Nov. 14, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams doesn't regret returning for his senior year even though the Spartans are fighting for their postseason lives instead of another Big Ten Championship.
Running back Larry Caper's on-field role has diminished over the past four years, but his passion for the game has not.
Outside linebacker Chris Norman plans to get the most out of what's left of his MSU career before coming to terms with knowing that while he won't contribute physically to whatever success the Spartans achieve next season he will still be a part of it.
Adams, Caper and Norman personify the joyful heart Michigan State's 13 seniors will take into their final game at Spartan Stadium against Northwestern on Saturday.
Also bidding a fond farewell will be: quarterback Peter Badovinac, fullback Jeff Bobek, kicker Dan Conroy, nose tackle Doug Curtis, linebacker Steve Gardiner, defensive tackle Tyler Hoover, offensive guard Chris McDonald, offensive lineman Ethan Ruhland, defensive tackle Anthony Rashad White and defensive back Mitchell White. David Barrent, Corey Freeman, Zac Hueter, Arthur Ray Jr. and Drew Stevens, whose careers ended because of injury prior to the season, also will be recognized.
It would be reasonable to assume that MSU's players, especially the seniors who've been grinding for four or five years, can't wait for this frustrating season to end. After all, the Spartans are no longer capable of achieving their loftiest goals, and that constant pounding feels so good when it stops.
But these seniors don't appear to be in any rush to get on with the rest of their lives. Even Adams, who briefly considered declaring himself available for the NFL Draft last winter, wants his collegiate experience to go on for as long as possible.
That's why beating the Wildcats to become bowl-eligible has Adams just as motivated as he was when Michigan State was still in the hunt for the Rose Bowl.
"It's the same mind-set," Adams said. "When we go out there, we're trying to be the best team we can be. Every week, we want to show that we're still the best team in the Big Ten, and we've got this Saturday to show that again."
With their 5-5 record, the only way the Spartans can make a statement about their prowess is with how they play. And if they become the nation's best 6-5 team, the goal will be to end the regular season as its best 7-5 outfit.
What's at stake is a five-season bowl streak that will presumably be extended with a trip to the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1 in Jacksonville, Fla., if MSU wins out, or an invitation to the Dec. 29 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., if it splits with Northwestern and Minnesota.
But other considerations also matter to the seniors.
"I don't regret my decision," Adams said. "I came back, and I got better. The ball didn't bounce my way sometimes but I came back and made some plays for the team. I also didn't make some plays for the team, but I stuck in there with my teammates, and I'm still fighting as a senior and some of the younger kids look up to me.
"So I'm going to keep playing and doing what I do. The friendships I've got and the support I've gotten around here was definitely worth coming back for. I just want to come out here in front of my fans and my student section, perform and go out with a bang."
The Spartans are in the same playoff mode they were a year ago when they had to beat Indiana and Northwestern to advance to the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game.
Caper, who as a freshman in 2009 started five games and led MSU in rushing with 468 yards on 120 carries, been cast in a supporting role ever since. His two other career starts came earlier this season, but he has just 16 carries for 85 yards.
However, Caper will leave Michigan State knowing he has one of the best big-plays-to-downs-played ratios in recent Spartan memory. Most notable are the 26-yard touchdown sweep that beat Michigan in overtime in '09 and the 15-yard touchdown reception that helped spark this season's come-from-behind victory at Indiana.
Caper said he will contemplate his contributions to MSU football after he's done making them, with the expectation that there are still more to come.
"When I go out there in these last two or three games, I just want to make my mark," Caper said. "But even if I never touch the field again, I've made a lot of memories with these guys and I love them to death.
"We have every reason to be sad and depressed because we're 5-5 right now, but as long as we keep making the game fun and play hard we'll be all right. So, that's what I want to bring to the team. I want to make sure everybody's having fun and I can do that by bringing my energy."
The two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection said he never once considered taking the easy way out by giving up football.
"I love it out here," Caper said. "I've been doing it since I was 6 years old. No matter what I was doing, what position I was playing or where I was on the depth chart, I always had fun. For any guy who thinks he has the ability to be on the field there could be a tendency to be somewhat bitter, but that's not where I'm going to lay - I'm not going to make my bed in bitterness.
"You only get four guaranteed years to play ball and I'm not going to sit here and be angry because things didn't work out for me the way I hoped they would. God has a better plan for me, and you never know what it may be. I just want to come out here and make sure these young guys are ready next year."
Norman arrived as one of fledgling head coach Mark Dantonio's most heralded prospects in 2009. Although his contributions on the field have been numerous despite an ongoing struggle with injuries, he has experienced as much personal and spiritual growth as any player in program history.
Personal goals have given way to teams goals and Norman noted that all five of Dantonio's previous senior classes played in a bowl game. He also said that the Class of 2012 doesn't want to be the first to leave without a Big Ten home victory during the season since 2006.
"Every senior wants to leave some kind of legacy," Norman said. "We've been going to bowl games consistently for the last few seasons, so you don't want to be that class that doesn't get that kind of an opportunity. That is definitely high on our priority list.
"I also want to get the W in this game because we haven't won in the Big Ten at Spartan Stadium yet, and that really isn't part of the history of (Dantonio's) program."
Norman contributed to MSU's Big Ten Championship in 2010 and run to the title game last season, but how the Spartans finish this season can have an important impact on the overall well-being of the program for years to come.
"One of the things I think we'll be remembered for contributing is being a group of guys that's stuck with the program through hard times," Norman said. "I look back at 2009 and we had some struggles, '10 and '11 of course were great seasons, and now things aren't going the way we wanted it to.
"But, everybody has been faithful through the whole process and that's something I want everybody to see as we move on to our next stage in life. I will always be a Michigan State Spartan."