Grand Ledge teacher and football coach helps students honor fallen Michigan soldiers

As a social studies and history teacher in Grand Ledge Public Schools, Matt Bird understands the importance of honoring the sacrifices of those who put their lives on the line for our country.

Bird is also the head football coach at Grand Ledge High School and for four years, he has worked hard to impart upon his players that same sense of respect for fallen troops through a unique program he helped launch at the Lansing-area school.

Bird is the latest recipient of the “Building Leaders” award from WVFN-AM’s “The Drive with Jack Ebling.” “Building Leaders” recognizes Mid-Michigan school employees who have gone above and beyond to help student athletes. MEA and Home Management Company co-sponsor the award.

Once a year, as part of Grand Ledge High School’s “Fallen Heroes” program, Bird has each of his players select a Michigan soldier who has died in the line of duty, and conduct research on the veteran. The athletes prepare speeches on their assigned heroes, and the soldiers’ families are invited to a special football game in which Bird’s players wear their soldiers’ names on the back of their jerseys. After the game, the families of the fallen service members are presented with the jerseys.

“Those families had loved ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and so I wanted to come up with a way that we could bring our community together and honor these heroes from across the state of Michigan in some way special,” Bird said.

According to the Washington Post, 221 Michigan soldiers have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Anything we can do to preserve their loved ones’ memories, we’re willing to do, because they continue to make sacrifices each day [because] their loved ones are gone,” he said.

The day before the “Fallen Heroes” game, families are invited to the team’s practice, where the players deliver their speeches on their assigned soldiers. The presentations touch on personal details of the soldiers’ lives, all the way down to what kind of music he or she enjoyed.

“The most emotional moment is when the kids stand up in our locker room, and they tell the story of their soldier,” Bird said. “They do a lot of research on them to understand not just where they served and how they served, but also how they lived their lives.”                                                                                                                                 

“They take tremendous pride in that, and it really drives it home — it’s not just a soldier, it’s a person.”

Click here to listen to the WVFN segment featuring Bird.

To nominate a school employee for the “Building Leaders” award, email David Crim at dcrim@mea.org. Make sure to include in your email a description of the nominee’s efforts on behalf of student athletes.