A young Clarkston man helped bring purpose to an otherwise hopeless season for the football club at Oakland University.
The Golden Grizzlies, coming off an undefeated championship season in 2014, lost all hopes of a repeat in just their third game of the regular season.
In week two, Oakland suffered a loss to divisional opponent Michigan State. Despite 2015 being MSU’s first year in the National Club Football Association, there was a rivalry brewing between these teams before the season had even began.
Michigan State handed Oakland its first loss in over a year, with a coaching staff comprised of two former head coaches and three former assistants of the Grizzlies’ football club.
“I’ve been on the losing end of a lot of football games, but that had to have been the most difficult one of my career,” Brian Khashola, senior linebacker for Oakland, said.
“A loss hurts no matter what and failing to meet the bar we set last year already made it harder, but seeing your former coaches move on and hand you that loss? It was like seeing your ex with someone better, and throwing it in your face.”
Deflated, the team went into the next week’s game with an ultimatum: lose the game and the season is done.
Oakland’s hangover weighed them down as they suffered another divisional loss, this time to Miami of Ohio. That Miami team, ranked No. 1 in the NCFA, went on to compete against Middle Georgia State for the national title.
With most players on the team never having suffered a loss at Oakland, let alone two in a row, the players desperately needed a spark to push through their last three games.
Enter Levi Shipley
At 18 years old, Levi Shipley has always had a passion for football. He is also living with autism and cerebral palsy. Unfortunately, the latter has kept him from playing the game he loves.
Rather than giving up on football, Shipley channeled his passion into support for his best friend.
“I met Levi in middle school. He was a bit younger than me, but he loved being around football and it didn’t take long to see that he was an amazing person, so we developed a good friendship,” Brenden Newvine, a standout offensive player for Oakland, said.
Despite transferring from Clarkston during high school, Newvine maintained his friendship with Shipley, a bond that is still strong today.
“I’ve played at two high schools and two colleges now, but Levi has supported me the whole way. Now that I’m playing near home again, he’s come to every game and supported this team like it was his own,” Newvine said.
While his support never wavered, Levi was managing another medical condition — cancer.
The team adopted a new motto, “Levi Strong,” to represent the courage and passion they needed to play with, while remembering that each moment they stand on the field is a gift not to be taken for granted.
Feeling that he and his teammates had lost sight of how lucky they were to play the game they loved, Newvine decided to share Shipley’s story with the team.
“That was an eye-opener for us,” Jim Bartsch, Oakland linebacker, said.
“We’ve had guys play with broken bones, torn muscles and we thought that was tough. To hear about everything he was dealing with and knowing that he was still out there supporting us, wishing he could be out there with us, that put things into perspective for us.”
After hearing about Shipley, the team unanimously decided that he needed to be a part of their brotherhood.
Shipley had began attending practices when able, often leading the team break when a session would end. It didn’t take long before team had adopted his strength.
With Shipley on the sidelines, Oakland managed a decisive victory over the Kodiaks from the University of Michigan-Flint, before embarking on a two-week road trip to end the season.
On Oct. 31, the team traveled to Columbus, Ohio to take Great Lakes Conference rival, Ohio State.
Despite possessing the ball for most of the first half, untimely turnovers kept the Golden Grizzlies tied with OSU at the half.
“Ohio State had a good team, but I think our guys were playing well-beneath their abilities. It was a problem we experienced at times during the season,” Jeff Allor, first year head coach of the football club, said.
A surprising half-time proposal proved to be the spark that the team had needed.
Making an unexpected arrival at the game earlier, Shipley had been given gear by the team so that he could get a more realistic game-like experience. While he was away, the coaches had informed the players of an opportunity to make that experience even better.
Having come to an agreement with the officials and the opposing coaches, Shipley was going to be allowed to take the field on the last play of the game, if one team had a commanding lead and there was no chance for the other to win with that play.
The Golden Grizzlies responded with 21 unanswered points in the second half, taking a 28-7 lead and all but securing the victory.
Having done what was needed, the players and coaches informed Shipley that he was going in at running back as the offense got to the ball for one last play.
“I was crying. I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but then I saw them put the ball in his hands,” Kelly Egan, who had traveled from Warren, Mich. to watch her boyfriend play, said.
“You see things like this on TV and it touches your heart, but to be there and experience a moment like that with people you know and love, it was just amazing.”
Lined up in the backfield, Shipley received the handoff from his best friend and never looked back.
“What Shipley did for this team, we could never repay him for, but it felt amazing to be able to give him this experience. It’s something we’ll all cherish forever,” Newvine said.
The moment he crossed the goal line, Oakland’s sideline neglected the rules and rushed the field to celebrate with their newest teammate.
The 2015 season did not yield the kind of on-field success that the club had become accustomed to. Offensively, they struggled to hit their stride, while the defense ended the year with only eleven players healthy enough to take the field. But, in that moment, those struggles had vanished. As Shipley sat atop the shoulders of a mob of his teammates, life and the game of football were put into perspective while wins and losses became distant memories.
The greatest gift of all
At the season’s end, there were no championship rings. No new trophy to display.
Instead of some hardware to look at occasionally, each player, coach and member had gained a life-long friend, while Shipley can proudly call them his teammates.
Season’s end didn’t mean the end for Shipley and the Golden Grizzlies. On a Thursday evening in November, the team gathered for a special celebration. After aggressive treatment, doctors had informed Levi that he was cancer-free.