By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – A Parma Western shot streaked by Josh Flamme’s reach Tuesday night, seemingly on its way to becoming one of few to make it past him and into the net this season.
But – as if shoved off course – the ball caromed off a post, keeping another shutout intact.
The Mason senior remembers similar scenarios over the last few years. Dives with no chance of reaching the ball – until he feels it smash into his hands. Stops he never could have made without an extra push.
He doesn’t always believe his luck. But he has an explanation.
Walt Flamme died four years ago this spring, four months before the first games of Josh’s high school career. But he goes with Josh every time the all-state keeper heads into the goal box, a conversation partner when the ball is on the other side of the field and a source of strength when an opponent is bearing down on the Bulldogs’ net.
“I’m always just like, ‘Come on man. If you’re going to help me out, you should do it now,’” Flamme said.
“He never saw me play in high school. But I play every game for him, and he has the best seat in the house. He’s helped me out any way he can.”
Flamme is in his third season starting for Mason, ranked No. 3 in Division 2 this week. He’s the latest of a string of all-state keepers who have anchored the team’s defense over the last 12 seasons, and he’s going to graduate as one of the most accomplished. His 41 career shutouts rank eighth in MHSAA history – nine off tying the record – and he’s given up only three goals this season in leading the Bulldogs to a 10-0-1 start. He’s also the kicker on Mason’s undefeated football team.
He’ll be in goal Tuesday when the Bulldogs face Eaton Rapids in their second annual Compete for a Cause game, a fundraiser for the Children’s Center at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital with donations to be used by families with children receiving cancer treatment.
Mason will wear yellow, symbolizing pediatric cancer. Eaton Rapids will wear blue for prostate cancer, an illness Greyhounds coach Matt Boersma’s dad Jeff has battled. And Flamme will wear orange to symbolize his father’s fight against leukemia, which Josh remembers during his team’s moment of silence before every game and as he points to the heavens once he takes his spot at the back line.
He’s been a keeper since third grade and a perfect fit. He’s Mason's best athlete, and at 6 feet tall can get to shots that might fly over others. He’s got the best work ethic Mason coach Nick Binder and assistant Kevin Gunns have witnessed during their seven seasons running the program, and as a communicator he’s a coach’s dream. “Of our four captains, he’s by far the most vocal,” Gunns said, “and the one the younger kids look up to.”
After turning 18 over the weekend, Flamme also is an adult who perhaps was forced by circumstance to grow up faster than he would’ve liked. Binder believes Flamme shows an elite level of dedication when compared to other high school athletes, and with that an elite level of maturity as well.
“I don’t want to be just bragging about him. But he’s my hero,” said Tracy Flamme, Josh’s mother. “After his dad died and everything, he could’ve become ... not a nice person. But he didn’t. It almost made him stronger, I think.
“His dad would be very proud of him. I’m so proud of him, I could just bust.”
Starting from scratch
Walt Flamme didn’t know a thing about soccer when his son chose that sport over karate as a kindergartner. Walt was a football player, the back-up quarterback and kicker at Okemos during his high school days.
But he became Josh’s main practice partner, pushing the extension pole of a vacuum into the ground a few feet from the flag pole in their back yard to create a makeshift goal and then firing shots at his son. Walt also was the dad who stayed to watch every practice, and Josh would wake up late at night to find him looking up drills on the computer.
“He didn’t know what the heck was going on, but he learned,” Josh said. “He did his work and tried to help me out as much as he could.”
By the end of middle school, Flamme was an experienced club player and part of an elite team out of Detroit. The path was paved for him to become Mason’s next great keeper.
Valuable mentors have helped him reach that goal. Recently graduated Michigan State keeper Jeremy Clark has been a go-to source for advice and an extra push when needed. Two former high school standouts, Mason and Olivet’s College’s Ethan Felsing and Caro’s Brandon Wheeler, are volunteer keeper coaches with the Bulldogs this season.
But the keeper Flamme looks up to most is former Mason standout Steve Clark, a 2004 graduate who went on to star at Oakland University and currently plays in the top division of Norway’s professional league, Tippeligaen.
Clark made it home for a week this summer, and Flamme worked his way into an hour-long training session with his hero. It was during that brief workout that Flamme picked up on Clark’s attention to detail – something that’s been mostly good but also a little bit frustrating.
Flamme has learned to pay attention to the little things that will help take his game up another level. But he also struggles with dwelling on the smallest of details, which can get in the way of his in-game focus while there are other tasks at hand.
