By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
Conversations in the Nesbitt house always seem to come back to track and field.
The fact that the father, Michael, is the cross country and boys track coach at Bay City Western, and his two children, Brendan and Sydney, are MHSAA Finals qualifiers in both sports is only part of the reason.
“Having my dad as a coach is different because he’s with you like every second of basically every day,” Brendan Nesbitt said. “When you’re at practice when he tells you something, he’s not telling you as your dad, he’s telling you as your coach. Then at home, he’ll switch gears. Even when we come home, we talk a lot about track or cross country, but that’s just because we’re really big track nerds.”
Time at the track is time with family for the Nesbitts.
Brendan is a senior at Western who finished seventh in the Lower Peninsula Division 1 meet a year ago in the 800 meters. Sydney is a sophomore who qualified in the same event her freshman year.
Michael has been coaching at Western for 19 years, and while recently his children have been a big part of that, they’ve never really been that far away.
“It wasn’t just my wife and myself raising the kids,” Michael said. “The athletes would babysit them on some nights, and they were teaching them to run hurdles and things like that.”
Running runs in the family, as both Michael and his wife, Deanna, were collegiate runners. Michael’s father, Jim, was his coach at Saginaw Valley State University.
During Michael’s childhood, while his dad was a high school coach, he spent time carrying athletes’ sweats, or anything else that would put him near the team and his dad.
Two decades later, Brendan – who also will run at Saginaw Valley – was doing the same thing.
“I’m the oldest sibling, so I didn’t have other siblings to look up to, I guess,” Brendan said. “I was always at the team dinners the day before the meets, and I had fun and looked up to them. They treated me like a little brother.”
Sydney, meanwhile, has had a unique experience. Not only did she grow up around the track and cross country teams, she also has had a brother on those teams – and at home – that she has admired and followed.
“During the summers I’ve been training with my dad and the high school team since like sixth grade,” she said. “I knew what Brendan was like, and how hard he trained, and I wanted to be like him.”
Brendan said he’s passed some knowledge onto his sister, for instance, like the importance of getting up each weekend and going for a run even when she’d rather not. But he said her teammates and her talent are doing the bulk of the work.
“Coming out of middle school, we knew she was going to be pretty good. We just didn’t know how good,” he said. “Since I’ve been on the team, she’s been around the high school team more, and she saw me and how I adjusted to high school races. When she came in, our girls team had a bunch of good older girls. My class is big on the girls side, and she knew a lot of them, so they taught her most of the stuff.”
They couldn’t give her what Michael did on the day of the 2016 MHSAA Finals, however. In her first time running at the meet – she had been there several times as a spectator – Sydney was too excited to be overwhelmed after watching her brother come from the middle of the pack in the boys 800 to run a personal best time of 1 minute, 54.85 seconds and earn an all-state medal.
While Sydney didn’t place among the top eight, she ran her own personal best of 2:18.14 to finish 17th in Division 1.
“It was always amazing to be at the state meet – the atmosphere was so cool – and I always wanted to be part of that,” Sydney said. “My brother ran before me and he got seventh in the state, so that was a huge motivating factor.”
It was, of course, a big moment for Brendan, too. He remembers making his final kick after hearing his dad and grandfather giving encouragement and guidance with about 250 meters to go. After he crossed the finish line, he looked back and the first face he saw was his father’s.
“I turned and looked at my dad right away,” Brendan said. “He’s standing at the 50-yard line and he’s holding up the numbers on his hand that he had on the hand timer. Basically, I walked over to him and gave him a hug, then gave my teammates a hug.”
Being the first person to greet a runner at the finish line is both a duty and a perk of being a coach. Being the first to greet your son after an all-state performance? That’s something else altogether.
“I try to internalize most of the dad part when I’m coaching,” Michael said. “I know it’s my son out there, but he’s also a runner for Western high school. He’s a runner for me on the track. But it was a pretty emotional moment when he earned his medal at the state meet. That’s a proud dad moment. That’s when it comes to reality – after the race.”
While he gets them in the fall and spring, Michael isn’t always coaching his children. Technically, he’s not the girls track coach, either. That job belongs to Rich Syring, although Michael is the distance coach, so he does oversee most of Sydney’s workouts.
During basketball season, however, he’s just dad.
“It was nice when they got into middle school and high school, I got to take the dad seat in the stands,” Michael said. “To be coached by someone else, that’s a good experience. You have to know it’s not dad out there, and that somebody else is going to yell at them. I like the basketball, just the idea of them getting exposure in a different sport. I think it helps them become not just a better runner, but a better athlete.”
Just because he’s not the coach, however, doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt.
“For basketball, he doesn’t coach, but he’s definitely the loudest in the stands,” Sydney said with a laugh. “If something goes wrong, he’ll give me a look. I know what he’s saying just with that look.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) From left, Brendan, Michael, Sydney and Deanna Nesbitt at the 2016 Division 1 Finals. (Middle) Brendan Nesbitt, in yellow, works to move up from the middle of the pack during the 800. (Top photo courtesy of the Nesbitt family, middle by Carter Sherline/RunMichigan.com.)