April 27, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The 2013 football season is officially over.
Michigan State's reigning Big Ten title and Rose Bowl Championship team's final assignment was to: shine a spotlight on its brightest stars, honor its unsung heroes, acknowledge the efforts of the coaching and support staffs - full-time and student - and thank the parents, grandparents and other significant people in the players' lives.
The annual Spartan Football Awards Banquet has typically been held within a week or so of the final regular-season game but before a bowl when MSU qualified for postseason play. Because of unmanageable, but welcomed, scheduling constraints created by a date with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 7 and preparation for the school's first trip to Pasadena in 26 years, the event was arranged to take place in conjunction with Saturday's Green-White spring game.
Marked by reminiscences of the good times and reflections on the tough ones, the unusually poignant program held Sunday afternoon at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center was the last time the members of MSU's all-time winningest senior class gathered within the construct of the team.
With a capacity crowd of nearly 900 looking on, Jim Thorpe Award winner and All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who was named Michigan State's Most Valuable Player by a team vote, got choked up while looking back on his journey from Dry Branch, Ga., to the first round of next month's NFL Draft.
"I have to thank Coach Warner for coming down to the country and getting me," Dennard with regard to co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner's recruitment of him in 2009. "If he didn't, who knows where I'd be?"
Dantonio closed the ceremony by referencing the impromptu pronouncement he came up with during the 2012 awards banquet.
"Last year I said, `You will be the ones,'" Dantonio said. "Present tense, you are the ones."
And with that, Michigan State's departing players scattered to the four winds, many of whom, Dantonio somberly noted, may not be seen again for years.
"It was an emotional experience today," he said afterward. "When you have a banquet on the last day you're probably going to see them, and then you had the last day of spring practice, so now you're moving toward 2014, I think it takes on a whole different meaning."
This season's banquet represented a true pivot point from the glory of what was to the anticipation of what will be.
"We've seen the videos numerous times," Dantonio said. "We've been through it, talked about it, a lot's been said and a lot's been written. It was an exciting time and a dream season and something you'll never forget, but the next year comes.
"You need to be able to measure up to what you've done already, and that's the task ahead of all of us. The key I think to success in anything that we do is consistency, and to be consistent you have to strip back everything and start fresh from what allowed you get to this place.
"We keep talking about handling success and about how we represent ourselves on the field, off the field and in leadership areas. If you were in banquet, (you could see) there are so many people involved in this program and they all have to look at themselves and ask: OK, what did I do, what can I do better?"
The outgoing seniors, like wide receiver and Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior - offense) winner Bennie Fowler, left no doubt about just how much better they believe the Spartans can be next season and beyond.
"To whom much is given, much is expected," said Fowler, reprising his banquet remarks. "They have to put the Rose Bowl behind them. We achieved a lot last year, winning 13 games, but now it's time for them to take that next step and become National Champs. That's what their goal should be.
"With all of the facilities we have and with the great coaches we have, there is really no excuse not to win. You put in the work and you do what you have to do, like we did this year, and you have faith and belief and good team chemistry, there's no reason why we shouldn't be National Champs. I can't wait. If they go to the National Championship game next year, I'll get my plane ticket and be right there on the sideline with them."
Transitions were going full throttle after the banquet. Middle linebacker Max Bullough, the recipient of the Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior defense) and "Biggie" Munn Award (most inspirational), was off to catch a plane with the hope that his next game will be played in an NFL stadium.
"It's the prophesy fulfilled," he said of Dantonio's you're the ones comment. "It's been a goal for this program ever since Coach D got here and sitting at that banquet last year wasn't the best feeling. But we were able to do the things we said we were going to do this year."
Bullough can't wait to move onto the next chapter in his life.
"It's exciting," he said. "I'm someone who's always looking forward to the next thing. Even when I played for Michigan State I talked like that - always working for the next thing. Going from high school to college was a great experience. Obviously, there was an adjustment period and that's what I'm looking forward to do in the NFL."
During the program, senior quarterback and Potsy Ross Award (top scholar-athlete) winner Andrew Maxwell said his favorite part of the season started while having lunch with back-up linebacker Kyler Elsworth a couple of weeks before the Rose Bowl.
