Muskegon athletic director Keith Guy, middle left, hugs stepson Cameron Martinez (13) as they walk up the tunnel after the Big Reds lost 30-7 to River Rouge in the MHSAA Division 3 football championship game at Ford Field in Detroit on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. Photo: Cory Morse, MLive
When the Hackley Stadium lights flipped on at 8:20 p.m. Friday, Matthew Cortez had the Muskegon High School Class of 2020 in mind.
Muskegon High’s senior class has been on his mind a lot lately, amid the coronavirus pandemic that has resulted in the shutdown of schools and sports, among the greater, wide-ranging impact of COVID-19. It’s effectively brought an abrupt end to senior year for many students across the country.
Cortez, superintendent for Muskegon Public Schools, and athletic director/boys basketball coach Keith Guy were on hand Friday night at the Big Reds’ football stadium, where the lights shined for 20 minutes, 20 seconds, in honor of the Class of 2020. The stadium-lights gesture is a movement that appears to be catching on at various Michigan schools, such as Millington, and across the nation.
“To me, it’s about the kids. It’s hard to imagine losing so many traditional aspects of a senior year, from prom to honors ceremony or even your commencement at this point,” Cortez said in a phone interview with MLive Friday night.
“I pledged to them and I sent videos out to them, I will have commencements. It may not be on the day or location it’s traditionally done, but I will not allow it to pass without some type of celebration because it’s too important – you only graduate high school once in your life.”
Cortez intends on the Hackley Stadium lights shining each Friday at “2020” (military time) and staying on for 20 minutes, 20 seconds, for the next several weeks.
Cortez said his Facebook Live video attracted close to 3,000 views, and that 15,000 to 16,000 people had seen the Facebook post alerting visitors on the Muskegon Public Schools page.
Cameron Martinez is among dozens upon dozens of Muskegon High School seniors losing out on some special moments. Guy, his stepfather, noticed for the first time during the stay-at-home order that the usually even-keel Martinez appeared frustrated if not a little bummed out.
“My wife and I were coming back (home) – she rode up with me to the football field and Cam didn’t go,” Guy said. “We just talked about him on the way home and I think you kind of noticed, he just wasn’t himself today. He hasn’t been able to see his friends and he’s been staying home. … We’re just trying to support him and let him know we understand what he’s going through.”
Martinez has a bright future ahead of him, signed to play football at Ohio State University. The two-time MLive Media Group Michigan High School Football Player of the Year also was a member of the Big Reds basketball team that had designs on contending for a state title, but the season was canceled at the district-finals level.
That dream was cut short, not to mention the honors Martinez had coming his way because of the work he’s done in the classroom.
“I’ve been thinking about him all day,” Guy said. “It’s been a dream come true to be able to coach my son. Him and I, we got even closer throughout this year – we were already close, but we got even closer. And then to have basketball taken away from us, I just felt for him. I think today was a rough day for him.
“When you’re able to coach young kids, it’s a blessing. But when you coach your son or your daughter or one of your children, it’s that much more special. I had the opportunity for a few years to do it and this year it was cut short. I think our greatest memories were coming in the tournament.”
Cortez and Guy understand the seriousness of the pandemic and they’re keeping things in proper perspective, but they still feel for the seniors.
Muskegon football coach Shane Fairfield said that the greater focus at this time is on saving lives and staying safe, taking care of yourself and your family, and respecting others. He still hopes, however, that the school district can find a way to salute the seniors and perhaps restore some of what they lost.
That’s way up on Cortez’s agenda. While Muskegon High School’s scheduled May 27 commencement at Mercy Health Arena does not appear practical at this point, he is brainstorming ways to honor the Class of 2020.
“This pandemic will pass and our lives have to continue and we need to keep our eye on that future. We need to be able to celebrate our senior class. It’s not anybody’s fault – it’s the circumstance that we’re in – but it’s something that you don’t like to see,” Cortez said.
“I view it as, we need to celebrate these kids. We need to celebrate what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished and where they’re headed. If I have to do that in an outdoor setting, if I have to do that in a virtual setting, if I have to do that with them driving by in cars -- I don’t care what I have to do, I will figure out a way, even if the pandemic continues, to celebrate these kids.”