Nov. 30, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
It may be remembered as the most anticlimactic play of Michigan State's 2013 football season, if anyone besides Andrew Maxwell remembers it at all.
After the Spartans pounded Michigan into submission for 59 minutes and 20 seconds, head coach Mark Dantonio called a curious timeout. The Spartans were undoubtedly going to win, 29-6, and even the most unsympathetic green-and-white booster had to wonder why he was prolonging the agony of the conquered archrival.
Then, Dantonio pulled starting quarterback Connor Cook in favor of Maxwell to line up in victory formation and put his knee down on Michigan State's fifth victory in the last six games against U-M.
As perfunctory as it was statistically insignificant, Maxwell didn't even get credit for the play which is depicted in the official record of the game as: "Team rush for loss of 3 yards to the Michigan 47."
Maxwell's final career appearance against the Wolverines is documented only in the participation log, a footnote Dantonio squeezed in just before Spartan Stadium erupted with jubilation.
"Andrew Maxwell has been an extremely unselfish young man and I thought it was important that he take a snap and celebrate in this victory in that capacity," Dantonio said after the game. "I wanted to do that and we did it."
Those who dismissed it by saying, "At this point, why bother?", don't know Andrew Maxwell, who will never forget the symbolic token of appreciation his coach had the presence of mind to extend at the end of a monumental victory.
"Michigan is the game we all obviously circle, but that game means a lot to me as it does to all of us who grew up in this state," Maxwell said. "To get in for the last play, just to be a part of that and to get officially in the stat book may seem meaningless, but I thought it was a nice gesture that I'll always be thankful for."
A fifth-year senior, Maxwell's final season in a Spartan uniform dawned with the hopeful possibility of becoming a victory lap just as 2011 did for Kirk Cousins, his predecessor who bowed out with a Legends Division Championship, an appearance in the inaugural Big Ten title game and a triumph over Georgia in the Outback Bowl for a second-consecutive 11-win finish.
After all, despite having an inordinate number of passes dropped by an inexperienced receiving corps and playing behind an injury-riddled offensive line throughout his junior year, Maxwell's first year as the starting quarterback ended with 234 completions, good for fourth MSU's all-time season list, and 2,606 yards, seventh-most in school history.
However, competition, evaluation and results brought an end to Maxwell's reign as Michigan State's starting quarterback before the Spartans rounded the first turn. Cook got the opportunity to see what he could do as the No. 1 signal-caller in Week 2 against South Florida, and the red-shirt sophomore has gone on to lead MSU to a 9-1 record in the last 10 games and a second Legends Division championship.
Meantime, Maxwell, who also lost his captainship from the previous season, has been left to endure an indignity experienced by relatively few veteran former starters while wearing a headset on the sideline. Nevertheless, he doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for him - there are worse places he could be.
"With the aspect of team that Coach Dantonio really emphasizes, this is kind of who we are as Michigan State Spartans," Maxwell said. "No one came here for the `me;' everybody came here for the `we.' Obviously, this was a difficult situation and one I kind of got thrown into, but I don't know any other way to handle it than within the context of this team because our goals are too big and we worked too hard."
At least one former teammate, Keith Nichol, told a Grand Rapids radio station that Maxwell should be considered for Most Valuable Player honors for not becoming the divisive force in the locker room he could have been. Maxwell chuckled at the mere mention of his name in that respect.
"I don't think I'm going to vote for myself, that's for sure," he said. "I think we've had other players who obviously deserve it a lot more than I do. It would be utterly selfish of me to want to put myself ahead of all the work this group has laid down, and not just this group but the players who've come before us.
"We set our sights too high for me to bring it down with selfish motives. I'm actually in a really good place, but I do get questions on, `Why are you handling it so well?' and `How can you respond this way?'"
Maxwell credits his faith for handling tough times with poise and composure.
"The most important thing I can share with people is, football is not my life, it's not my identity, it's not where I find my confidence or my hope," he said. "Football adds nothing to it, and the absence of football takes nothing away from it.