Both players talked about their aspirations to play professionally after leaving MSU, but Elsworth, a former walk-on and special teams stalwart, lamented his lack of highlight video to show the scouts and wondered if an agent would even be interested in representing him.
He also told Maxwell he hoped he would get in on enough plays against Stanford to beef up his resume.
"It's funny," said Elsworth, a recipient of the Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior special teams) and Jim Adams Award (unsung hero). "I kind of forgot about it until (Maxwell) brought it up today."
Of course, Elsworth went on to make the dramatic tackle on fourth-and-1 that clinched the Spartans' 24-20 victory over The Cardinal on Jan. 1. Elsworth, who prepped at tiny Goodrich High School, called spearheading one of the greatest plays in Rose Bowl history a life-changing experience.
"I thought I would train here in East Lansing when I got back in the hopes of maybe getting picked up in a (NFL) mini-camp or going to play in the (Canadian Football League)," Elsworth said. "As soon as I got back, it was a complete 180. I got called by an agent, I got an offer to go to Arizona and train, did some (autograph) signings, public meetings - stuff that walk-on guys that play on special teams don't get to do.
"It's different going into places and people recognize you. Sometimes you hear a whisper, `I think that's Kyler Elsworth.' When people you've never seen before in places you've never been before recognize you, it's a real great feeling."
Had the four-team playoff that will be used to pick next season's National Champion been in effect last season, MSU would almost certainly have been in the national semifinal. Nevertheless, outside linebacker and Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior defense) winner Denicos Allen didn't curse his timing. Instead, he'll live vicariously through future Spartan teams.
"Yeah, that kind of sucks," Allen said. "I feel like we could have been National Champions this year because I feel like we could have beaten anybody. I would like to have another year left, but it's on to the next level. I've got to move on and just pray for next season. I'm pretty sure they'll do fine and I'll be there to support them if I can."
Outgoing All-Big Ten strong safety Isaiah Lewis, winner of the Downtown Coaches Club Award (outstanding senior defense), admitted to having bittersweet feeling about his last day as a member of the Michigan State football team.
"It didn't hit me until towards the end when Coach D was talking," Lewis said. "Before that, I wasn't really tearing up, but then I was feeling this is the final step for me being out of this program. I had so much fun playing here and just being around this school. But you know, great things always end and you have to move on to bigger things.
"I was getting a little choked up, just sitting there thinking about all the things I've done these past four years. Michigan State has set me up to go to the next level, and I'm happy about that. If you think about it, it's easy to mess up and to get to this point is a miracle, especially from the area I live."
Lewis came to MSU from Indianapolis Ben Davis High.
"A lot of the kids from my school, they don't make it," he said. "I feel like there's a select few that are picked out to make it and set an example for the rest of the people to let them know they can get up out of there and they can make it.
"I feel I was picked to do that and I'm going to take advantage of it."
Every member of MSU's senior class has already graduated or is on track to do so in short order. Dennard will go through commencement ceremonies on Friday. He said getting his degree in communications "trumps" every award he's won and victory he's been a part of, even the Rose Bowl.
"It really does because it's doing something that's never been done in my family," Dennard said. "Becoming a graduate and having a degree from a Big Ten school, that's a big thing - just having my little cousins and sisters and have all those guys look up to me."
Dennard turned down an invitation to be introduced in New York on draft day so he can be back home with his family and friends. He's going to host a barbeque for the whole town the Wednesday before the draft and will watch proceedings in the privacy of his own home.
"My grandparents pretty much raised me with the help of my mom," he said. "And, my grandparents don't fly, so I don't have a reason to go there. It's a special moment for me, and I just want the people I care about there.
"Throwing the cookout and playing with the kids and doing stuff like that is my way of giving back to them. For people in my neighborhood, it's just showing them there's different ways to get out, not only in sports but with school and education as well. Where I come from, there really is no hope. I see lot friends who either go to jail or are dead or just going down the wrong path.
"Doing all the things I've done, all the accomplishments I've had - it's a blessing."
Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon, who was traveling and unable to attend the banquet, addressed the gathering via a prerecorded video. Without a bowl game yet to play, she defined the unique timing of the occasion by paying homage to the past while looking to the future.
"Our goals under Coach Dantonio have gotten greater and greater each year," she said. "Some of those dreams we have come true. We need them to come true next year."