BY JAMES COOK
---- — BURT LAKE — The next time Burt Lake Northern Michigan Christian Academy drops a game, it will not only be the end of the season, but the end of an era.
With post-season play about to start, the extraordinary run of Chatfields donning an NMCA jersey is nearing an end.
Senior Aaron Chatfield — who set the state record for career goals this season — is the last in a long line of siblings to star for the Eagles.
At least one of Rusty Chatfield's kids has been on varsity every year since 1996. That's when Spencer Chatfield made his Eagles debut — as a seventh-grader.
He was followed by Nathan, Lee, Paul and Aaron.
The five siblings have scored a total of 656 goals, and the family name dots the Michigan High School Athletic Association boys soccer record books.
The three "major" career statistical categories all belong to Chatfields. Aaron holds the goals and points records, Nathan the assists mark.
"Next year is going to be a turning of the page for NMCA," said 24-year-old Lee, the third of the five boys who is in his third year as NMCA coach. "It'll be the first time since 1996 a Chatfield won't be announced in the lineup. I've felt this way with Paul and Aaron the last few years — and a little bit with Nate and I — that every game we go to, we may not have the thickest lineup, but I'm always confident we have the best player on the field. Next year, we're going to have some young guys step it up. It'll definitely be a new chapter for NMCA. It will be for my dad, too. Every year he goes to every soccer game. I think starting next year, he may take a few off."
The pastor at Northern Michigan Baptist Church, Rusty Chatfield has coached at NMCA since 1981, often in multiple sports. He's currently the girls soccer coach.
Anything's a goal
With five boys and two girls, the Chatfield home is a busy one when they're all there.
"We live in a log cabin, and there's two pillars where you can go underneath — and those were the goals," Aaron said. "It was back and forth all the time in the house. We always had some kind of little squishy ball to play some sort of soccer."
And such activities by multiple boys over a course of many years led to more than one broken household item along the way.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Aaron said. "We super glued it all back together."
"It was always a broken lamp or picture frame," Nathan joked. "Picture frames were usually the most common to go."
The boys are all competitive, and that comes out in soccer and just about everything else. They also had a basketball hoop in the living room, and Rusty had cones set up in the backyard so the boys could work on their dribbling skills.
"He told us one time if we could juggle long enough that he'd take us to the card shop," Lee recalled. "I was like, 'I'm going to get that Shaquille O'Neal rookie card.'"
He ended up getting it, and the card now resides in his office.
"There isn't a Thanksgiving where there isn't a football throwing competition or something," Lee said. "There's always something going on when we get together."
One common story they all tell is one of Lee playing two-on-one against his younger brothers Paul and Aaron. They'd play to 10 and Lee would let the two — who are 6 and 7 years younger — get ahead 9-0 before mounting a comeback to win 10-9.
"Lee would love to toy with them," Nathan said. "He'd let them get so close and then beat them. It was great. He's ruthless. It was really funny to watch.
"It's all fun and games until someone starts crying — and then it's really fun."
"It's a little more intense, and little more physical (kind of soccer)," Paul said. "Especially Lee would mess with us the most. He would take it easy on us. We'd play two versus one, and he'd make it go down to the wire. We'd play to 10, and he would make us score nine goals and then just crush our dreams at the end. I remember me and Aaron just crying, being the little competitors we were. Lee still teases us about it."
Like a broken record
The conga line of soccer success started with Spencer. He was on NMCA's varsity team as a seventh-grader in 1996 and ended his career with 121 goals and 189 points (the MHSAA won't allow stats accumulated in junior high to be counted, even if they're on varsity).
"When you have an older brother that's 6 or 7 years older, everything they do is cool," Aaron said. "When I was younger, what I thought was cool was exactly what Lee or Nate did. I wanted be just like them. So when they played soccer and loved it, I played soccer and loved it. A lot of what Paul and I have gotten is from Nathan and Lee and Spencer."
That includes getting into the record books.
Paul's stats are just a little better than Spencer's, and Aaron passed Nathan this season as the state's top career goal-scorer and point-producer.
"Aaron is a result of all the brothers in many different ways," Rusty said. "He's grown up with their instruction."
Aaron broke the school record for goals in a season this year with 60 heading into this week's districts. The old record of 57 set by Nathan in 2004.
"He's so humble about it, too," Nathan said. "I was talking to him the other night, and he was picking apart his game and pointing out all the things he did wrong. That's the mark of a great player — always striving for something better."
"We don't judge how good we are by how many goals we score," Aaron said. "Lee doesn't have any records or anything like that and he's just as good as I am or Nate or anybody."
Spencer is now 28 and serving in the Marines. Nate is 26, Lee 24, Paul 18 and Aaron 17. There's also Bethany, who is a senior at NUI, and 20-year-old Faith, who lives in Burt Lake.
"It's been cool," said Nathan, who teamed up with Lee to lead the 2004 NMCA team to the Division 4 state championship game. "It's been neat to see how each of the younger brothers challenged themselves to supersede the older brothers. I think the advantage always goes with the younger brothers. I know with me, I saw what Spencer did, and I was like, 'Alright, I'm going to beat that.' That was my target and as I started getting closer to Spencer's record and thought I could do more, I set a new target. It's been nice to see each of the brothers, in their own way, achieve things the brother in front of them wasn't able to accomplish."
Lee earned a spot on varsity in eighth grade the year Spencer was a senior.
"I kind of bridged the gap between all of them," Lee said. "I played with Spencer and I coached Aaron, so I got to see the best of both ends of the spectrum."
