Football helps Chardon return to normalcy
At the season's midpoint, Mitch Hewitt admits he really isn't sure how good his Chardon High School football team is.
Hewitt does know that winning football, on a few levels, marks a return to normalcy in Chardon, a city of a little more than 5,000, that sits about 25 miles east of Cleveland. For a long time it was a place known for heavy snow, maple syrup and a successful high school football program.
Last Feb. 27, a teen gunman opened fire in the Chardon High School cafeteria. Five students were shot. Three were killed.
The community was changed forever.
"It's a situation that's terrible on every level with three young lives taken and a lot of other lives changed forever," Hewitt said. "We look at it as an unfortunate wakeup call. In a lot of ways I think it puts things in perspective for young people, and our kids in some ways have had to grow up fast.
"The community has come together. Our players understand not only that they're lucky, but that it's a privilege to be playing football. If us winning helps somebody feel better or if our players appreciate their opportunities more than they did a year ago, that's a good thing coming from a terrible situation."
Hewitt is in his second year as Chardon's head football coach. After going 4-6 last year, his team is off to a 5-0 start. As maybe the greatest player ever to wear a Hilltoppers uniform, the 32-year-old Hewitt is hoping he's overseeing a return to glory. Chardon hasn't been in the state playoffs since 2006, and that's the longest playoff drought anyone can remember.
Last week, Hewitt said the community "absolutely packed the stadium" in the rain to see Chardon beat neighborhood rival Madison, 7-0. The Hilltoppers, wearing a decal on the back of their helmets in remembrance of the victims, play their biggest game yet Friday night at fellow unbeaten Willoughby South.
These are the games Hewitt grew up watching and later playing in. The stadium being absolutely packed was a weekly occurrence.
"It's all you knew," he said.
Hewitt was runner-up for Ohio's Mr. Football award as a senior in 1998, when a smashmouth Chardon team lost in the Div. II state championship game. He was a four-year letterwinner as a linebacker at Bowling Green, the last two under a hotshot young coach in his first head coaching job.
The two remain close -- Meyer made a phone call to personally endorse Hewitt for the Chardon head-coaching job in early 2011 -- and Hewitt said he learned from Meyer the importance of relationships in building a football program. He's always loved Meyer's intensity, too, and Hewitt said that's especially important "because we live in an instant gratification era. If kids don't succeed right away, too many of them quit."
Bowling Green is where Meyer's early-morning workouts became known as Black Wednesday and resulted in 20-plus players leaving the team before his first season. There was a method to his madness; Bowling Green went from 2-9 in 2000 to 8-3 in 2001.
Hewitt loved every second of those workouts.
"You had guys willing to walk away from full scholarships because it was too much for them," Hewitt said. "To see a coach come in and demand that kind of work and accountability and to know it was going to pay off, I loved it. It's what I'd been waiting for."
He now relates to Meyer in another way.
"I can't do this coaching thing forever," Hewitt said. "Not the way I do it. It's too much. I'm too intense. I'll lose it."
In addition to his teaching and coaching duties, Hewitt is also a Chardon city councilman. He's involved in several business ventures in and around the area, too. He's married to his high school sweetheart and has two children.
"I have long days," he said.
He has long-range goals, too.
"The obvious goal is to leave something better than what is when you first got it," Hewitt said. "The more important goal is to bring a little of that pride and toughness back. I've been very fortunate to know that football is a game you appreciate more 10 and 20 years down the road. You appreciate the relationships, the people who pushed you."
Hewitt notices his players developing a work ethic and maturity. He credits what he hopes is just the start of a turnaround to community support, thousands of dollars raised to upgrade the weight room and a coaching staff he says works tirelessly to help the players improve. One of those assistant coaches, Frank Hall, chased the gunman out of the Chardon High School cafeteria last Februrary.
See why Hewitt shies away from anyone calling him a local hero?
"I don't think Chardon is like the Varsity Blues movie, nor is it this Norman Rockwell-type of perfect place," Hewitt said. "It's a place full of good people that love football. It's not the only place that football coaches influence young lives, and that's something I take seriously. It's a big job. It's a chance to really make a difference."
He's not yet two years in, but he's off to a good start.