Wearing million-dollar grins and flags instead of pads, a group of 5- and 6-year-old football-loving buddies — their arms draped over each other’s shoulders — posed for a photo in 2011 following a mid-November flag football tournament championship.
Twelve years (to the exact weekend) later, five of those Mini-Mustangs’ parents joined other Northville High School football players’ families for a pre-game tailgating gathering just a couple hundred yards from the Belleville High School football stadium.
Not only were the tailgaters prepping for that afternoon’s MHSAA Division 1 regional semifinal game between the Mustangs and the nationally-ranked Tigers, they were celebrating a beyond-special, decade-long-plus relationship their sons had built.
‘They’re like brothers’
“These boys grew up in the same neighborhood, riding bikes and playing together,” said Amy Helner, whose son Nick was a standout wide receiver for the 2023 Mustangs.
“They’re like brothers. The only thing they’ve ever wanted was for each other to succeed; there’s never been competition between them.
“They have built the most special bond amongst themselves.”
The 2023 Mustangs — who tied a school record for wins (10), won the program’s first district championship since 2000 and defeated longtime nemesis Detroit Catholic Central for the first time — were built the old-fashioned way: with players whose friendships dated back to kindergarten.
Mud, sweat and cheers
Since the first day they laced up a pair of football cleats 12 autumns ago, they’ve battled together through mud, sweat and cheers — their belief in one another growing with every win.
The players’ enduring cohesion is rare these days for top Division 1 high school football programs, whose rosters are generally populated with elite players from multiple communities.
Like Northville Head Coach Brent Luplow noted, the Mustangs were one of the few D1 quarterfinal-qualifying programs that weren’t led by players who were bound for Division 1 universities.
“There has always been something special about this group,” reflected Tamara Besco, whose son Caden was a two-way standout for the Mustangs. “They were not only a great group of friends who grew up together in the same neighborhood, they were really good at football and they loved playing it.
“At one point, all of us parents got together and said, ‘Let’s keep them together through high school. Let’s stay public (instead of sending them to private schools) because they’re like brothers, and if they stay together through high school, they’re going to do something special.’
“They were only in elementary school at the time, but we really believed that.”
Bond led to success
The parents’ collective belief became reality.
From flag football through their final game at NHS, the band of brothers rarely lost — with an emphasis on rarely.
For instance, Isaac Pace, this season’s starting quarterback, lost two games his entire gridiron career — both to Belleville.
“Since they’ve been little, they’ve been the epitome of a true team,” said Joe Pace, Isaac’s dad, who coached his son (and Isaac’s brothers from other mothers) throughout their pre-varsity careers. “They’re not only great football players, they love each other.”
“Every game, each kid fed off the others,” added Kristin Pace, Isaac’s mom. “And they have never cared who scored the touchdowns or who made the big play; all they’ve ever wanted was to do whatever it took to win the game.”
Elated and sad
The parents acknowledged the final weeks of this season have been bittersweet.
“When we beat Catholic Central last week, just about every parent up in the stands was crying,” Joe Pace said. “That’s how special this bond we all share has become.”
While they’ve cherished each post-season victory, they’ve embraced the reality that the end of the Mini-Mustangs’ amazing run was nearing its conclusion.
“What’s nice, though, is that even though football will soon be over, all of the families have become so close, we’ll remain friends forever,” said Alicia Parrinello, mother of senior starting offensive lineman Luke.
Tears flowed freely down the cheeks of the senior Mustangs following their career-ending loss to Belleville Saturday afternoon.
The emotions were triggered in part by the gut-wrenching loss, something the group has rarely felt.
Much more powerful, however, was the understanding that — after a lifetime of playing together with friends you’ve battled with since you were 5 — they would never again step on a football field with their band of brothers.
And that hurts.
But, oh, the memories they’ve made.
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.