Nov. 16, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
Brad Sonntag has had a hand - make that two - in the scoring of 65 points, and yet he routinely carries out one of Michigan State's most important jobs largely unnoticed.
Think about it. If it weren't for Sonntag, the ball would fall down on field-goal and extra-point attempts, or maybe kicker Dan Conroy wouldn't be as accurate.
The last thing Sonntag would call his primary role as the holder, however, is "thankless," and he is secure in knowing that his contribution is meaningful.
"It's neat," Sonntag said. "You can see just how critical the holder can be, and it was just something else I could step up and do to help the team. It wasn't so much about me needing to get on the field. It was a spot that needed to be filled and it almost came to me by accident."
The tapestry of MSU's outgoing seniors class - the winningest in school history with 34 victories and counting - would be woefully incomplete without the contribution of role players and unsung heroes like Sonntag who toil in obscurity, at least relative to high-profile teammates such as quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
By trade, Sonntag is an undersized, at 5-foot-8 and 176 pounds, fifth-year senior wide receiver who was put on scholarship prior to the 2011 season opener against Youngstown State.
His five career receptions are slightly fewer than what B.J. Cunningham averages per game and all came in two gamers earlier this season. Sonntag's first career rushing attempt came off a fake field goal in the third quarter of last Saturday's 37-21 victory at Iowa. It netted 5 yards and a first down and set up 31-yard Conroy field goal.
But, Sonntag fills an important special-teams niche that was vacated when Aaron Bates ran out of eligibility last season, and he has never felt like a less-than-full-and-participating member of the team.
"I had surgery in the spring, for a sports hernia and two regular hernias, so I missed the first couple weeks of spring ball," Sonntag said. "I was just kind of joking around and holding the ball for them, and the next thing I knew, they were still wondering who was going to be the holder and I just kind of volunteered for the job.
"It was tough at times trying to make it as a walk-on. But 99 percent of the time, you're out there on the grind along with the scholarship players, and they don't see you as a walk-on or a scholarship guy. They see a football player working hard. Between players, everyone's treated exactly the same."
That blind devotion to team is one of the most powerful ingredients in the Spartans' chemistry and biggest reasons why they have a chance to win back-to-back Big Ten Championships for the first time since 1965-66 and have consecutive eight-win records for the first time since '89-90.
"You need different people," said MSU coach Mark Dantonio. "If everybody was like me, we wouldn't have as much success. You need people to play off each other. You need a group of people that relate well together, like each other, but also play off each other and have different things that they bring."
Considering the fact that Sonntag wasn't even considered a part of the official 2007 Michigan State recruiting class that was ranked 42nd in the nation by Rivals.com, it's amazing at what this class of seniors has accomplished.
"What you begin with doesn't always mean where you're headed," said Dantonio. "It's a class that's sort of endured. When you look at the last four years as a program, we're the second-winningest team in the conference at 22-8. I think that's a huge statement in terms of what those young men are able to do.
"You just never know. Recruiting is not a science. It's an almost abstract thing at times. You try to evaluate people, but you have no idea how far they're able to come because of the intangibles people have as humans, really."
While modest, the legacy Sonntag will leave behind is no less a part of the greater good.
"I guess if I look back to the 18-year-old expectation of myself, I definitely exceeded expectations I had coming into college," said the hospitality business major with aspirations of getting into the real estate end of the hotel and restaurant field. "It's everyone's dream to be on the field and making plays, but I just took the role given to me and being what the team needed from me with special teams and helping younger guys learn the playbook.
"I think kids in high school can look at me and see someone who might not be making tons of plays, but he's contributing to a great team. How many kids in high school never thought they could be in the position I'm in right now. I never did. It's been a dream-come-true."
Seventeen Spartans seniors will be playing their final game in Spartans Stadium on Saturday against Indiana and whether they started out on a scholarship or as a walk-on, they will forever have a common bond.
"Something we looked to when we came here was changing the culture," said guard and co-captain Joel Foreman. "We wanted to leave Michigan State on the up-and-up, and that's what we've kind of pointed to and is represented in the success we've had.
"The story of Michigan State in general is we're a blue-collar team that puts our work in and everything we've gotten has been earned. We don't always have the biggest names out there, but we pride ourselves on being able to go out there and win as a team."
Free safety and co-captain Trenton Robinson summed up the senior class as the living example of, "If you can believe it, you can achieve it. There were no guys who came in with all that big old hype, but we believed we could achieve something. We collectively, as a group, had a goal. It's doesn't matter about all that stuff coming out of high school. I'm glad we're all here."
Cousins marveled at how much fruit has been borne by the '07 class' humble beginnings. The one trait the class demonstrates overall is character.
"When we came in, (wideout) B.J. Cunningham was a two-star (prospect), I was a two-star, Joel Foreman was a two-star," Cousins said. "And we said, if we want to do something special, and we've got to line up against the Ohio States and the Wisconsins of the world with their four- and five-stars, then we need to somehow bring an extra element that they don't have, and I think it's that character we needed to display.
"I think we've shown it time and again to have the success that we've had."
Through its effort, this class has opened the doors to Dantonio and his recruiters to a higher-grade of prospects, and it's unlikely MSU will ever have another group ranked as low as this one.
Cousins probably wasn't too far off the mark when he said if he were coming out of Holland Christian High School today with the same credentials he posted in 2006, he'd probably be playing for Division-III Hope College next season.
"It says a lot about us, and about our coaching staff, too, that they can find players that may not, on paper be the best athletes or best players, and get them on campus and mold them into football players and playmakers and do the stuff other schools didn't have faith in them to do," said Cunningham. "They believed in us to put us on the field, and I can't ask for anything better than to be starting at a Big Ten university at wide receiver.
"You've got to remember where you came from and how you got here. I was a two-star or three-star, whatever. It doesn't matter. Hard work got me here."