DAWSON — On game nights, the bus ride from Dawson-Boyd High School to wherever the Blackjacks are playing that night is a quiet one.
Some players are praying, others are getting into a zone before running out onto the football field.
After he’s done praying, senior Josh Anyasike talks to his older brother, Michael, who passed away unexpectedly in 2014.
“I think a lot about him, more than I think people realize,” Josh said.
The youngest of the Anyasike children has made his mark for Dawson-Boyd as it begins postseason play Tuesday. Following Wednesday’s Week 8 win against Lakeview, Josh has run for 1,145 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, which is 103 yards and two touchdowns behind the numbers Michael put up as a senior. And he’s closed in on those marks in six fewer games.
Wearing Michael’s No. 4 and being the Blackjacks’ feature back just like his other brother, Josh takes that moment to chat with the person who sparked his love of football.
“He never got to see me play football because we start here in seventh grade,” said Josh, who was in sixth grade when Michael passed on March 9, 2014 due to hypothermia. “I like to think that he’s watching me from Heaven. I just want to make him proud.”
Growing up together
The Anyasike family’s trek to Dawson needs a globe as opposed to a map.
Josh’s parents, Michael and Irene, met in Kazakhstan while both were in school. Michael came from Nigeria to study medicine while Irene came from Tanzania to study journalism. Today, Dad is a family medicine doctor in Marshall.
“I met my husband, we got married and then we got all four children from there,” Irene said. “Then we were in Tulsa, Oklahoma for three years (for Michael’s residency). There was an opening here in Dawson and we thought we’d come here and work, so that’s how we came here.”
With the amount of moving the family did, it made the bond for the Anyasike kids — the brothers Michael, Joe and Josh, and sister Faith — stronger.
“It was just me and my siblings. They were my best friends,” Josh said. “We grew up playing video games together, playing outside, playing football and racing each other.”
Faith is nearing graduation as a nursing major at the University of Minnesota while Joe, who went out for college football for a season, is attending St. John’s University. Like Josh does today, Joe wore No. 4 in honor of Michael.
“They played with each other and they rely on each other,” Irene said.
As Michael was going through high school, Dawson-Boyd football had its best run in school history. The Blackjacks won the 2011 Class A state championship against Mahnomen when Michael was a sophomore, then reached the semifinals as a junior. As the lead running back for the 2013 team, Michael was one of the catalysts behind another state run that ended with a loss against Mahnomen in the Prep Bowl.
Michael was slated to attend and play football at St. John’s.
“Mike had a terrific senior year until he battled some injuries,” said Dawson-Boyd head football coach Cory Larson. “That team pushed its way into a state championship game despite some injuries.”
Josh was sucked in by the success of the Blackjacks and his eldest brother.
“Watching him play football and walk around as a football player, I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Josh said. “My love for football has mostly stemmed from him being a role model. Him having his great seasons and going to the playoffs, going down on Thanksgiving for his championship games was really cool. I wanted to one day be that guy.”
Four months later, the Anyasike family and the Dawson-Boyd community were hit with heartbreaking news.
‘It’s still kind of hard’
Before Michael headed out for a Saturday party on a cold March night, he was in the basement playing with Josh.
“I had a basketball hoop that I had set up in the basement. We were trying to dunk on each other,” Josh said. “(Michael) was wearing shoes because he was about to leave and I wasn’t. He jumped on my foot before he dunked on me and I couldn’t jump because he was on my foot. I told him to come back because I said that wasn’t fair.”
The next morning, Josh was perplexed when he heard crying and saw some of Michael’s friends at the house. “I didn’t know what was going on because everyone was out looking for him,” he said. “I was confused until Coach Larson came to the door and said, '’Come with me’ and we went to the hospital.”
The night before, Michael, 18, was among several young people who fled an underage drinking party in rural Madison. He was found 12 hours later at a farm about a mile away.
After being transported to Madison Hospital, Michael was pronounced dead from hypothermia due to environmental exposure, with alcohol as a contributing factor.
“It didn’t feel real. I really didn’t know what was going on until my mom started bawling,” Josh said. “She cried in a way I’ve never really heard her cry before and my heart sunk. That’s when it hit me.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. It’s still kind of hard.”
The Anyasike family leaned on its Christian beliefs and each other to help cope with the grief.
“We’re still all grieving and missing him but in life we have to move forward,” Irene said. “We believe he’s in a good place. One day we’ll meet him.”
