Monday, January 22, 2018

A Nostalgic Return

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH

After our recent trip to Metro Detroit I wrote a post called  "The Ageless Wonders", which I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing it.

There is another story that I will write after this one about My return home and I hope you enjoy this Three-Part Series.

Today's theme is a Special One.

It features two incredible places.

The Pontiac Silverdome and The Highland House Restaurant.

We'll begin with the former home of the Detroit Lions, the Pontiac Silverdome.

I really believe the City of Pontiac, MI, really blew it when Lions Owner William Clay Ford wanted to renegotiate the lease and they failed to do this.

You can say what you want about the Lions success on the field or lack there of, but nobody will ever accuse Ford of threatening to move the team out of Michigan if he didn't get a stadium.

I've covered enough football throughout the years and have seen it happen.

A couple areas that stand out are Houston, Texas, where the Houston Oilers eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore.

Both cities would eventually get NFL teams, but they paid a steep price to get them back by building new stadiums.

But Ford was looking to get a better lease and bring it up to NFL revenue standards so he could eventually pay for a franchise QB like Matthew Stafford.

When Pontiac failed to come through, Ford moved his team back to Detroit and the Lions play in a dynamite facility, Ford Field.

When I took my wife to Michigan, we drove by the Pontiac Silverdome.

This is a building that was eventually sold for pennies on the dollar and deteriorated over time. It was an eyesore when you drive down M-59. It took two attempts to implode it because that's how well built the Silverdome was.

Every time I would drive by the Pontiac Silverdome, I would ask myself, "What If" Pontiac had done the right thing for the dome which had many big events and a capacity of 80,000?

This is a facility that I had lots of memories not only as a fan early in my childhood, but as a member of the media.

I saw a lot of football in this venue plus some Detroit Pistons games.

When I was living in Michigan, I knew where My Sundays were being spent.

The Monday Night Football games were great.

Covering the Thanksgiving Games was an event I looked forward to doing.

Whether the Lions won or lost, I had my permanent seat in the press box and the parking for the media was a breeze.

My football ritual would be arriving around 3-4 hours early and then preparing for the game.

Whether I was talking to other media members, coaches or other prominent people that I could plug into my stories, there was never a dull moment.

There would be the game and then post-game interviews.

My game days at pretty much any sporting event range between 7-10 hours.

I enjoyed watching Barry Sanders run his way into the Pro Football Hall Of Fame, taking a photo of Gordie Howe when I was in a sling, plus watching a lot of explosive Lions football. There would be the career ending injuries of Mike Utley and Reggie Brown.

The photo with Howe was taken in the media dining area and I was also with long-time Lions Broadcaster Bob Reynolds.

I once did an interview with former CBS Pro Football Hall of Fame Sideline Reporter Lesley Visser, who was one of the pioneers for women in Sports Media.

She was an absolute sweetheart. I wish there were camera phones back then because that would have been a photo for the ages.

The NFL Draft was interesting as we'd spend 10-12 hours at the Lions offices on Saturdays and Sundays watching the ESPN Broadcast, flushing through the countless media notes, talking to not only the head coach but the assistants.

There would be a press conference after every pick or trade with the head coach.

I have to admit that by talking to the coaches, I learned a lot about football.

The Lions made sure we were well fed as there was no shortage of food.

But aside from the memories on the field, I met and worked with a lot of great people within the Lions organization.

A few that stand out were Bill Keenist, Mike Murray and James Petrylka Sr.

I see Bill when I cover the Lions on the road.

James moved to Tampa, FL, and I see him when our paths cross at football games in the state.

The photo with Petrylka Sr. was at a recent Jacksonville Jaguars game in Northern Florida.

I value all of these three people as real great friends.

From The Pontiac Silverdome to The Highland House.

These two places are a 30 minute drive on M-59 and for many years there were not many restaurants on this thoroughfare.

Thus the Highland House would gain customers on Sundays especially those that took this route back to cities en route to Lansing, MI, which is Michigan's capital.

I have an incredible history with the Highland House.

My cousin Ron Kroll introduced me to one of the Owners Elia Nicholas.

I've known Elia for over 40 years. He's like an older brother to me and has a heart of gold! He would give a person the shirt off his back if they needed it.

I love this guy!

I became very familiar with this restaurant when my parents, who lived in Southfield, MI, at the time used to take a 45 minute trek to Highland when they owned and rode horses.

They eventually moved us out to Highland, MI. Before we moved, we always ate at the Highland House.


In 1978, Elia hired me to be a Salad Maker.

In this photo, I couldn't resist the opportunity to take a photo in the Salad Area to hold a salad like the good old days. On this day, I wouldn't ruin my clothes with the Highland House's incredible house dressing.

Elia did give me two bottles to take with me but they'll never be opened and are in my trophy case at home completely sealed.

Elia and I have had lots of memories through the years.

When I would come into the Highland House, his first question with me with a smile was, "Are You Hungry instead of asking, How Are You?"

This was neat because he's a guy in the food business and his job is to feed people.

When he had a restaurant in West Bloomfield, MI, called E.G. Nicks, we'd spend time together there as well.

I worked at the Highland House through High School and I would come back from college to earn extra spending money. The Highland House was my first job.

They threw me a going away party when I moved to Florida in 1981 to continue my education and it was an incredible experience.

