By Matt Schepeler
The late 1970s and early 1980s were glory days for Columbia Central High School football. Led by head Coach Jerry Albert and assistants Gary Huntley, Bob Scheick, Chuck Emch, Ted Gulliver and others, the teams were loaded with talent and played a physical brand of football that other local schools had a tough time competing against.
The names from the players from that era live on in school legend . . . names like Fouty, Gross, Stage, Norkey, Wisniewski and others are fondly remembered, but two players that went on to play for Hillsdale College are being remembered in a special way.
In March, Tom Kanka, a defensive lineman for Hillsdale from 1980-83, will be inducted into the college’s hall of fame, joining fellow Columbia alumni Pat Riepma as only two of six individual football players who have been inducted into the hall in the past 40 years. Riepma was inducted in the class of 1999.
“To have two of the six . . . that says something about the Columbia [program],” said Kanka.
Kanka was a force to be reckoned with in high school and college, and in 1983 was named a consensus All-American NAIA/NCAA Division 2 lineman.
“Tommy was unique,” said high school coach Jerry Albert of his days at Columbia. “He didn’t say much, but went about his business very seriously. He wanted to make something of himself.”
Albert added that Kanka was also “loyal, extremely loyal, to his family, his friends and his team.”
The retired coach knows a thing or two about the making of successful young men. Many of his players went on to play college ball, and several of them went to Hillsdale.
“We were tough on the kids at times, but we were training them for more than football. We were teaching them to become responsible citizens,” said Albert. “And a lot of them, like Tommy, have done very well for themselves in life. That was the most important thing.”
While some of the athletes from the era headed elsewhere, Columbia became a pipeline for Hillsdale College.
“There were quite a lot of us that went there,” noted Kanka.
After finishing college, Kanka played for a year with the Pittsburg Steelers organization and another with the Detroit Lions before hanging up his cleats. He is now a vice president at a transportation company based in Belleville, is married to Beverly, and the couple have three children.
Of course, football is still in his blood. He coaches one of his son’s youth football teams, and remembers his days at both Hillsdale and Columbia fondly.
“We were pretty good,” he said of Columbia. The family moved to the Brooklyn area in 1976, and his father, Robert, became the Columbia Township police chief.
“We were 33-3 [in those four years] but never made the playoffs,” he recalled. Today, getting into the state playoffs is much easier.
While Kanka never was much of a talker, preferring to let his play do the talking, those close to him are proud of his accomplishments. Coach Albert, who plans on flying back to Michigan to attend the induction ceremony, said that Kanka’s talents and work ethic have taken him far beyond success in football.
“He has grown into a wonderful man,” said the coach.
High praise, indeed.
The induction ceremony is scheduled for March 25, at 6 p.m. in the Searle Center on the campus of Hillsdale College.