LAPEER, Michigan — Two years ago, almost to the day, Mike Smith had no idea a program-changer was going to walk through the main entrance of Lapeer High School. Smith, who has coached football for the better part of 35 years, had heard the name Phoenix Dickson before.
It is, after all, a hard name to forget.
Phoenix and his parents were in town to attend the District’s annual Opportunity Night — a show and tell event promoting the District’s innovative academic offerings.
Smith knew Phoenix was a good football player. He definitely looked the part — a sophomore at over six feet tall and 200 pounds. What he didn’t know, at the time, was that Phoenix would become one of the most impactful players in the history of Lapeer football, and change the life of a young girl forever.
Welcome to Lapeer
Opportunity Night 2018 was a game-changer for the Dickson family. His parents, Mike and Britt Dickson, were blown away by the opportunities offered to their son in Lapeer compared to their home district.
Phoenix was looking for more and he found it in Lapeer.
Lapeer wasn’t just more competitive on the football field, but also in the classroom.
“Lapeer has so much to offer students, so many advanced opportunities and activities,” Britt said.
That said, the decision to make the jump was, ultimately, left to Phoenix. He didn’t hesitate.
“It’s been great here. I’ve loved every minute of it,” said Phoenix, on the day he signed his letter of intent to play football for division one Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “I’ve learned so much from my coaches and my teachers here have been great.”
So great, in fact, he couldn’t even decide who was his favorite.
Since coming to Lapeer, Phoenix has taken full advantage of what the District has to offer, including Advanced Placement courses, LINKS and one of the state’s best strength and conditioning programs. He currently holds a 3.53 grade point average.
Mike Dickson, Phoenix’s father, said he has no regrets about his son’s decision to come to Lapeer.
“The experience here has been incredible — we wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “(Phoenix) felt at home here right away. They made him feel like he was a part of the team, of the school, from the first day.”
Ask any parent, teacher or coach: A sense of belonging is vital to any student’s success in school and in life. It’s the mark of a great community.
He didn’t know it at the time, but what Coach Smith’s program did for Phoenix, he would ultimately do for Emily Spidle.
A Sense of Belonging
On the Wednesday before Christmas, scores of students packed into the LHS cafeteria after school to take pictures and watch Phoenix sign his letter of intent to play football at Holy Cross. He was putting pen to paper on his dream of playing D-1 football.
His parents were blown away by the turnout, which was incredible for a single signing of a student-athlete who’d been in Lapeer for less than two years.
Among the mob of family, friends, coaches, teachers and administrators, was someone who wore a grey shirt with Holy Cross emblazoned in bright purple — and an even brighter smile.
Perhaps no one was happier for Phoenix that day than Emily Spidle. She was beaming.
Lapeer High School Principal Doug Lindsay, who was enjoying the ceremony off to the side, motioned toward Emily’s mother, Cheri, who was taking photos of Phoenix on his big day.
“That’s Emily’s mom. She’d run through a wall for Phoenix,” he said, using the football parlance fit for the occasion.
And he was right.
“I think the world of Phoenix,” she said. “What a huge difference he has made in Emily’s life and my entire family. He is a part of us now.”
He’s a part of them because he’s a part of LINKS.
LINKS is a peer-to-peer support program based on the idea that students relate better to their peers than to adults. As part of the program, students are trained to model appropriate behavior, understanding and inclusion of their peers, including students with special needs.
Emily, a sophomore in her first year at Lapeer High School, struck gold when she was assigned Phoenix as her link.
“Phoenix is my Link for Art,” Emily said. “He helps me. He’s nice to me and he’s my friend.”
For Phoenix, being a part of LINKS was a life-changer, too.
“It was really easy to make Emily a part of my life,” he said. “If you want to make a difference, you actually have to spend time with people.”
He spent time with Emily outside of school for one simple reason: Emily is his friend.
“It’s what I would do with my other friends,” he said. “The more time you spend with someone, the bigger bond you create. That’s exactly what happened with us.”
