Welcome to the refreshed The Only Colors! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to do the same, head over to the FanPosts to begin. Each FanPost will be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Fanatics gift card [contest rules]. We’re collecting all of the stories here and featuring the best ones across our network as well. Come Fan With Us!
Anywho, here’s my story...
To tell the tale of how I became a Michigan State fan is basically to tell the entire story of my life. As long as I can remember, it has been Michigan State and nothing else. I have the weird memorabilia collection to prove it.
The treasure trove includes a maroon Mateen Cleaves Pistons jersey, a shot glass from the 1988 Rose Bowl I was not alive for and, for some reason, a baseball signed by Tom Izzo. Those items are random enough but given the circumstances how I became a Spartan fan is just as unlikely as, say, owning multiple pairs of Michigan State wool socks...not that I’d know, of course.
I was born in the late 80’s in Birmingham, Michigan, a fancy pants suburb about 30 minutes northwest of Detroit and roughly equidistant between East Lansing and Ann Arbor. During that time the area was understandably dominated by Michigan fans. The Fab Five had just finished “changing the game” and the Michigan Football program was getting ready to share its only National Title since 1948.
Meanwhile, the 90’s weren’t exactly the Golden Years of Spartan athletics. The end of the Jud Heathcoate era wasn’t pretty, nor was the start of Tom Izzo’s. On the football field, they had some fun with Nick Saban but he openly complained about not having the same resources they had down in Ann Arbor and eventually left for LSU.
Given all that, it would be hard to blame a kid for pulling for the team with the big stadium and the cool football helmets, but I couldn’t be swayed, which is weird.
So, in the 90’s midwest, if you’re not going to be rooting for Michigan one could safely assume that you’d end up a Notre Dame fan, right? They have history — I mean, it’s Notre Dame — those iconic uniforms and at the time were the only team guaranteed to be on TV every single Saturday. Plus, my family had more reason than most to revere the school.
You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Tom Dooley, but if you’ve visited the Grotto on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, you’ve seen his statue. He graduated from Notre Dame in the 1940’s, became a Navy doctor and thrice-published author. At one point in time, a Gallup poll said he was the seventh-most admired man in the world thanks to his humanitarian efforts in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Next to his statue is a copy of the letter he wrote to then University President, Father Theodore Hesburgh, on December 2, 1960 just over a month before he passed away from cancer. The letter says how thinking of the Grotto was the only thing that brought him peace calling it “the rock to which my life is anchored.”
He was many great things and, also, my great-uncle.
Surely, you wouldn’t blame a kid for falling in love with the school with the Golden Domes, Touchdown Jesus and statue of his famous relative. Yet somehow I was never hooked.
How? Why? What could possibly trump the big shot home town school and the famous family ties?
My first sports memory is from 1995, the year the Detroit Red Wings got swept by the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final. I was on a pre-internet family trip to Ireland and remember my uncle making presumably expensive long distance calls to his friends back in Detroit asking who had won the night before. I don’t think my aunt enjoyed those phone bills.
There are plenty of MSU memories from that time, too. I remember adoring Plaxico Burress, thinking Sedrick Irvin was going to be the next great Lions running back and that the original Flintstone, Antonio Smith, was one of the best basketball players on the planet.
Despite that, I probably could have still been swayed in other directions of fanhood. I wasn’t even a teenager and had pretty much gone along with MSU because my mom and Uncle Steve did. It was cool.
But what cemented my love for the Michigan State Spartans was the 2000 National Championship Basketball team. I thought Smith was the man because we shared the same first initial and last name but then he graduated and Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Andre Hutson and Jason Richardson came along and stole my heart.
Anyone who followed that team would agree it was a special group. Cleaves was as electric a personality as college basketball has ever seen. Peterson had the sweet jumper I tried so hard to emulate, albeit with my right hand. Bell and Hudson were the grinders that played the bully ball my dad worshiped and Richardson was the high flying freshman phenom who could jump out of the gym. There was nothing not to love.
That team took me from fan to diehard. In a pre-internet age, I could recite all the stats, tell you who and when they were playing and (probably) each player’s home town. That team was mine. That obsession was mine. For good.
Sports are mostly suffering. After all, only one team can truly win it all but when its your team that reaches or even approaches the mountaintop, the pain becomes worth it a hundred times over. 2000 was the first time I ever felt that and it changed me forever.
The championship game against Florida still plays vividly in my mind. When Cleaves landed on Teddy Dupay’s foot I was in shambles. My hero just went down in the biggest game of his life and I was absolutely convinced Dupay did it all on purpose. I wish I could say I’ve never been that angry since, but that would be a bold faced lie.
But when Cleaves came limping back out of the tunnel...man, what a feeling. My Willis Reed, my Superman was getting ready to check back into the game after it looked like he might never walk again. He may as well have been wearing a cape.
The rest is history. MSU brought home the second national championship in school history, Cleaves cemented his place alongside Magic Johnson as one of the all-time great Spartans and my allegiances went from fun to unwavering.
There are not many diehard Spartans from my generation. In high school I knew two, both of whom I am still very close with today and it’s a special bond we have.
We remember the tough times, both old — The Bobby Williams and John L. years — and new — the first Big Ten Championship game, the crushing losses to UConn in the Elite Eight and *deep breath* Middle Tennessee State — but for every valley there is a breathtaking peak and those are the memories that last a lifetime.
Every few months or so, especially in the summer, I end up in a YouTube rabbit hole of Spartan Highlights (if you follow me on Twitter, you know) and the list of “wow” moments is incredible and crosses both football and basketball.
In football alone there’s a crazy long list — Smoker to Duckett, Charles Rogers’ catch against Notre Dame, Jason Teague’s winning scamper in South Bend, Adam Decker stuffing Shonn Greene, Larry Caper’s ‘07 OT winner against Michigan, Little Giants, Rocket, Langford’s run to seal the Big Ten Championship, The Rose Bowl, The Cotton Bowl, The Miracle at Michigan, LJ Scott capping off the game winning drive to send MSU to the College Football playoff — and that’s just since the early aught’s.
On the hardwood there’s just as many — Mo Ager dunking on JJ Redick, Kalin Lucas heroics against Kansas, Korie Lucious’ buzzer beater against Maryland, Durrell Summers posterization of Stanley Robinson, Keith Appling’s hammer dunk against Iowa, Blowing out UM in the Big Ten Tournament, Denzel Valentine’s Champions Classic triple-double, anything Miles Bridges or Jason Richardson related — and, again, many more I’m probably missing here.
Far too many of these will bring me dangerously close to tears because the memories attached are so poignant.
Some of the best times in my entire life — celebrating with my fellow diehard Ben after winning the Rose Bowl, hugging with my dad and brother in Indy after beating Ohio State, bawling my eyes out after Lucious sunk his signature three ball — were made possible by Michigan State athletics and I would never trade them for the world.
Beyond all of the sports, there’s the community. There is nothing like being a Spartan. Anyone, alumni or not, who has stepped foot on MSU’s campus realizes there is something special about that place. It’s intangible and maybe (definitely) I’m biased, but it is everything a college is meant to be. On a crisp fall day, there’s no place on earth I’d rather be, and I know I’m not alone in that.
At first, I was a Michigan State fan because I was raised to be. I became a diehard when one of the most iconic players in Big Ten history brought my team a championship during my formative years. I turned from diehard to lifer after spending some of the best times of my life in East Lansing as a student and post grad.
Michigan State has become more than just a school I root for, it has become family. Through the good times and the bad, it will always be there and, to steal a quote from Dr. Dooley, will be the rock to which my life is anchored.
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