This week at SB Nation is “Underdog Week.” That might as well be called “Michigan State” week to anyone who knows the long history of MSU in its fight to exist. Right from its origins Michigan State was the underdog fighting for existence against the “big boy on the block” down the road. The University of Michigan tried its hardest to prevent MSU from being created, spent decades trying to have it absorbed into them, and almost a century later lobbied as hard as possible to prevent the Spartans from being admitted to the Big Ten. So being the underdog fits Michigan State to a “T.”
However, it’s not just Michigan State’s background that fits the underdog role. Many of its students fit the narrative as well. I could regale you with the story of people like my paternal grandfather who worked his way through MSU during the great depression and World War II era America while joining the ROTC to get his degree. There are certainly more than enough stories like his to fill multiple volumes.
Today, though, I want to highlight some of the student athletes we’ve seen fighting for the only colors on the banks of the Red Cedar.
Joining Michigan State in the wake of Marcus Taylor’s departure, this junior college graduate came to East Lansing after a rough childhood escaping violence on Chicago’s south side. You can refresh your memory of him in this Chicago Tribune profile.
Who doesn’t remember Goran Suton in the green and white? This big man certainly made an impression on the hard wood, but his childhood story of how his family fled war in Bosnia as a child leaves an even bigger impression.
Anthony Ianni grew up facing bullying from his classmates for being “different.” However, the eventual Michigan State center didn’t let that stop him. He fought through adversity and went on to become the first known Division 1 athlete with autism playing under Coach Tom Izzo and alongside teammate Draymond Green.
The Mark Dantonio era is one filled with un-heralded recruits who became college stars and legitimate pro-prospects. None embody that more than walk-on Jack Conklin who went on to become a first round draft pick.
Lourawls “Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr.
Tum Tum was given the opportunity at age 13 to leave his home in the Bahamas to play basketball at a prep school in Florida. He arrived only to discover it was a fraud set-up that offered neither an education or a true opportunity to advance his growth on the basketball floor. After enduring agony for two and a half years, Nairn was able to escape after confessing about the conditions to his parents and get a second chance in the US where he ended up getting an offer from Michigan State.
Matt Van Dyke
A fourth generation farmer from the thumb managed to put in the hard work at the Division II and junior college level to get a shot at playing as a walk-on at Michigan State. The hard work and dedication paid off and the rest is history at this point as Matt Van Dyke joined the Spartans on the hardwood while continuing to finish his degree in Agribusiness and help his family on the farm in between workouts.
After making the trip to MSU by himself via Greyhound for his official visit, Josh Butler ended up committing and and coming to Michigan State to play as a cornerback on the football team. However, tragedy struck during his career as he lost his father the day of the Penn State game in 2017. He played through the pain of his loss, and yet again suffered personal tragedy when he lost his mother in April 2018 to breast cancer. Despite this he graduated in December 2018 with his bachelors, and has since finished his masters degree while he continues to train and pursue the opportunity to play in the NFL.
Another Spartan who came out of Chicago, Raequan Williams had an outstanding career that sees him now with a shot to play in the NFL after signing as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles. However, he almost quit football at MSU after losing two close friends he considered brothers his first two seasons at Michigan State.
An outstanding soccer player at MSU, Farai Mutatu moved from Zimbabwe with his family at the age of 6 after his father graduated from MSU. However, his parents eventually had to leave the family behind in January 2016 to go back to Zimbabwe to help facilitate student exchanges between a school back home and MSU. However they have not been able to return due to visa issues.
The new all-time assists leader in MSU Women’s Basketball history, Taryn McCutcheon, has had a truly outstanding college career through her final season this past academic year ending now. However, the standout senior guard faced horrendous bullying growing up through high school after she received an offer to MSU. The West Virginia native was the brunt of jealousy and rumor that scarred her remaining high school years.
Wile not technically an athlete at MSU, Eric Bach is a Spartan studying journalism and working with BTN covering the sports he loves while living his authentic self. After the stress of playing high school athletics in the closet while hearing teammates and opposing schools use slurs, Eric has been able to come out at MSU and find acceptance while he continues to pursue his passion in sports.
Jacob Jean was a four-year cheerleader at Michigan State. However, his arrival to campus as a freshman came after facing the tragic loss of his boyfriend to suicide near the end of his high school career. Jacob was able to overcome the loss in part through the support and friendship of his coaches and teammates and went to to graduate from MSU in May 2017.
Anthony Pero is originally from Allen Park, Michigan. His family moved overseas to England and later Germany when he was 14 years old after his father accepted a new opportunity Ford offered him. Despite the distance from his home state, he managed to pursue his love of tennis and desire to play in college back stateside. After arranging to workout in front of an MSU coach, he would later go on to receive and offer and come play at Michigan State. Now when he finishes a match and walks off the court, he gives his family watching back in Germany a thumbs-up.
Who are the athletes you remember that stand out as the typical Michigan State “underdog” profile?