Comparing players in the 8-Man game to players in the 11-Man game is a difficult proposition. It's like comparing apples to oranges, there really isn't a tried and true method of doing it.
However by most standards, Rapid River quarterback Jake Pearson must be considered the best athlete to have played football for the Rockets.
Over the last three years Pearson and the Rockets have put on a spectacular show, lighting up opposing defenses and scoreboards no matter the venue. Though they were stopped short of their goal in the state title game, that doesn't take away from all they accomplished up to that point.
Paul Gerard photo
Rapid River quarterback Jake Pearson breaks off a second half touchdown run as center Hayden?Hardwick (46) puts a block on a Peck defender, Friday night at Greenville.
Friday night in the Division 9 (8-Man) MHSAA state title game was the last time Pearson, center Hayden Hardwick, lineman Mike Boyer, linebacker Jared Schwartz and running back/receiever Pat Pryal will wear their Rockets football jerseys and now comes the time to reflect on their achievements.
But Pearson especially will go down in the Rockets' history books alongside names like Sara Boyer, Derek Pistulka and Waldon "Punch" Johnson.
A 6-3, 220 pound athlete, Pearson had the size of a linebacker, which he plays on defense, and the speed and acceleration of a track star, which he was and still is.
Sure, some of his thousands of yards rushing came on open field runs, which can happen quite frequently at times in the 8-Man game, but what most of his critics fail to acknowledge is how he got into the open field.
It never ceased to amaze me watching Pearson burst through the line, throwing defenders off him seemingly with ease, breaking tackles, getting stopped at the line seemingly sacked, before bouncing to the outside and taking off. Those were the trademark Pearson runs I'll miss next season, and no one else in the U.P. except perhaps Alex Briones at Ishpeming could do it like Pearson could.
One of the Rapid River games that stands out for me was their game against Superior Central last season on Oct. 12, 2012.
The weather that day was the worst I've seen for a high school football game. I remember clearly it was about 38 degrees and raining when I left Escanaba, heading toward Eben. By the time I had arrived it was 34 degrees and the rain had turned to sleet. It stayed that way for about half the game before turning to some kind of awful rain/snow mix. There was no press box at Eben so I was struggling to take stats and play by play out in the elements.
At some point I said forget it and focused on the game, and fortunately for my sake, Pearson gave the sort of performance that overshadowed any stats I could list.
He didn't have many of the big runs of 40-50 yards that day, it was more hard-nosed, five yards here, three yards there. He ran right at the Cougars defenders. It took two or three of them to bring him down and Pearson fought for every inch. After the game, I remember going to interview him and found him so out of breath, he was in no shape to talk.
But if he did, Pearson would simply credit his line and the team for the victory. He never took credit for anything, even when it was fully deserved. I caught on soon enough and as this season went on, I'd seek out Hardwick to talk about Pearson's exploits.
Hardwick is another player who has worked harder than anyone thought possible. Simply put, the Rockets wouldn't be in this position if not for his and Boyer's efforts.
In the 8-Man game, of course there are only three linemen. So Hardwick and Boyer had to work that much harder to pave the way.
Hardwick and Pearson were both All-U.P. athletes this season, Pearson gaining the Small School Offensive Player of the Year award and Hardwick getting the honor for the second consecutive season. For two kids who play 8-Man footbal to get that kind of recognition, not just from the Daily Press, but from the whole of U.P. sportswriters and broadcasters, the extraordinary is demanded, and those two delievered.
The debate now will be; could they do it on an 11-Man team?
It's a question that can't really be answered with any kind of certainty. Hardwick and Pearson seemingly have the build and ability to play anywhere, but unquestionably, the relentless opposition they would face in the Great Northern or Mid-Peninsula Conferences are far greater than in the Bridge Alliance Conference.
I have spoken to some athletic administrators who told me Pearson would be capable of starting at their schools. I don't doubt that. Certainly Pearson's numbers would be diminished going up against the Marquette's, Menominee's, Negaunee's, Ishpeming's and Kingsford's of the world. But by how much? That's the debate.
We may find closure yet. I would find it shocking if there wasn't a handful of college scouts watching Pearson and Hardwick at the game Friday night. In my opinion, both may be at least Division II caliber players.
But regardless of what happens in the future, we will always have the memory of greatness to look back on.
Pearson and Hardwick were special players for the Rockets for three years. Hopefully they enjoyed the ride as much as we did watching them.