Dowagiac, Cassopolis support local Bulldogs

Published 2:08 pm Thursday, December 23, 2021

Fans from around the country tuning into the Division II Football National Championship Game last weekend may not have been familiar with Ferris State University, let alone Caleb Murphy or Tyrese Hunt-Thompson.

But for Cory Hill, Dan Purlee and countless others from Dowagiac, Cassopolis and beyond, watching Murphy and Hunt-Thompson’s journeys from small-town Michigan into the national spotlight has been a great experience.

Hill, a Dowagiac assistant football coach and Murphy’s uncle — and Purlee, Hunt’s high school football coach at Cassopolis — were proud to see their players shine under the McKinney, Texas lights.

“All season long, it’s been awesome watching him play and excel on the field,” Hill said. “I was a little nervous going into the national championship game but it was clear by halftime that they had complete control of the game. I knew they were going to win the national championship. It was really awesome.”

“It provided a lot of excitement,” Purlee said. “I believe I watched every playoff game and was able to get up to see him play against Grand Valley this year. He’s a fun-loving guy. A pleasure to coach and he was a good student. … He has this maturity about him and this drive on top of his god-given talent to push through and do something special.”

A 6-4, 245-pound defensive end, Murphy had a season for the ages. The sophomore tallied 63 tackles, 14.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and one interception on his way to earning numerous accolades.

Hill is proud of the person and player Murphy has become.

“As his uncle and helping him throughout life, it was an amazing feeling,” he said. “It was a great moment for him. Caleb’s extremely hard-working and disciplined. To see it culminate in him being able to be an impact player and contribute to the win was an awesome feeling. I knew he was feeling great.”

Purlee amassed a 71-21 record over nine seasons as Cassopolis coach that included back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2018 and 2019 and a pair of semifinal appearances in 2016 and 2018 that Hunt-Thompson was a part of.

Watching his former all-star player catch a touchdown pass in the championship game and make a play like he did so many times at Cassopolis was special.

“It was incredibly exciting,” Purlee said. “Going in, you’re happy for him to be a part of it, but for him to put it in the end zone on the biggest stage was pretty huge. It got pretty exciting in my house that night for sure. … “I see a ton of joy in him right now. I got the chance to talk to him after the Grand Valley game. He’s a pretty driven kid. He’s got lofty goals for himself. His talent was second to none compared to everyone else we faced at the high school level. He was definitely special.”

Despite missing a handful of games due to injury, Hunt-Thompson remained one of Ferris State’s most dynamic players on offense. The freshman caught 14 passes for 380 yards — good for 27 yards per catch — and seven touchdown catches.

Purlee and the greater Cassopolis community are proud of what he has accomplished.

“It’s huge,” he said. “The people I’ve talked to, everybody’s thrilled for him. We’re not shocked at the success he’s had but we’re extremely happy for him. It’s been big for a community like Cassopolis for somebody to have success at that level and that stage. I can’t think of a former alum that has played in a game of that magnitude. It’s a pretty big deal for a kid from Cassopolis.”

Like Purlee, Hill is not surprised to see Murphy achieve the success that he has.

“Something about Caleb that a lot of people don’t realize was that he was a highly recruited player coming out of high school but he didn’t have a lot of weight on him at the time,” Hill said. “He was playing four or five varsity sports so he didn’t have a lot of weight. But people didn’t realize how strong he was. He would spend hours with me in the weight room. I’ve seen him deadlift 720 pounds. He’s an amazing, disciplined athlete doing the little things to get better. People don’t realize how much hard work he’s put into becoming the player he is today.”

Dowagiac has a rich tradition on the gridiron which includes the famed 1990 state championship team and several football standouts. According to Hill, Murphy stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best to ever put on a Chieftain uniform.

“Brett Lesniak, James Simpson, Jamie White, we’ve had a lot of great athletes come out of Dowagiac,” Hill said. “But I don’t think anyone has had the post-high school success Caleb has had on the field so far. If you ask Caleb, he knows this isn’t the end for him. This is a great moment but this is not the culminating moment. His success is the product of his dream, his desire and the discipline to go out and get it.”

As a coach for Dowagiac, Hill has seen first-hand the positive impact Murphy has had on both the local youth and the greater Dowagiac community.

“The kids love him,” he said. “They know him, admire him, they look up to him. To see him have success on the field inspires them even more to know that if they work for it, we can achieve great things. I know adults who watched Caleb play his whole life and they’re extremely proud and inspired by him. What he’s accomplished has been inspiring to a lot of people, especially the kids and athletes around here.”

For Hill and Purlee, seeing athletes from the area like Murphy, Hunt-Thompson and Burrell making an impact on a national championship team is a special moment.

“We have a kid from Benton Harbor, Dowagiac, Battle Creek, it shows the type of talent in our state,” Purlee said. “I don’t think this a surprise. Ferris State has been knocking on the door for a few years now. We have great talent in our area and no one better than coach [Tony] Annese for developing that talent and getting them to play together as a team.”

“I think it’s amazing,” Hill said. “Cass is a very small town. Benton Harbor sometimes gets a bad reputation. For me, it’s extremely humbling and a great feeling to know that kids can rise up from these areas and go on to have success. Both kids are having great success and are extremely impactful on the team. It’s not like they’re kids on the sidelines, they’re contributing and making an impact. It’s great and I’m sure their communities are extremely proud of them.”