Band of brothers
Close-knit Pioneers have thrived
Terry Foster / The Detroit News
FERNDALE — Five days before Dearborn’s season opener, Pioneers coach Dave Mifsud called a private meeting with his team captains and key senior players. On the surface it seemed like just another football meeting that hundreds of coached have around the country.
But the talk was not about football. That weekend, Mifsud’s brother-in-law, Chris Mayone, 44, died suddenly while training for a marathon. The Mifsud family was devastated. Mayone was his best friend and the brother of his wife, Corrine.
As the words rolled from their coach’s mouth, a transformation began within the players.
For weeks they spoke about becoming more of a family. The day they were eliminated from the state playoffs last season they felt a disconnect. This goal of bringing whites and Arabs and blacks together was not working the way they wanted.
They vowed to become a band of brothers because deep inside, they felt love for one another, even during turbulent times. They talked about becoming blood brothers. They made up T-shirts that said “14-0” and “2006 state champions.” They dreamed of being a family and riding that bond to a state title and gaining friends for life.
Team becomes a family
But this news changed everybody. Now it was more than putting words on T-shirts. Now it was time to put actions before words. From that day, the Pioneers turned from boys to men. More importantly, they learned the essence of being a family.
If you ask anybody why this team will face Warren DeLaSalle (10-2) in Saturday’s Division II state semifinal at Ferndale, they will tell you the Pioneers became more than a team and a dream. They became a family.
The Pioneers (11-1) used that bond to avenge a loss to Allen Park, 21-7, to advance to Saturday’s game.
The heartfelt talk was a defining moment. Players knew what their coach was going through. Earlier this summer, Mifsud’s dad and Pioneers super fan, Joe, suffered a stroke in his home state of Florida. And the rehabilitation has been long and difficult. The players did not want to be a burden. They wanted Mifsud to focus on his own family and not worry as much about the team.
Assistant coach Jamie Griegnon offered to take a bigger role and reminded his friend to remember the three ‘F’ ’s that mean so much to him — family, friends and football.
“When something happens to your family I will be there to take care of the football aspect of it,” Griegnon said he told Mifsud. “You just tell me what you want.”
There were a couple of incidents early in the season that might have divided this team. But players and assistants took care of it. They kept it so close and fixed the problem so cleanly not even Mifsud is clear of all the details.
“They (players) took care of it right away,” Griegnon said. “This was the kids’ way of saying we are focused.”
Little things mean a lot
The simple things counted.
It might have been as simple as linebacker Amir Rustom saying a prayer in Arabic just as he would if this were his own family member. It was as simple as defensive tackle Mike Ajami and wide receiver Danny McKae making sure there was peace in the dressing room or nose tackle Mohamad Kassab preaching brotherhood. And it was as simple as the rest of the players going up to quarterback Anthony Mifsud, Dave’s son, or their coach and just asking how they were doing. They no longer talked to Anthony or Dave as a coach or teacher or teammate. They spoke to them as family.
“We did not want that to affect coach, so we had to step up as leaders and put more responsibility on senior leadership,” Ajami said. “We wanted to make sure coach had an easier time in practice and he could stick to the basics.”
Pioneers have matured
But this is something the team had to learn. Two years ago, many of these players were freshmen and sophomores or reserve players watching Dearborn reach the semifinals. Last year, they were too immature and divided to make the same run.
This year, things changed.
“It was like when we were on the practice field we were not white, black, Arabic or whatever,” Joe Jakcsy said. “We were all Dearborn Pioneer orange.”
Kassab’s house often is a gathering place for players. He teaches his brothers Arabic so they can communicate in his household and to open them to his culture. He also learns from the other cultures in the dressing room.
“You have to trust each other off the field,” Kassab said. “All this brotherhood leads to being a good team.”
Like any other team, there were other mishaps. Rustom thought his season was over when he injured a shoulder. He might still require surgery but will return.
Jakcsy won’t play in the DeLaSalle game because he suffered a broken leg in the second round of the playoffs, but he goes to each practice on crutches. Both were showered with love during their darkest moments.
“After I got hurt I never felt so much love from a group of guys,” Jakcsy said. “Two of my brothers gave me a kiss on the cheek to show me how much they appreciated everything I had done up to that point.”
Dearborn athletic director Roy Gurk said the family extends to the staff. He said at least two dozen teachers and administrators have asked to chip in and help Mifsud, whether it is watching a class or offering food.
“People have come out of the woodwork for Dave,” Gurk said. “They ask, ‘What can I do for Dave?’ ”
How tight are the Pioneers? Safety Scott Abramouski has a photo of him and Rustom tackling a Fordson player with the caption of, “Me and my brother making a tackle.”
That is what makes this team work. Through the course of death and illness, pain and suffering the Pioneers learned that blood is thicker than water.
You can reach Terry Foster at Terry.Foster@detnews.com or (313) 222-1494.