Irene added, “We still remember him. We celebrate his birthday on February 4th. We also celebrate the memories we had with him. He was a jokester. Like, ‘Oh, do you remember what Michael used to say,’ and then we laugh. That’s how we cope together and that’s what brings us together. Even the day he died, we also come around and remember the things we did together, the places we went together. That keeps us together and keeps his memory alive. Sometimes with the number four, we see it and we think he’s always around us.”
Josh keeps a busy schedule. Partly to cope, partly because he has a wide range of interests.
There’s football in the fall and basketball in the winter. Outside of athletics, there’s one-act play, knowledge bowl, musicals, student council, FCCLA and Vacation Bible School.
Josh is passionate about music, performing with the Agapes church singing group at Grace Lutheran in Dawson along with jazz choir and school choir. He also plays drums in both the school band and his own band. He writes his own music and spent time this summer working on a musical.
This fall, Josh was voted Dawson-Boyd’s homecoming king.
“I like keeping busy because I get in my own head. Especially early on when my brother passed, that’s when I started getting busy,” Josh said. “You have less time to think or be sad and sit around and swallow things.”
Josh saw the impact his brother’s death had on the community and the lives Michael touched and tries to follow that example.
“I just think about when my brother did pass and how many people were affected by it,” Josh said. “That’s something I always looked up to; how many lives he touched. I try to do the same thing and be there for everyone and be a friend to everybody.”
Not only does Josh want to follow Michael’s example on the football field, he wants to be better than Michael. “That’s been my driving goal,” Josh said.
Losing a pair of workhorse running backs in Bentley Boike and Colton Husby to graduation, Josh hit the weights as often as possible this offseason.
“I wanted to help the team any way I could so I took weight lifting serious this summer and I worked hard,” said Josh, who added that he gained 15-to-20 pounds prior to this season. “I was there every day for team lifts. Even when we didn’t have team lifts, I was lifting by myself at home, or if I was with my friends or my girlfriend, we would lift together.
“I just really wanted to exceed everyone’s expectations of me because I wanted to go for it in my senior year.”
That weight room obsession actually got in the way of family fun.
“We had an invitation to go to Italy this summer. We bought tickets and everything,” Irene said, “but he didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to miss practice. So he didn’t go. He really loves this game and he’s passionate about it.”
In Josh’s junior year Larson moved him to tight end so the Blackjacks could have their best 11 players on the field. Now, Josh has become the focal point of Dawson-Boyd’s offense.
“I refer to him as a multiple-cut guy,” Larson said. “Some guys, they make one cut and that’s it. Josh is looking to make a couple cuts. Most of his longer runs are taking the first cut and getting into that second level and making a cut there. He might be picking up 25 (yards) but he ran closer to 50.”
When Josh watches Michael’s highlight reel before game time, he’s looking for inspiration in a juke or a broken tackle.
“I wanted to mimic him in some respects,” Josh said.
It was actually Josh’s ability on defense that got him on the varsity squad a sophomore, then both sides of the ball as a junior. Like Michael, Josh is in the feature back role as a senior. Larson said there’s plenty of differences between the way the Anyasike brothers run the ball, but seeing that No. 4 out there avoiding defenders brings back a flood of memories.
“I remember Josh making a couple comeback runs and a couple times where I thought that was exactly the movement Mike would have made or the same read Mike would have made,” Larson said. “I think Josh has turned into a better overall football player.”
Every time Josh runs out onto the field, he’s got four fingers in the air for his eldest brother. When he crosses the goal line for a Blackjack touchdown, he will throw the four fingers up again and pay tribute to Michael.
“I do see Michael in Josh when he’s running and everyone’s running up to him (after a touchdown),” Irene said. “It’s Josh, but at the same time, you think of (Michael).”
There is a granite bench outside the Dawson-Boyd gymnasium in memory of Michael, showing pictures of his radiant grin and No. 4 Blackjacks jersey.
“Seeing Josh play well his senior year, having that smile on his face brings a vision of Mike back,” Larson said. “I’m sure Michael would be proud of how well Josh is performing this season.”
“He would have been really proud but I believe he still sees it,” Irene said. “We’re all proud as a family. He’s doing well and he’s doing well in school. He’s a well-rounded person. Compassionate, loving. We’re all very proud.”
Josh fell in love specifically with Blackjack football because of Michael. If given the chance to say anything to his brother, no one phrase could do it justice.
“I would say I love him. I miss him. I’ma keep working to be better than him,” Josh said.
After a long pause, Josh added, “There’s too much to say.”