Running back sets new school records for rush TDs, rush yards in a season
Fri, 02/05/2021 - 3:52pm caleb
David Millikin, a junior, establishes new marks during a campaign in which the Vikings won a regional championship
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
David Millikin, a junior at Grayling High School, established two new school records in football this year, setting new marks for both rushing touchdowns in a single season and rushing yards in a single season during a campaign that featured a variety of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Michigan high school football teams were practicing for the 2020 season in mid-August, programs received the news that the Michigan High School Athletic Association had postponed the campaign to the spring of 2021 because of restrictions in place to battle COVID-19.
“I was disappointed,” Millikin said. “I knew a lot of guys put in a lot of work.”
Millikin said the squad felt “pretty defeated” but maintained optimism about having a season.
In early September, a new executive order from Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer changed COVID-19 restrictions in the state enough to allow for football to be played, and the Michigan High School Athletic Association reinstated fall football for a shortened season. Teams were set to play starting with their Week 4 scheduled games. It was welcome news for the Vikings.
“I think everyone was pretty excited,” Millikin said.
First up, the Kalkaska Blazers. The Vikings won the contest 43-0. Millikin said the players and coaches were “super psyched” going into the contest and ready to get back onto the field. He said the team “made a lot of mistakes” but worked to correct them as the season progressed. Millikin said the squad was happy to get Assistant Coach Mike Kososky his first shutout as defensive coordinator of the program.
“I know he was pretty excited about that,” Millikin said.
Millikin ran for 119 yards and three touchdowns vs. Kalkaska.
Things were going well. Then, the team lost three consecutive games.
The Vikings fell to Traverse City St. Francis (a team that finished second in the Division 7 playoffs, falling to New Lothrop 42-35 in the state championship game), Benzie Central, and Kingsley (a squad that went 8-0 before forfeiting a playoff game vs. Reed City).
Millikin ran for 93 yards vs. St. Francis, 203 yards and three touchdowns vs. Benzie Central, and 90 yards and two TDs vs. Kingsley.
Millikin said the losses motivated the team to work even harder.
“We were all definitely disappointed starting 1-3 but we were all pretty hungry. We kicked it into gear,” Millikin said.
He said the players increased their time for watching film, and the practices leading up to the next contest – a road game at Cheboygan – were among the best they had all year.
Grayling won the Cheboygan game by a final score of 41-6. Millikin rushed for 176 yards and three TDs vs. the Chiefs.
The Vikings knew they could host a playoff game if they defeated West Branch Ogemaw Heights in their regular season finale in late October, Millikin said, and the squad treated the Ogemaw contest as if it were a postseason game.
“For us it was a super important game. If we won, we get our first home playoff game in a while. We knew it was important to do what we needed to do, and we got it done,” Millikin said.
Millikin ran for 129 yards and two TDs in the Ogemaw game. Grayling won 29-14.
Next up? A rematch vs. Benzie Central, but this time, it was a playoff game. The first time around, during the regular season, the Huskies defeated the Vikings 41-28, but the contest was tied at 14-14 at halftime, and the score was tied at 21-21 in the third period before Benzie pulled away late. Millikin said the Grayling squad was “making a bunch of mental errors” during the three-game losing streak that included the first Benzie game, and he felt the Vikings had turned things around with the wins vs. Cheboygan and Ogemaw going into the postseason.
It turned out that Benzie Central was missing several players due to COVID-19, but Millikin said the Vikings didn’t know until the Huskies showed up for the contest.
“We saw they were missing guys,” Millikin said. “We still went into that game knowing it was win or go home. We were going to give 100 percent no matter who was on the field.”
Millikin finished with 168 rushing yards and five rushing TDs during the rematch vs. Benzie Central, a game that Grayling won 47-12.
At that point, Millikin knew he was nearing the school record for rushing touchdowns (21), but he said his focus was on winning and advancing to the district title game. The next team on their schedule – Manistee – was the number one seed in the Division 6, District 42 bracket, and Grayling had to travel to Manistee for the contest.
“I just remember watching them on film and thinking dang, they’re a really good team,” Millikin said.
Millikin ran for 164 yards and four touchdowns vs. Manistee, getting his 22nd TD of the season to set the school record. The Vikings won 49-14.
“I knew I was kind of close. I just wanted the win. It was super exciting for me. It kind of came as a surprise I guess,” Millikin said.
With the victory vs. Manistee, Grayling earned a spot in the District 42 championship game vs. the Boyne City Ramblers at Boyne City.
Millikin said the team had more good practices in preparation for the district title game, and he expected a strong challenge from the Ramblers.
“Boyne looked super good on film. They had just beat Glen Lake,” Millikin said.
(Glen Lake was the number two seed in the district behind Manistee.)
“We practiced really hard as a team,” Millikin said.