I would later work at the Highland House as an interim manager in the kitchen in late 1986 then as a consultant from 1987-1999.

When you talk about the restaurant business, this family has it figured out down to a science.

In 1976, the Highland House, which is located at 2630 Highland Rd, in Highland MI, opened it's doors.


Tom Nicholas, Elia, Steve Ryeson and his brother Gene were the owners.

Tom's lovely wife Despina was the hostess and her heart was bigger than the Good-Year Blimp!

Elia's sister Elizabeth was involved before she would move on to another family restaurant.

On our trip to the Highland House, Elizabeth's daughter Despina Nevells joined the team to work in the marketing department.

I had the good pleasure of working with Elia's late younger brother Greg, who died at 49 because of Cancer.

To this day, it kills me internally that Michigan never had the Clean Air Act like we have in Florida which prohibited smoking in a restaurant. After Greg's passing, Michigan did add the Clean Air Act.

There were other people that I enjoyed seeing and working with through the years. Abraham Ryeson was Steve's and Gene's father and his sense of humor was off the charts.

I always enjoyed working with Jeff Ryeson.

His brother Gregg Ryeson is one of my best friends!

Gregg actually lives in South Florida and last year, his beautiful Wife Michelle and My Princess Candy got together at Duffy's in Boynton Beach, FL.

Gregg and I reminisced about the incredible memories we shared at this Iconic 42-year old Restaurant that opened in 1976.

Our wives really had fun listening to the good old days and the four of us made a goal to see one another more since we live in the same area.

On our visit, there was one familiar face in the kitchen.

Chris Burke (on the left), who I am in the photo with has been working with daytime preparation dating back to my days in the kitchen. He says the job never gets old, is comfortable working with ownership and knows he'll always be taken care of. Chris looks fantastic.

Gene recently relinquished ownership to his son Rob (on the right) and this guy is like a younger brother to me. Like his dad, he's an unbelievable person and will be counted on to continue the Highland House's magnificent tradition for years to come.

There is no question that Rob and Elia will make an excellent one-two punch!

One of my favorite stories which draws laughs is the time I grabbed an extra time card to record my hours and Tom Nicholas saw me doing this in the break room.

In his ruffled voice, he says "those time cards cost me six cents apiece." I pulled the six cents out of my pocket, put it on the table and he grabbed it.

I told Elia and Gene about this and we started to laugh so hard that we nearly started to cry. I swear, this was the best monetary laugh I've ever had in my life!

Nothing even comes close.

Even Gregg and I talked about this to our wives at Duffy's.

To date, we still couldn't believe it happened.

For years, Steve Ryeson would have some of my sports photos in his Sports Room so his customers could see them.

But when I return to The Highland House, the majority of the time I spend is with Gene and Elia.

When Gene's wife Diane was alive, no trip would be complete with her as we exchanged hugs and talked. She's a polished diamond of a person!

I'm glad that Candy has spent time in The Original Highland House and won't depend on my own memories as to what it was like.

Like the Silverdome, the Original Highland House will have a date with the wrecking ball. It will become a parking lot.

This building is actually 100 years old.

It was once a truck stop, then became The White Duck Restaurant, Nick's Big Platter and then the Highland House.

When I return, it will be different because I'll have to get used to a totally different atmosphere.

A State Of The Art Atmosphere.

This happens all the time in sports when older arenas get torn down and the new ones are built.

But one thing will always be consistent about the Highland House.

When I tell you that these people have the restaurant business down to a science, I really mean this!

This restaurant reminds me of Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

At the Highland House, you'll always see that familiar bartender as turnover at this position is very rare. In this photo of Elia and I, John Brodie is listed as a bartender that's been with the company several years. He is a great person and it was unfortunate that we didn't see him on this visit.

The original owners were always present and they knew there regular customers by name.

When I sent them customers and told them to look for a particular person, these individuals were there on their specific days.

Elia is a workaholic and never goes out of town.

Then again, when you love what you're doing for a living and making a good living and are comfortable, then he doesn't consider it work.

For years, Elia used to have business interests with former Detroit Red Wings Owner Mike Ilitch, who was the founder of Little Caesars Pizza. Ilitch died on February 10, 2017.

These owners go out of there way to sit with there customers and make the experience and food right.

They're known for their Ribs, Garlic Bread, Pizza and Greek Salad with the Special Dressing. It can be ordered online.

The Highland House owners and staff have treated every vendor, customer and employee as an extension of their family.


As for Myself, Elia and Gene are Gold To Me!

Their love, friendship and my growth as an individual is something that is unforgettable!

Elia and Gene are extended members of my family!

As I've mentioned before and am proud to say it again, Elia is the older brother I never had while Gene is a Jewel of an Uncle!

I'm glad that Candy had an opportunity to spend time with Elia and Gene!

I've made other friends through them such as Gus Pantelides and Mike Pantel.

Both of them live in Clearwater, FL, and I see them periodically when we go to the Tampa Bay Area.

But if you want to open up a restaurant, The Highland House is the model you want to follow!

These people have gotten right for years and the future has never looked brighter!

I'll miss the Pontiac Silverdome and Original Highland House, but what a Nostalgic Return on a chilly but dry December 7, 2017 in Southeastern Michigan.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.

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