BELDING — Homecoming can be described as a time when a school and community come together for an evening to celebrate the rich traditions of a community, welcome back alumni and enjoy an exciting game of varsity football.
But at the homecoming pep assembly Friday afternoon at Belding High School, the atmosphere surrounding the homecoming festivities had a different feel from most years.
Students were less than 24-hours removed from an accident on Thursday in which fellow classmate and junior cross country runner Austin Gilman was struck by a car when attempting to cross M-44 at Ionia Street.
Fellow cross country runners who were just a few steps behind Gilman immediately rushed to Gilman’s aid until medical personnel arrived on scene.
Gilman was transported to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids where he was listed in critical condition, however his condition has been upgraded to serious as of Friday evening.
“We’ve gotten very good news throughout the day about his recovery, he’s already made tremendous strides this morning,” High School Principal Brett Zuver said. “It’s been tough because today, being homecoming, it’s kind of a fun day. But we did chat with the student body this morning and have kept them up-to-date.”
For a normal pep assembly, students would be dressed proudly in the school colors of orange and black, but at Friday’s assembly, those colors took a backseat.
On Friday, the majority of students wore t-shirts, headbands, face paint and other items, all boasting the color blue — Gilman’s favorite color.
“That was all the students’ idea, to dress in blue,” Zuver said. “The kids have been great and very responsive and it’s nice to see everyone come together. We’ve got a great student body and they get very involved in a lot of things. I’m sure the family appreciates it.”
In an emotional turn of events during the pep assembly, it was the junior class, not the seniors, who won the award for the greatest school spirit by competing in games and cheers throughout the assembly.
It was perhaps the final cheer of the day, after the juniors had been declared winners, that was the loudest.
The chant of “AUST-IN GIL-MAN” was recited over and over as students clapped and pounded on their blue apparel.
“We love the kid,” fellow junior Cameron Dombrowski said. “He’s a great kid. We grew up with him, and he comes in every day with a smile. I think everybody just had him in their memory today and we went out and won for him.”
Fellow cross country runner and junior Sam Syrjala said the event has shaken everyone on the cross country team, but knowing Gilman is recovering well from his injuries has made things more comfortable.
“I was at the hospital last night,” Syrjala said. “Today was kind of a tribute for Austin Gilman. Last night during practice he ran across the road and just ended up getting hit. We are doing everything we can to rally around him.”
Syrjala said Gilman suffered a broken pelvis, which was shattered, received six staples and had a gash above one of his eyes.
One of the homecoming activities throughout the week was a car smash event to raise money for Project Graduation, where students hit a car with crowbars and sledgehammers to raise awareness against texting and driving.
But on Friday, it provided students with a way to release anger and stress associated with Gilman’s accident.
Senior Natasha Thomas, 16, grabbed a crowbar and attacked the car at will, but with a slight smile on her face.
“I beat up this car because we’re trying to promote against texting and driving,” she said. “I think it’s been going really well. Everybody’s been supporting the car smash and it’s a fun way to take your rage out.”
Thomas, who was wearing a blue headband and blue face paint, said she put a little extra effort into her swings with a crowbar with Gilman in the back of her mind.
“You don’t usually get to do things like that,” she said. “We’re all hoping he gets better.”
Senior Cody Scheidel, 17, took two turns at the car to release his frustration about Gilman’s accident.
“(Gilman) was brutally hit by a car yesterday,” he said. “I heard someone being very disrespectful about the accident and it enraged me. I feel a little bit better now, I got my physical anger out.”
Scheidel said he lives with a member of the cross country team and was told first hand about the accident.
“It kind of put everything into perspective for me,” he said. “It was unreal how shaken up he was. We both wore blue today to honor him.”
Belding Police Chief Dale Nelson said an account has been set up at Independent Bank in Belding where people can donate to help Gilman with his injuries.
According to Nelson, the investigation of the accident is still ongoing, but did say the driver of the vehicle, who’s name is not being released at this time, was a female from Ionia.
Nelson said she was wearing her seatbelt and does not appear to be at fault in the accident, however, the investigation is ongoing.