TRAVERSE CITY — A small gathering took place just across the street from Thirlby Field on Friday. Not nearly the size of the thousands who poured into the stadium for the 10th Annual TC Patriot Game, but no less important.

Those there at the dining hall of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Post 383 sat down with their plates of food to swap stories and honor the memories of the men and women who served their country and the ones who gave their lives in that service. Canvas banners with photos of Justin Hansen and Matthew Schwartz, both killed while on duty in Afghanistan, hung at the front of the hall.

The Patriot Game, which pits intra-city rival high schools Traverse City West and Traverse City Central against each other, began in 2012 in Hansen’s memory. The United States Marine played football at Kingsley High School under Tim Wooer, who was the head coach at West when Hansen died. Wooer set out to honor Hansen, and in doing so created a tradition that is now a decade old.

Vicki Hays, Hansen’s mother, said football was her son’s love, his passion.

“To have this kind of support at a football game is pretty special,” Hays said.

Hays’ biggest concern is that the game continues to grow for all veterans and not only be about her son.

“Veterans ask for very little,” Hays said. “To show them appreciation is the least we can do.”

Jack Howard feels that appreciation.

The Vietnam veteran and Traverse City Central alum has attended every Patriot Game.

“It’s really super when the whole community honors our vets,” Howard said. “It’s an event to remember.”

And it is one many won’t ever forget.

Steve Smith did not experience his first Patriot Game until 2019 when his grandson, Peyton Smith, helped lead the Trojans to a convincing 32-0 romp of the rival Titans.

Peyton, who transferred from Ithaca High School to TC Central for his senior, completed five of his 14 passes for 107 yards as his family cheered him on.

Smith said witnessing his grandson flourish in the grandeur of the Patriot Game was “almost out of a storybook.”

“I’d never seen anything like it in high school football,” Smith said. “The entire community and surrounding area should be so proud of what they’ve got going here. It’s one of those things that should be on ESPN. It can’t get enough recognition.”

The game wasn’t on ESPN, but it was broadcasted across Michigan televisions on Bally Sports Detroit Plus. Smith is hopeful the spotlight will help the game grow even more.

“This community should be saluted. That nation should know about what goes on here, especially in these times,” Smith said.

The Patriot Game inspired Smith to work on a project of his own in Ithaca to honor veterans, active duty military men and women as well as first responders, doctors and nurses.

He also plans to start 11 scholarships for high school students in honor of 11 men who perished while in combat in Vietnam.

Smith might have missed the first seven Patriot Games, but he plans on returning for every one in the future.

“You can bet on that,” he said.

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