The football field is silent. No shouted formations. No snap of the ball. No crisp, tumbling leaves. No Friday night lights.
Mike Gruszka hears them, sees them in his head, the hundreds of miles he stalked sidelines, the headphones.
In the shade beneath a tree, the Comstock Park football field to his right, last season was Gruszka’s last, for now. Gruszka talks about why he will not—why he cannot—return this fall.
He needs a new heart.
“In the last three or four games of the 2014 season, I had to walk away,” Gruszka said. “And I decided, ‘How can I ask them to give 100 percent when I can’t?”
A pivotal day: Nov. 6, 2010
A 21-year-old had died that morning in a car-deer crash. Hours later a charismatic senior leader at Comstock Park High School led the teary team sendoff. They had to go on without their teammate, to the state regional football championship in the far Upper Peninsula—429 miles.
The next day, the grieving flag-waving student surprised all by leading student boosters through a gate. The emotional team won 35-15. Players sobbed. Coach Gruszka’s heart swelled, though he did not know it.
Fast forward a few years. Fatigue was setting in. Gruszka thought he had the flu. He could no longer get low and mix it up with linemen.
He went for tests. In January, doctors told him he had an enlarged heart, from a disease called cardiomyopathy.
On May 28 of this year, Gruszka had a left ventricular assist device, LVAD for short, installed. It helps keep blood from pooling where it should not pool. It also put him on the transplant list, where he remains today.
And the wait begins. Spectrum Health heart specialists keep an eye on him. He cannot travel more than two hours from home. He must be available.
Gruszka was ambivalent about the LVAD. But he wanted a new heart, and this was the best way he could get there.
A foreshadowing: Nov. 18, 2011
Sometimes adversity foreshadows greater things to come. On this day, Comstock Park reaches the state championship semi-finals, but is handed a lopsided loss to Zeeland West.
Still, the Ford Field run would be the first of three, going 11-2 and 12-1 in the two subsequent seasons. The Panthers were on a roll. Gruszka grew tired. “I couldn’t coach the way I wanted. I could not get down nose to nose. I had to change my techniques.”
His heart could not pump enough oxygen. To meet the body’s needs, the heart enlarges to hold and pump more blood. But that weakens the heart.
Gruszka, 49, came to Comstock Park via Grand Rapids as a child. He attended West Catholic High School, and played linebacker and “anywhere they needed me. I was not first string,” he says and smiles. “My boys got the athleticism.”
Gruszka’s eyes are hazel. He is 6-foot-1; about 210 pounds, and has lost maybe 20 pounds of mostly muscle, he says, patting his chest.
He had been a varsity and junior varsity coach on one of the area’s best Class B teams in recent years.
His proudest moment on the field: The night both sons, Tyler and Ryan, were announced as varsity defensive starters for their first game. “Coach Crittendon looked at me and side, ‘You OK?’ … I couldn’t talk. There were tears streaming down my eyes.”
Last game, for now: Nov. 7, 2014
It is a good season, but not a great one, at least in wins and losses. It is the first time in three years the team did not make a deep state championship run.
Comstock Park, second in its conference, lost 41-36. The day is in the low 40s with partly sunny skies, not blustery but almost.
The mood is somber after this last game of the season. Gruszka also knows it is his last season, for now.
Somewhere out there, he and his family hope there is a donor—someone who must die to save his life.
“I think about that once in a while. That’s up to the big guy,” Gruszka says. “I would be so grateful to that family. I do not know what to say now.”
So he does not. The field beyond is still quiet. It will soon roar with life. It is time for Gruszka to leave this shaded patch in the late-summer grass.
To get up, he takes a right knee, and pauses. Then he rises.