Chris Pulliams never expected he’d return to Godwin Heights High School when he graduated with dreams of playing college football.
“I had hopes of being an NCAA Division I athlete, specifically at the University of Oregon,” Pulliams said. “I decided to begin my studies at Grand Rapids Community College, with plans to transfer and move to Eugene with my father. There was a preferred walk-on offer at Oregon, but the situation did not develop, and I found myself out of college as the next year began.”
Chris turned to his high school coach, Jake Kenyon, for direction. The veteran leader had good advice for Pulliams and, ultimately, the Bulldogs.
“I fashioned a letter for Ferris’ coaches and the Western Michigan University football program, and both offered me preferred walk-on status,” Pulliams said. “I came to see that Ferris had the mix of campus life, education and athletics that would be perfect for me. I wound up making the great decision to become a Bulldog, and it is one I have never found fault with.”
Pulliams was a redshirt in 1992 as Ferris made its first NCAA Division II postseason appearance and quickly went from contributing as a special teams player to joining the mix of running backs on an undefeated Bulldogs squad the next year.
Just as a change of direction is critical in success carrying the football, Pulliams made an academic shift that changed his life and the lives of students at his high school alma mater for the better.
“I started in the College of Business, not knowing exactly what I would do. But I believed strongly that it was a path to success for me,” Pulliams said. “As part of my football experience, I volunteered at a Big Rapids elementary school and it was as if my eyes were opened, everything about the experience felt so right. I immediately made the change in my academic and career direction.”
Pulliams graduated from Ferris and its College of Education and Human Services in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Education, minoring in Language Arts.
During his senior year, Chris was named the inaugural recipient of the Jack McAvoy Award, given annually to the football player who best exemplifies on-field character and leadership. The award began in the Midwest Intercollegiate Football Conference and continues as an honor in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“The award was something that very much came my way at the moment, as we were focused on trying to win a national championship, which didn’t come our way,” Pulliams said. “It took a little time to realize what this accomplishment meant. That included researching Jack McAvoy and what he meant to Hillsdale College, the Great Lakes Conference and the MIFC. Those accomplishments and his philosophy drove home the significance of the honor, and I am proud of this, especially as the first recipient.”
Pulliams had All-Conference recognition, NCAA playoff appearances in each of his varsity seasons, and his 97-yard game-winning run in the 1995 “Snow Bowl” against Saginaw Valley rivals recent national championship moments for the most iconic play in Bulldog football history. His 1,729 rushing yards as a junior remains a single-season Ferris record.
That level of heart and commitment Pulliams gave to his on-field performance and studies has continued and serves as a reward for his hometown school district of Godwin Heights, in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming.
“It has been 26 years of trying to pay back in the same fashion all the effort and direction that Coach Kenyon had afforded me,” Chris said. “I want to see the students I work with in the classroom and on our teams able to define and achieve their goals in life.”
Pulliams teaches English in Godwin Heights’ Alternative Education program, and before that was a College Readiness instructor and taught Scholastic Aptitude Test Prep, beginning with seventh- and eighth-grade students.
“It is once again leaning back on what Coach Kenyon gave me, helping students to graduate and achieve, because that is an important goal in our district,” Pulliams said. “It might sound easy, but the work is to get students to see themselves in the themes and materials, to help them pick up on and appreciate the writer’s message.”
The contribution to Godwin Heights students does not end when classes are over. Pulliams staffs athletic events throughout the year and has been a coach in the Wolverines’ high school football program for approximately a decade and the track program for more than a dozen years.
“It is a special relationship that develops when I work with athletes, one I just have not found to be possible in the classroom,” Pulliams said. “There are many friendships with these young people that have continued because of the time and effort we have shared. It is not about wins and losses; though we have enjoyed much success, it was due to the improvement they showed, from meet to meet and game to game. When they give themselves the chance to get to college due to their athletic success, that is so gratifying. Also, the lessons that help them achieve as competitors serving as a foundation to the way they conduct their lives can certainly be labeled a great success.”
Pulliams has given and received as a Ferris State alumnus, with his service on the Alumni Board beginning in 2018, following his induction into the Ferris State University Bulldog Athletics Hall of Fame in 2017. More prominent in his mind is the reward from weekly worship and connection to Kentwood Community Church.
“My wife and I became members 12 years ago when we sought to adopt our daughter,” Pulliams said. “It was the right decision then and we feel so welcome and happy as a family there. I mostly serve as an usher and I am open to whatever God is leading me to do, as I know all my accomplishments come from God, and I would not be who I am without his presence in my life.”
Growing up a Godwin Heights Wolverine and returning for a career in his home district has been rewarding, and Chris has been recognized in the media and is respected by neighboring districts.
Pulliams said as another academic calendar begins, he is looking at life at home and in the classroom in a slightly different light.
“We have much to do as a family, as our daughter is entering her teens, and high school days,” Pulliams said. “I work hard to keep my wife and daughter first, even with all my responsibilities as a teacher, coach, and mentor. My daughter’s interest in softball found us watching NCAA tournament games on TV together this spring, and she has kept tabs on the success of Grand Valley’s program. Even when I am watching Ferris’ closest rival, it has been a great joy to share that experience with her.”
Though he is nearer to the close of his career as an educator than the beginning, considering 2023’s first day of classes found the veteran of the classroom and coaches’ corner brimming, bright-eyed, with a ready smile.
“I am energized to keep on keeping on for the students,” Pulliams said. “I am so fortunate to have gained so many rewards from investing my time in Godwin Heights among so many great people.”