"Football is not the platform I stand on or keeps me eternally motivated. That's only in my relationship with Jesus Christ and that hasn't changed. It's only gotten stronger and only by His grace that I've been able to handle it like this."
Of course, watching another player succeed so well in his place hasn't been easy for a competitor like Maxwell. But, the support of his teammates and coaches has also helped him persevere.
"The most difficult thing for me was figuring out what my day-to-day looked like because I wasn't getting as many reps in practice and not being a starter you naturally don't have that platform to stand on anymore as a leader," Maxwell said. "How do I approach practice? How do I go to meetings and go to lifts and do everything I need to do while this is all going on. It took me a couple weeks to settle in."
Second-year MSU graduate assistant Rob Harley, who went through a similar experience as a defensive back while earning three letters at Ohio State from 2003-05, was instrumental in helping Maxwell keep his situation in perspective
"While battling for playing time he said he kept getting knocked down the depth chart," Maxwell said. "And, he said his attitude was awful at practice, but his external circumstances weren't changing. There wasn't anybody saying anything to him or bringing him down, but for some reason, every day when he came to practice he was in a worse and worse mood and finally said, `Why is that?'
"He came to the conclusion that it was a choice he made, and so he put it very bluntly to me and said, `Are you going to make this suck more than it needs to suck, or are you going to sacrifice and choose to enjoy the day-to-day process?' They weren't going to cut the season short because I'm not the quarterback anymore."
Dantonio has never wavered from his stance that the player who gives the Spartans the best chance to win will play regardless of position or class. His apparent fondness for Maxwell didn't enter the equation; Maxwell said he lost the job fair and square.
"It's difficult when you're put in a situation like that because there's the mental pressure and there's the competition that's always looming," Maxwell said. "In light of that, when you have to get multiple people reps with the ones and twos, and you're working with different receivers and centers and offensive lines, it became difficult for me to put together consistency in my play.
"If I'm being honest, I didn't have my best training camp here. I'm not laying blame on anybody and I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. That's just the way it is."
Drawing from his days as Cousins' understudy and subsequent 14 starts, Maxwell feels he has played an active role in MSU's success as a mentor to Cook.
"In six weeks, I'm out of here and Michigan State football will go on without me," Maxwell said. "So the best thing I can do is build into Connor and the other young quarterbacks, the younger receivers and the other young players on this team.
"There's an open-door of communication and wisdom, or whatever you want to call it, there. Just as a guy who's been there, and I sound like I've been gone for 10 years, but I remember situations that you can't replicate in spring ball or fall camp and understand only after playing in a game."
Maxwell's handiwork may be largely unseen, but his fingerprints will be left on whatever success the Spartans have going forward whether through the experiences gained while losing five games by a total of 13 points with him as a starter during a disappointing 7-6 season, or by dispensing real-time advice.
"There's that general knowledge overview, but I'm telling (Cook), `Hey, you've got to get your guys to the line quicker,'" Maxwell said. "'Hey, make sure before you send the motion, everybody's set. Hey, your shot clock is running down, keep your eye on that.'
"When stuff's going on out there, there are things that as a quarterback you just don't think about or can't see when you line up behind center. I can be a second set of eyes, so I feel like it's been beneficial for (Cook) and a privilege for me."
With the way the offense has been operating this season, Maxwell is confident it won't miss a beat with him calling signals if he's ever pressed into duty. If that doesn't happen, he secure in knowing his legacy was established in another way.
"I feel extremely confident in the strides and improvements we've made at every position and this is how I can draw some good from last year," he said. "I don't know that we have a year like this year if we don't go through a year like last year when we had to learn things the hard way.
"There's no resentment, there's no bitterness. I just want to see this team reach its goals. Should that moment come for me, I'll be ready to go in, but more than I want my one shining moment, I'd be much more pleased riding off into the sunset with the whole team and a championship."
Taking a knee in victory formation on his final play as a Spartan would also suffice.