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Reeths-Puffer football coach saw immediately ‘how tight community is’ in Muskegon

MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo logo MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo 6/2/2020 By Scott DeCamp, mlive.com
Details of photos from the Bird family's life are seen on the dining room table in their home in Spring Lake, Michigan, on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. © Alison Zywicki | azywicki@mlive.com/Alison Zywicki | azywicki/mlive.com/TNS Details of photos from the Bird family's life are seen on the dining room table in their home in Spring Lake, Michigan, on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.

When Matt Bird moved to the Muskegon area and took on the head-coaching job for Reeths-Puffer’s football team, he knew the neighborhood would be tough with the likes of Muskegon and Mona Shores across town.

In Bird’s first season with R-P in 2019, a 5-4 campaign in which the Rockets narrowly missed the playoffs, both Muskegon and Mona Shores returned to Ford Field with the Sailors collecting their first state title.

Bird knew about Muskegon-area football strength and tradition, but he thought, “If we can get in (the playoffs), a lot of things can happen.” He knew that from his days at Grand Ledge, first as offensive coordinator for the Comets’ state championship team in 2000 and later as a head coach for 13 years.

But one thing particularly surprised Bird and his family, who had known nothing but Lansing-area high school football.

RELATED: ‘The fighter’: Coronavirus latest battle won by Reeths-Puffer football coach

“The thing that’s caught us off-guard with Muskegon, with the city and the area, is how tight the community is. After a game, everybody comes out of the stands and they talk with each other. When it first happened, we were like, ‘Whoa!’” Bird said during a recent MLive interview in his home, as he reflected on his life and journey to the Muskegon area.

“We were used to the Lansing area, we were used to the other pieces of this where it was going to be a fight or something. And then you realize, ‘No, this is a connection,’ and then it was like, ‘This is pretty cool.’ Then you start to realize how much the kids talk. It was like, you wanted Shores to do well, but then there’s also a belief where, ‘We can do this, too.’”

The transition to West Michigan has been a family affair for the Birds, who have become embedded in the surrounding communities.

In addition to being head football coach at Reeths-Puffer, Matt Bird is dean of students and assistant athletic director. Wife Jamie Bird works as a clinical research coordinator for Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan. Briana Bird, 28, did her student-teaching at Reeths-Puffer High School this school year. Nolan Bird, 21, has transferred from Davenport University to Hope College, where he will be playing football. Delaney Bird, 16, is finishing up her sophomore year at Reeths-Puffer.

Bri Bird said she was able to teach a few of the Rockets football players and she could see their confidence grow not only as athletes but as students and realizing they could achieve more.

Nolan Bird, who was an all-state quarterback at Grand Ledge, said that Reeths-Puffer’s players exhibited a great deal of growth from the first game when he saw “a blank look” and “no idea how to take charge of something” to later in the season when much more confidence was exhibited.

Matt Bird sees great potential in Reeths-Puffer and the surrounding area as the city of Muskegon continues to grow and recreate itself.

“I knew it was clicking (for Reeths-Puffer’s football team last season) when I had a kid from Twin Lake pull in and kids from the Heights, in this big truck with him, and what was blaring, it was the song from ‘Slap Shot,’ and it’s (Maxine Nightingale), ‘Right Back Where We Started From,’” Bird recalled with a grin.

“It was blaring and these kids get out and they’re just dancing in the parking lot to this song from the ’70s, early-’80s, you know. And it’s a feel-good song anyway and I’m looking and the coaches are like, ‘This is weird,’ and I’m like, ‘Kids are supposed to be weird. This is them … it doesn’t matter where they’re from, it doesn’t matter their background. What (matters) is, right now they are together.’”

Read more:

‘The fighter’: Coronavirus latest battle won by Reeths-Puffer football coach

Purdue LB from Mona Shores makes most of quarantine workouts in parents’ garage

Hackley Stadium turf, new auxiliary gym among huge Muskegon upgrades in bond’s passing

Virtual workouts, technology connect Muskegon-area athletes during coronavirus pandemic

Big Red Zone: For kids in the tough town of Muskegon, athletic success means the promise of a better life

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