MILLINGTON, MI – Zac Finatri never would have forgotten anyway.
Now neither will the rest of Millington or any of its opponents.
Finatri, a Millington linebacker, will still go through his pregame rituals. Stand at attention looking at the flag during the National Anthem, then take a quick glance up to the sky for his grandfather.
“I know,” Finatri said, “he’s got my back. He’ll always have my back.”
But now Finatri’s grandfather, Richard Hazel, has more than his grandson’s back. Hazel, who died in 2018, has the back of every senior citizen, veteran and mobility challenged football fan who comes to watch a game at Millington High School.
The Cardinals, led by head coach Lenny Dantinne, spent the summer clearing a spot overlooking the football field, cutting down trees and creating access for cars to reach the hill.
“We always like to have a project each year to do, and I noticed that when we went to other schools, they had fields where people who had trouble getting into the stands could park their cars and watch from their cars,” Dantinne said. “We didn’t have that. Our field is too far away and isolated from where people could park.”
Dantinne is also the Millington track coach. During the spring, when he went up to the shot put and discus area among the trees, he noticed that when he looked north, he could see the entire field.
“It was the perfect spot, except for all the trees … and there were a lot of trees,” Dantinne said. “But I’m from the U.P. When I start cutting down trees, it’s hard to stop.”
Dantinne and his wife, Taylor Dantinne, jumped into the project and found a community full of supporters.
“So many people helped and contributed to make this happen,” Dantinne said. “There was so much work to be done, so much to clear. But we did it, and it’s a great spot for fans – our fans and fans of the other team – to watch the game.”
Before the season, much to the surprise of Finatri, Millington dedicated the hill to his grandfather, calling it Hazel Hill.
“My grandfather probably wouldn’t have cared for having his name on it because he didn’t like to bring attention to himself,” Finatri said. “But as far as the purpose of it and the use of it … he would have loved, loved, loved it.”
Hazel, who was married to his wife Debbie Hazel for 39 years, was the president of Millington’s Class of 1963 and attended Flint Junior College before joining the Army during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Combat Infantrymen Badge and the Distinguished Service Cross.
When he returned to Millington, he worked at the Fisher Body and Buick City plants in Flint, but his “full-time” job was attending Millington sporting events.
“He would go to all of them, even if none of his grandkids were in them,” Finatri said. “He’d go all over to watch Millington, and I’d go with him, whether it was a volleyball game in the Thumb somewhere or a basketball game in Bad Axe. It didn’t matter if it was a tournament game or a regular-season game. He was always there.”
Hazel died on March 20, 2018. He was 72.
Finatri, a senior, was on the junior varsity team during the 2017 season. But he was called up for the 2017 playoffs, where the Cardinals beat Hemlock and Houghton Lake before falling to Traverse City St. Francis in the quarterfinals.
Finatri played against Houghton Lake, returning a kick more than 50 yards.
“After the game, he was going on and on about what a great return that was,” Finatri said. “It had to be the greatest 50-yard return ever. I’m just thankful that he got to see me play on varsity, even if it was just for that one play or that one game, before he died.”
Finatri does not expect to play football in college, but he hopes to have a good golf season and find somewhere to play golf in college.
“That would be a great tribute to my grandfather,” Finatri said “He taught me how to play. When I was 7 or 8 years old, he would take me out golfing, two to three times a week. One of his goals, and he was able to do it, was to golf in all 50 states. Hawaii was the last one, and he did it.”
Hazel has 10 grandchildren, two who graduated from Mount Morris and eight who are in the Millington school district. Another grandson, Logan Watkins, is on the freshman football team.
“In my mind, I can still see my grandfather at my games … he always wore the same green jacket,” Finatri said. “I don’t know if I ever saw him wear a different jacket.
“One of our traditions was to go to Applebee’s on Veterans Day, so he could get a free dessert … just him, me and my mom. We’re going to keep the tradition alive though. We’ll take my grandma now to keep the tradition going.”
Meanwhile, Hazel’s legacy – through Hazel Hill – will serve veterans, senior citizens and mobility challenged fans in the future. The hill can accommodate 40 vehicles, but fans are required to have a pass to use it. Passes are available by calling Millington athletic director Jason Germain at 989-660-2461 the week of the game.
“It’s a great tribute,” Germain said, “to a great man.”