs.
“Kids are kids,” Fellows said. “I don’t care if you’re at Lowell or Rockford or wherever. Every community has its challenges and these kids have gravitated to our coaching staff. My focus is on Union and I won’t get into comparing them. Hopefully, we stop the streak soon.”
Fellows has brought over five coaches from Grand Rapids Christian with him, including his brothers, Jermey and Eric, slotback coach Andy Bartos and Zach Crouch, who played football at Central Michigan University.
Of the new coaches added to the staff, one of the names that stands out is former West Catholic High School standout and Ferris State quarterback Travis Russell. Russell won two state titles with the West Catholic Falcons and just led the Ferris State Bulldogs to a runner up in the NCAA Division II national title game.
Gabe Rohn, Dan Rohn’s son, is also on the Red Hawks Staff.
Right now, for this staff, the goal is to get off to a good start and be competitive in games.
“We know it’s going to be a long journey, but we are out here to have fun and just focusing on little things like snapping and throwing the ball right now,” Fellows said. “I’m optimistic that we can get off to a good start.”
Wins and losses aside, one thing is certain: Fellows and the Red Hawks are ready to take the field for a game and hope it happens in the fall.
“A lot of people are dealing with a lot of challenges right now. I’m interested to see how it all goes into a 7-on-7 setting from right now,” Fellows said. “One thing is certain — I love being out here with these kids.”