Stacy Sahr, who coordinates LINKS at LHS, says the program offers a unique opportunity to help students learn to give a little of themselves to help others while becoming more aware of the differences that exist between each other.
“I believe that Phoenix learned a little bit about autism, became more aware about those with disabilities and probably gained just as much as Emily, if not more, from being a part of the program,” she said. “The students become friends and oftentimes remain friends after high school.”
This is exactly how it’s supposed to work.
“Phoenix is a rare bird,” Cheri said. “He has so much empathy and humanity. He puts himself in her shoes, treats her like a peer, showing that she’s human, too.”
For parents of students with special needs, LINKS is a lifeline — a consistent source of acceptance and love.
“These kids really care; you can just feel their genuine interest,” Cheri said. “Phoenix is just a true friend to her. He brightens her day. He makes her smile. She just wants to belong. That’s what all kids want.”
Phoenix never felt like he was doing anything special. On the contrary, following the Golden Rule is a minimum expectation. That’s how he was raised.
“My parents taught me to always treat people the way I want to be treated, so this is how I live my life,” he said. “I’ve always tried to do the right thing whether people are watching or not. If this means that people will be kind because they see an athlete being kind, then that’s even better.”
Coach Smith was impressed by his star player’s interest in LINKS, particularly how he incorporated the mission of LINKS everywhere he went.
“Phoenix doesn’t just do his work with our LINKS kids during his assigned hours; he’s constantly helping,” he said. “It’s never just about him. It’s about our team, our school. I hope our younger players follow his lead.”
Cheri said that nothing hurts a parent more than when their child is left out because of their differences.
“Phoenix could use his status and totally ignore these kids,” she said. “And he doesn’t. He leads by example and the kids look up to him. His peers look up to him.
“It melts my heart.”
The mistreatment of anyone, based on their differences, is one of the few things that bothers Phoenix more than missed tackles.
“Everyone wants to belong and no one should ever be treated differently because they are challenged,” he said. “We are all unique for a reason.”
When Phoenix, who had been recruited by numerous D-1 football programs including Air Force and the Ivy League’s Cornell, made his official visit to Holy Cross, it was a Lapeer experience all over again.
“He knew almost immediately it was the place for him,” Mike Dickson said.
And before his letter of intent made it official, something else did: He had to get Emily a t-shirt.
“Emily will always be in my life. She will always be my friend.”
There was no hiding his talent, whether he was playing linebacker, running back or wildcat quarterback. Phoenix Dickson was a game breaker from the first time he stepped on the field in a Lapeer uniform (here come the highlights). It was a victory over Lake Orion at the Big House in Ann Arbor, the first of 20 wins over two seasons in the green and blue.
“Once we saw the film, we knew he was a great player,” Coach Smith recalled. “We just had no idea what kind of kid he actually was, the magnetizing force, the leader of the highest quality.”
Eric Hensel, the offensive coordinator, couldn’t say enough about his star player’s instincts on the field, his versatility and, most of all, his character.
“He’s a better person than he is a player, which says a lot,” Hensel said. “He cares about his classmates and people in his community. He’s the type of young man you are proud to have coached.”
Like Coach Hensel, Coach Smith cares about his players like they are a part of his family. It was clear, when talking about Phoenix and his impact on the program, the thought of his departure was welling up the waterworks.
“He’s a cut above,” he said. “As a coach, I never had to worry about what his agenda was away from school or on the weekends. It was always about doing the right stuff.”
On the field, he earned nearly every accolade — all-conference, all-state, DPOY, Dream Team, etc. But there’s one accolade that may stand out above the rest.
Smith, who has coached players who have gone on to become All-Americans, who have played in the Big Ten and the professional ranks, says Phoenix is one of the most impactful student-athletes he’s ever coached.
“Coming from Coach Smith, that means a lot,” Phoenix said.
The name Phoenix Dickson was always going to be hard to forget. For Coach Smith, the Spidle Family and our entire school community, it’s much harder now.