Funny thing about legends. Sometimes, they don’t even know they’re legends.
Take Margo Jonker, who was Central Michigan’s softball coach from 1980 until her retirement after the 2019 season. She was 1,268-808-7 in 40 seasons, ranking nine all-time in Division I wins when she walked away. The Chippewas made 13 NCAA Tournaments, including a College World Series, and won 10 Mid-American Conference championships. The softball field at CMU was named for her before she even retired.
Still, it floored Jonker when she got the call that she would be entering the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.
“I’d say shocked was the word,” Jonker said with a laugh in a conversation with The Detroit News this week. “It’s pretty overwhelming with all the people that are in that Hall of Fame, and with all the people going in.
“It’s a lot to process.”
Jonker, 67, is one of nine inductees set to be enshrined Friday night in a ceremony at the MotorCity Casino Hotel, as the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame holds its first induction gala in two years. The 2020 event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 inductees also include Lions Hall-of-Famer Calvin Johnson, Pistons great Chauncey Billups, basketball legend Shane Battier, Olympic gymnastics gold-medalist Jordyn Wieber, late Albion and Okemos football coach Pete Schmidt, late Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski, pioneering Detroit Free Press photographer Mary Schroeder, and late Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr.
The Michigan Sports Hall of Fame also will pay tribute to the Red Wings’ famous “Grind Line,” as well as the 2021 Little League World Series champions from Taylor, as part of the Hall’s “Michigan Treasures” category.
Billups, now the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, and Battier, who works with the Miami Heat, have informed the Hall of Fame they will be unable to attend, with the NBA season approaching.
Tickets still are available and start at $25 at michigansportshof.org. The red-carpet ceremony starts at 6 p.m., and the ceremony at 7.
Jonker wasn’t just floored by her election, which was voted on by a panel of sports-media members, with a fan vote factoring into the final decision. Even her nomination caught her off guard. She saw someone post about it on Facebook.
“Then I didn’t hear anything for a while,” Jonker said. “Then I got the phone call. I was like, ‘What?'”
Jonker immediately began researching the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and its inductees, and saw a lot of other Central Michigan legends, and many of her peers in the softball community.
Then she saw all the Detroit Tigers representatives.
Jonker, as a kid, worked on the family farm in Holland, and it was the broadcasts of Tigers games, by a young radio man named Ernie Harwell (Class of 1989), that helped the day go by.
“I saw some of the bigger Tiger names,” Jonker said. “And I was like, ‘Whoa!'”
Jonker attended Grand Valley State, where she was named female athlete of the year in 1976. She stayed at her alma mater and was pitching coach from 1977-79 while also coaching softball at West Ottawa High School from 1978-79 and volleyball at Hope College from 1976-78.
She arrived at Central Michigan in 1979 as an assistant, and also was an assistant volleyball coach, before being named head softball coach in 1980. She took over for Marion Russell, the inaugural coach in 1979.
Jonker earned a master’s degree from Central Michigan in 1981, and then took the Chippewas’ opponents to school for the better part of four decades.
Jonker was MAC coach of the year 10 times, regional coach of the year three times, and Friday night’s ceremony will give her a sixth Hall-of-Fame. She’s also in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association hall. She was 521 MAC games, first all-time, more than 200 better than second place. In her tenure, the other MAC schools combined to have 70 different coaches. Her CMU team missed the MAC tournament once.
She also was on the staff of the United States’ 2000 gold medal-winning team at the Sidney Olympics, and the 1998 gold medal-winning team at the World Championships in Japan.
Her retirement in 2019 came as a surprise to many, and in typical Jonker fashion, it was quiet. The school sent out a press release, and she held no farewell news conference. That’s not to say she doesn’t miss it.
“I do. I love the game and I miss the players,” said Jonker, who was trying to fill her new-found spare time by taking up golf and pickleball, but that’ll have to wait till next summer because of a hip injury. “But, you know, there’s always a time for everything. It was time to retire.”
Legends seem to always know when to say goodbye, even if they don’t know they’re legends.
►When: 6-9 Friday
►Where: MotorCity Casino Hotel, Sound Board
►Inductees: Calvin Johnson, Chauncey Billups, Shane Battier, Jordyn Wieber, Margo Jonker, Pete Schmidt, Tom Kowalski, Mary Schroeder, Ralph Wilson Jr.
►Tickets: Starting at $25, at michigansportshof.org.
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