For the Boyne City playoff game, this time, it was the Vikings who were short-handed due to COVID-19 protocols, missing multiple starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
“The younger guys stepped up and played their roles. The offensive line stepped up and did what they needed to do,” Millikin said.
The Vikings won 28-20 vs. Boyne City, clinching the school’s first district title since 2005.
Millikin rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns vs. the Ramblers, but he said the team’s passing attack was a key to the win.
“The passing game was on point that game with Dylan (Cragg) and Hunter (Ventline). The mix of the run and the pass was what helped us for sure,” Millikin said.
The playoff game vs. Boyne City was held on Saturday, November 14. The next day, on November 15, things changed again as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was suspending in-person learning and sports at Michigan high schools for three weeks due to rising COVID-19 numbers in the state. The MHSAA said it would continue its efforts to finish the fall 2020 playoffs, but was it realistic? Football in northern Michigan, outside, in the middle of winter?
Millikin thought it was over.
“At that point everyone was just like we’re done. We’re pretty sure we’re not going to be able to keep playing,” Millikin said.
He was ready to turn in his equipment, but then he received a message from the coaching staff telling the players to “keep your gear.”
Millikin said a “core group of guys kept lifting” and working out in case things changed and the season would be allowed to resume.
The season did resume, eventually, but not right away. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services extended its initial three-week suspension of high school in-person learning and organized sports another 12 days through December 20.
Football teams were allowed to resume practices on Monday, December 21, following more epidemic order changes, but it was short-lived. On Tuesday, December 22, the MHSAA suspended fall sports again in order to work out the details on a required Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pilot testing program. Once the testing program was in place, teams started practicing again.
Millikin said he was tested three times per week as the team resumed its preparation for the Division 6, Region 21 championship game vs. the Negaunee Miners, a contest to be hosted by Grayling High School.
Millikin said the outdoor practices went well.
“The coaches did their best to make it fun,” Millikin said. “We definitely practiced hard. We were slipping around a little bit but it was fun.”
Millikin said that some confident words from Negaunee’s coach helped motivate the team.
“We used that to drive us a little bit,” Millikin said. “Looking at film, they looked like a solid team. We were working really hard to get everything down. We really wanted that win.”
The Vikings defeated the Miners by a final score of 56-26, earning Grayling its first ever regional championship in football. Millikin had another big game, running for 257 yards and scoring five rushing TDs.
The community supported the Vikings throughout their playoff run, putting signs up in businesses and showing up for mini-parades as the Grayling buses took the players through town, and Millikin said the team appreciated it.
“It was awesome. Everyone was so excited. It was such a great time to see the community support. It definitely made everyone on the team feel good. It was really meaningful,” Millikin said.
Again, as he studied film for the next opponent – the Montague Wildcats – Millikin saw another strong challenge ahead.
“We knew going in they were going to be tough,” Millikin said.
The Vikings led 7-0 early in the state semifinal match at Montague, but the Wildcats pulled away and won the contest 49-14, ending Grayling’s playoff run. (Montague defeated Clinton 40-14 in the Division 6 championship game to win the state title.)
“We made it there and definitely want to go back. We’ve got to put in the work in the offseason and hopefully get back and compete for a state championship,” Millikin said.
Millikin said he started playing organized football in third grade in the program that is now called the Junior Vikings (formerly Grayling Redskins). Millikin now plays running back and linebacker for the high school team, but he started out playing running back and defensive line.
“I’ve always been a running back,” Millikin said.
He’s known for breaking tackles and being tough to bring down.
“I just have to stay up. I’m always trying to get the first down or the touchdown, help my team as much as possible,” Millikin said.
Millikin finished the 2020-2021 football season with 31 rushing touchdowns and 1,630 yards – both new school records – on 172 total carries, according to the team.
“It’s kind of a dream come true,” he said. “I remember looking up to guys like Cam Summers and Justin Nicholas, seeing them break records. Knowing that some little kid in Junior Vikings can look up to me, that’s super cool.”
“He’s a special kid,” said Eric Tunney, head coach of the varsity football team at Grayling High School. “He puts his mind to something and he’s going to do it. He obviously has some natural talent, but you combine that with an incredible work ethic and a never-satisfied mentality and you see the results transfer to the field. He plays the game at a very high speed on both sides of the ball and is truly fun to watch. I know I said it a lot on the headphones during games that ‘I’m glad he’s on our side.’”
“Aside from his physical skills he’s an intelligent kid and is a student of the game. He’s a model student in the classroom and is a great representation of what I want our program to be known for,” Coach Tunney said. “I think he’s learned a lot from watching Reid (Cvitkovich) and Eli (Jackson) over the past couple of years and now he’s the one that our young guys can look up to. He’s still growing as an athlete, leader, and person, and I’m excited to see him continue to grow. It’s the best part about being a coach and teacher.”
Millikin said he would like to play college football after he’s done with high school.
“It’s 100 percent something I want to do,” he said. “Just gotta keep working and do what I gotta do.”