“Keepers, we’re all head cases. We’re all crazy psychos, diving headfirst into balls,” Flamme said. “But at the same time, you’ve gotta be able to forget things.
“I’m just trying to forget the bad things.”
Memories worth saving
Josh’s memories of his dad – like the two kicking the ball around the yard – remain vivid.
Walt was diagnosed during the fall of Josh’s eighth-grade year, but his son didn’t grasp as first the severity of the situation. Not until about three months later, during mid-winter, did Josh begin to understand.
“You could be off with friends, be smiling and laughing, having a good time. But on the inside, you never stop thinking about it,” Flamme said. “On the outside, you’re acting like you’re having fun. Inside it’s just like, ‘This sucks.’ That was always the toughest part – always having in the back of your mind that your parent is just slowly dying.”
Walt Flamme died on April 11, 2010. Still, his dad’s death didn’t hit Josh until a couple days after, when he walked into his father’s room and Walt no longer was there.
The two were inseparable working the family’s 45-acre farm. The Flammes grew soybeans and wheat and had four horses, and Walt knew how to do just about anything needed to keep the gears turning. “He’d do things to his truck I didn’t know there were parts for,” Josh said. “Just by watching, I kinda picked up on stuff. I knew how to do everything.”
Tracy Flamme said they shared the same mellow personality, with Josh now the one who will remind his mom to not get worked up unnecessarily. That “crazy” Josh believes is a key to a keeper’s success? He credits his dad for giving him a dose.
When Walt died, Flamme became familiar with the advice of not remembering the bad times. He had no problems there. Aside from a few spilled glasses of juice, he couldn’t remember his dad yelling at him. “We didn’t have bad times. I couldn’t dream of a better dad,” Flamme said. “I would just think about the positives and just know he’s not going to want me, because he’s gone, to stop working hard in soccer, stop working in school. I want to do what he would want me to do.”
Competing for a Cause
Compete for a Cause began as the brainchild of Gunns, who like Binder is a former Mason soccer player and whose wife, Sheri, has undergone surgeries over the last decade because of thyroid cancer.
Sheri Gunns teaches sixth grade in Okemos, and one of her students two years ago was Paige Duren. Michigan State football fans may be familiar with Duren – she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011 and became an inspirational member of the Spartans’ football family.
Mason’s players also had an unfortunate tie to cancer in classmate Spencer Sowles, a football player who attended last fall’s Compete for a Cause game but died March 18.
Those connections plus that to Walt Flamme made picking a cause for the benefit game easy.
When he and Binder told the team about the event last fall, Flamme thought “this is awesome.” That first game raised $1,000, and with September national pediatric cancer awareness month, Kevin Gunns hopes next week’s match can build on that success.
“Just seeing other families affected by (cancer), I understand what’s going on with them. It’s just cool to help them out in any possible way,” Flamme said. “When my dad was going through it, people would bring over food and stuff like that. For a split second there you feel normal. It’s not a normal situation. Any time we can help families, if we can give them help, have them feel normal for a split second, that’s really cool.”
Back in stride
Flamme has had plenty of mentors off the field as well. Friends’ dads have been there for him, and Binder and Gunns have guided him through his college recruiting questions.
His friends got him back on his feet quickly and have kept him rolling through good times and struggles.
“We’ll have lengthy talks about it every now and then. I think that’s good for us to do,” said sophomore John Kingman, one of Mason’s starting defenders. “It gets it off his mind, helps clear his mind a little bit. I think it brings him to a peaceful time.”
Flamme has committed to play his college soccer at University of Detroit Mercy, and he’s excited about beginning the school’s five-year cyber security program. He hopes to work for the government when college and soccer are done.
“After my husband died, I wanted something good to happen to Josh,” Tracy Flamme said. “And it did.”
Josh has been in net for 55 varsity wins and helped the Bulldogs to Regional Finals each of the last two seasons. There’s nothing he’d like more than to bring home his team’s first MHSAA title since 1997.
If that happens, Flamme will know one of the reasons why.
“I’d have to thank (my dad) for weeks,” Flamme said. “We’ve definitely got the talent. But you’ve gotta be lucky sometimes.
“If he throws a couple balls our way ...”
PHOTOS: (Top) Mason goalkeeper Josh Flamme prepares for an Okemos free kick during the team's 0-0 tie this season. (Middle top) Flamme launches a kick downfield against the Chieftains. (Middle bottom) Flamme also is the placekicker for Mason's football team. (Bottom) At 6-feet tall, Flamme excels at making saves at the top of the goal. (Photos courtesy of Alan Holben.)