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Issues with COVID-19: Crystal Falls Forest Park football coaches resign after disagreeing with team playing

From left, Forest Park head coach Dave Graff and players Peter Ropiak and Robert Ponchaud accept the MHSAA 8-player state football championship trophy after defeating Portland St. Patrick on Nov. 8, 2017, at the Superior Dome in Marquette. (Journal file photo)

CRYSTAL FALLS — Forest Park head football coach David Graff has resigned, citing concerns about playing amid the growing coronavirus situation in Iron County.

Graff tendered his resignation to the Forest Park School Board on Tuesday, saying he disagreed with board’s decision to have the district resume participating in athletics.

“Iron County and our Crystal Falls community are going through a bad time right now in regards to the coronavirus pandemic. At least five people have have died from COVID in our county,” Graff said Tuesday in a phone interview.

Longtime assistant coach Gerard Valesano also requested a furlough for the rest of the football season. Graff said that Valesano may rejoin the staff in the future.

“Our local health department strongly discourages playing football at this time. Gerard and I agree with that assessment, as we feel the health department’s recommendation is hard to ignore,” Graff said.

Dave Graff

Graff has been a coach in some aspect of Forest Park football for 25 years.

“I have been involved in Forest Park athletics, as a player, coach and fan in parts of five different decades,” he said. “However, right now, there are more important things in life than playing football and sports.”

Graff took over for Upper Peninsula and Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Bill Santilli in 2014, keeping the well-oiled machine that is Forest Park football moving in the right direction. The program made a successful transition from 11-player to eight-player football in 2016.

One season later, Graff and Valesano guided the Trojans to the 2017 eight-player Division 2 state championship, defeating Portland St. Patrick 54-12 at the Superior Dome in Marquette.

“Football is the greatest game there is. It’s the best way to teach values and turn our boys in this community into men. We teach our boys that no one player is bigger than the team, and no one person is bigger than the program, including the coach,” Graff said.

Forest Park head football coach Dave Graff presides over a Trojans' practice in August 2017 in Crystal Falls. (Iron Mountain Daily News photo)

“If our Forest Park administration wants to go the route that they are, allowing the kids to practice and play sports, while currently not having in-person learning, I morally have a problem with that. It goes against the values we have always taught the boys who have played for us.

“With all that being said, I feel it’s best for me to step aside from my position as head coach. It’s time for someone else to take the reins. I did not take this decision lightly, but I stand by my decision.”

Graff hopes the school administration keeps continuity in the program.

Through the years, Forest Park has had 23 consecutive playoff appearances, eight state finals appearances, including a state-record six in a row, all while Graff was involved with the program.

“There are people in our community who I know and am friends with, who haven’t been able to see their loved ones in over six months. Other’s loved ones have died in care facilities alone, due to the pandemic,” Graff said. “Those things are bigger than sports and more important in life.”

Forest Park athletic director Lisa Olson told WLUC-TV6 the district has had no COVID-19 positives among athletes and none are in quarantine at this time. The outbreak initially came after their football game in Newberry on Sept. 18.

This week’s football game at North Dickinson on Friday night, for now, will be played as scheduled. Forest Park’s assistant coaches, who are the program’s JV coaches, are leading the varsity team in the interim.

Both varsity jobs have been posted and a search is ongoing.

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