Nathan averaged 24.1 points a game for his four-year basketball career as well, sitting two spots ahead of Magic Johnson on Michigan's career scoring list.
All for one
Four of the brothers have played their college soccer at Northland International University, an NAIA school about 80 miles north of Green Bay in northern Wisconsin.
That could be five, as the Pioneers are recruiting Aaron to come play alongside his brother Paul. The Eagles are heavily represented on the team, as former Burt Lake midfielder Marco Patz and defenders Wil Lovitt and Jonny Brownfield are also on the squad.
Nathan was a three-time All-American for the Pioneers and Lee — the only one of the brothers who played defense — was a two-time All-America pick. Spencer played one season at the Dunbar, Wis., college, scoring the game-winning goal in the 2002 NAIA National Championship before enlisting in the Marines.
But Aaron going to join two of his brothers isn't a slam dunk. As of now, he's seriously considering four colleges — including Northland — but Olivet Nazarene has become a bit of a dark horse in the running after offering a full-ride scholarship, something not frequently offered at the college level.
"One of their coaches told me it's the first time they've ever offered anyone a full-ride," Lee said.
Liberty University (Virginia) and Grace College (Indiana) are also in the running.
"At an NAIA school like that, they're not rolling in the dough, so they must have seen something very special that they really liked," Nathan said. "So that's very flattering."
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Nathan is the assistant coach at Northland. He's also the women's coach there and an admissions adviser and holds the Pioneers record for career points with 169.
And then there's Paul, who wants to play alongside his brother again — wherever that may be.
"Hopefully, wherever it is, we can play together, because I miss playing with him," Paul said. "We complement each other really well.
"I'm looking forward to playing alongside Aaron in college, and maybe breaking a few more records there."
Paul said that having Nathan as a coach has been a blessing, however.
"In high school, I almost had the feeling of, 'I can't wait to get away and get a new coach that's not part of the family,'" Paul said. "But now that I'm here, I wouldn't have it any other way. I have a lot of fun having him here. I'll go over to his house and he can relate to me like no other coach could."
Having a brother-brother relationship and a coach-player relationship is something that's rewarding and difficult at the same time, Nathan says.
"I can see things in his play and his demeanor that a normal coach wouldn't see, just because I know him so well," Nathan said of Paul. "So it gives me an insight into how to motivate and encourage him when things maybe aren't going the way we'd like them to go. But it's also a challenge because we have such a close relationship. It's always a challenge because he's got to respect me as a coach, while fully understanding I'm his brother at the same time. And Lee gets those same challenges coaching the boys last year. It's a little give and take. It's awesome coaching your brothers, but it's challenging at the same time. I'm loving it."
Soccer was NMCA's grand entrance into the world of high school sports.
Rusty played baseball in high school and was his team's MVP, but never played soccer.
As soccer gained traction in the U.S. in the 1970s and '80s, Rusty saw it as a sport NMCA could field, since it was fairly inexpensive in comparison to football.
"He saw some of the skills his sons had — we were not the biggest kids, but we were all quick and fast — he thought that might be an avenue for us to use our talents," Nathan said.
Lee also teaches sixth grade, plus physical education, freshman English, computers and is the school's athletic director.
"When we tell people who we are, they're like, 'Oh, the soccer school,'" Lee said. "But we teach here, too."
This year's NMCA team hasn't racked up the wins as frequently as past Chatfield-led teams, but a big part of that is the team's inexperience. Last year's 24-1 team was led by eight seniors. This season's 13-9 squad has only four seniors and starts four underclassmen and one middle-schooler.
"Aaron, up until seventh grade, if he lost a game he'd cry," Lee said. "He's just that competitive."
Having a middle-school player on the team is nothing new for the Eagles, but one starting isn't nearly as common, aside from Chatfields. There are eight middle-school players on this year's team.
With only 35 students in grades 9-12 — and 17 of those are girls — NMCA has every high school boy except one on the soccer team. And only four boys in grade 7 or above don't play soccer.
Still, such a small school has beaten a Class A team 30 times its size in Gaylord, 6-1. And the Eagles play schools more than 15 times their size such as Cheboygan and Roscommon.
Most players pull double-duty in soccer, participating in the Petoskey Youth Soccer Association in addition to the school team. The only other boys sports the school offers is basketball, although they can also play baseball through a co-op with Harbor Light. Girls can play volleyball, soccer or on Harbor Light's basketball team.
The Chatfields started PYSA early on, such as Lee, who played in both spring and fall leagues every year since he was 4. All of them have attended NMCA since they were in kindergarten.
"We wouldn't be where we're at without God in our lives and with our dad being a good influence on us," Paul said. "It's been a lot of fun. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
NMCA is a Baptist school, and Rusty is the pastor and principal, so church is reflected in most things the boys have done.
"A lot of the gifts we have are God-given," Lee said.
Even the school's practice pennies have crosses on the back.
"I play soccer to honor and glorify Jesus Christ," Aaron said. "Anything I've done or the Chatfields have done is because of him. That's really the main thing we try to do. It doesn't always happen. Sometimes you get mad. It is sports. That's life. I'd rather be remembered for a Christ-like attitude than for scoring goals."
Nathan has a 1-year-old daughter, and Lee is starting perhaps the next generation of Chatfield soccer supremacy with his son.
"If the Lord keeps Lee in Burt Lake, he's got a son that's two and a half years old," Nathan said, "and in a couple years will be going to kindergarten and start the cycle all over."