NORTH MUSKEGON – Larry Witham patrolled the North Muskegon football practice field on a comfortable, fall afternoon Tuesday. With a whistle around his neck, he watched intently from various vantage points and coached up the Norsemen as they prepared for Friday’s playoff opener at Ravenna.
It seemed like business as usual for the head coach, a 1980 North Muskegon alumnus, who is a longtime coach in the program in his sixth season at the helm. But things have been far from normal the last few weeks for Witham.
The 60-year-old received stunning news recently: He had suffered two heart attacks. The first one happened Oct. 7, one day before North Muskegon’s regular-season matchup vs. Ravenna. The second one struck Oct. 13, two days before the Norsemen were set to play at Mason County Central.
“Early Thursday morning before the Ravenna game, I woke up in a sweat with chest pains and teeth hurt, everything hurt on my body,” Witham recalled. “Lasted about 2 ½ hours from 5:30 in the morning and walked around the house, didn’t feel very good obviously. Went back to sleep, didn’t think too much of it, really. Told my wife (Robin) that I wasn’t feeling very well. That was about the extent of that, so continued on with the rest of the week as normal.
“Then the Wednesday of the Mason County Central game, the same thing happened: 8 o’clock Wednesday night, I felt bad again. Went to bed really early and I don’t ever do that. It lasted about 3 ½ hours and I told my wife that I wasn’t feeling very well. She said, ‘Well, let’s call 9-1-1.’ I said, ‘Nope, not doing that. This is a big game.’ So she obliged. And so Thursday morning, I felt terrible, felt terrible. And she said, ‘I’m done listening to you now.’”
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
Witham was taken to the emergency room and discovered that he had suffered a couple of heart attacks, the result of his right coronary artery being 95 percent blocked.
Witham was treated immediately. He underwent surgery on Friday, Oct. 15, when a heart catheter and two stents were inserted in a procedure that took about 90 minutes.
Two days later, he was back on the practice field. Four days after that, he coached from the press box as North Muskegon earned a 25-0 home win over Ludington that ultimately put the Norsemen back in the playoffs for the fifth-straight season.
Witham intends on coaching from the box again this Friday, when North Muskegon (4-5) tries to avenge the 17-6 Oct. 8 loss to Ravenna (6-3). The Division 7 first-round district matchup, set for 7 p.m. at Ravenna’s Citizens’ Field, has been selected the CatchMark SportsNet Game of the Week.
“I have lots of medications running through my system, as you can probably imagine, and being on the sidelines isn’t exactly a safe environment for me,” Witham said. “Being up the press box is safer, but also it gives a whole different perception on the game from up there when I’m calling the plays. I’ve got a great staff downstairs that really help me a lot, too.”
Witham is a former multi-sport athlete at North Muskegon, who went on to play football at Beloit and Hope colleges.
He’s been coaching football at his alma mater on and off for 30 years. Giving back to the Norsemen means everything to Witham, whose teams may often be outmanned in terms of sheer size and roster numbers, but they reflect his fighting spirit.
The Norse are shorthanded now but continue to battle. Freshman starting quarterback James Young fractured his collar bone in the first Ravenna game. The next week, in a 35-0 victory at Mason County Central when Witham was in the hospital, junior running back/backup QB Denny Belmonte dislocated his shoulder.
Last Friday, sophomore Ben Meyers stepped in admirably at QB against Ludington and the Norse defense pitched another shutout. But Witham’s return ultimately provided a big boost for the team’s morale.
“He means more than you can imagine. As a person, as a head coach obviously, the kids all look to him for guidance and everything,” said Bryan Rypstra, who is North Muskegon’s third-year defensive coordinator and Witham’s right-hand man, having coached Norse softball with him as well.
“These kids are at his house for dinner every Monday night, watching film. The quarterbacks and linebackers are over at his house every Tuesday night, watching film – his wife cooks dinner for all 20 of them. When we have the JV kids in, it’s twice as many. He’s like a dad to a lot of these kids, you know. They probably see him more than they see their dads this time of year.”
North Muskegon senior lineman Trevor Bell is Witham’s stepson. Witham has been close to Bell and his buddies since their Mini Mite days a dozen or so years ago.
They’re all his sons in many respects. Bell said his relationship with Witham has grown significantly over the years.
“We have a lot of respect for each other, a lot of love for each other as well,” Bell said. “He’s a great person. He loves the game of football, first and foremost. You know, between that and family, it’s (one) and the same for him.”
Witham said his prognosis is as good as could be expected. Bell said that Witham is looking better every day post-surgery.
Being back in his coaching and mentoring element just feels right for Witham. He calls his Norsemen “the greatest kids on the planet,” and he expects they’ll give Ravenna everything they’ve got.
His health scares certainly put things in perspective.
“I had a meeting with the kids on Thursday when I was put into the hospital – (they) did a Zoom meeting here at the fieldhouse. You kind of know where you stand when adversity strikes. I can’t tell you how much these guys mean to me,” Witham said, growing emotional. “Their well-wishes and concern for my health made me feel pretty special. They helped me – they helped me a lot – to get through where I’ve been the last number of days. Great, great bunch of kids; great bunch of coaches, all I can say.”
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