FRUITPORT – Last season at this time, Vanden Stegall got his first start for the Fruitport football team, filling in for standout offensive tackle Kayden Bell against Hudsonville Unity Christian.
The Trojans were starting to roll through what turned out to be a conference championship season, and Stegall was thrilled to get on the field and join the party.
This Friday Fruitport will play Unity Christian again, and Stegall will be in the lineup again, this time as the regular starting left offensive tackle.
Things have not been nearly as fun this year for the Trojans, who are off to a very tough 0-5 start with several blowout losses in recent weeks.
But that makes no difference to Stegall, at least in terms of his work ethic and dedication.
The coaches can count on him to go hard on every play, in practice and in games. For a team that’s struggling badly right now, that kind of player is invaluable.
“He loves his teammates, works hard, gets the most out of his toolbox and maximizes his potential,” said Fruitport head coach Nate Smith. “He’s mentally strong and he’s locked in. He will be out there until the last play is done, plus five more.
“He’s a quiet kid, not the ‘Rah-rah look at me’ type, but people should be looking at him.”
Stegall’s passion is grounded in his incredible love for football.
He didn’t play youth leagues as a youngster, like most of his teammates, even though he definitely wanted to.
“I went to join multiple times, but my doctor kept telling me it was a terrible idea, because of concussions and head injuries,” he said.
Finally, in the eighth grade, Stegall couldn’t take it anymore and went out for the Trojans’ middle school team.
“I’ve been loving every minute of it,” he said.
Stegall’s side hobby, collecting football memorabilia, also started in middle school.
He shops for and purchases autographs and other collectibles involving famous and favorite players at the pro and college levels.
He has a Barry Sanders autograph. He has Lem Barney and Deandre Swift autographs.
He has an autograph from his favorite Lion, offensive lineman Penie Sewell, plus a whole lot more.
His collection of sports memorabilia finally reached the point where it needed to be displayed, so he built his own case to show it off.
“It’s just something I really got into and ended up spending a lot of money on,” he said.
Stegall was thrilled when he reached his freshman year and the high school football program.
That was back in 2020, during the thick of COVID. With limited opportunities for teammates to see each other, a Fruitport senior started an online game where players competed by sharing funny videos of themselves at home.
Most of the participants were upperclassmen, but Stegall the excited freshman jumped in right away.
“I still have a video of him doing a cartwheel in his living room,” Coach Smith said with a chuckle. “It was atrocious! It was pathetic! Nothing broke on him – maybe on a few lamps, though! I just remember thinking at the time, that kid is locked in.”
Stegall loved working out with the varsity as a freshman and sophomore, even though he was officially on the JV squad.
He was thrilled last year when he finally got the chance to start a varsity game and earned regular playing time.
This year, as a senior starter, he was excited to hit the field and have the best season possible, and that hasn’t changed.
He just didn’t count on the Trojans being winless after the first five games.
“I expected us to have a decent season,” Stegall said. “I knew going in that we would have some difficulties because of the number of starters we lost, but I still thought there was some good talent on our team. and I still think that. I think we can definitely still turn it around.”
Keeping a stiff upper lip does not mean Stegall tolerates the losses very well.
Coach Smith remembers a day earlier this season when Stegall and fellow lineman Caden Carrillo walked up after practice, expressing their frustration with how things were going.
“They were on the verge of tears, wondering how we can get more guys locked in,” Smith said. “They want it so bad for themselves and the team.”
With so much frustration, how does Stegall keep getting himself pumped up to play so hard every week?
He said he was most recently inspired by Fruitport quarterback Braden Dornbos in a Week 4 loss to Holland Christian, when he turned an ankle, took a bunch of nasty hits, injured his ribs but kept on playing.
“I saw hin getting hurt and pushing through it,” Stegall said. “I hated that he kept going to the ground, but he kept getting up. From that moment I decided that I was going to keep pushing through, too.”