Outback Bowl: The heart of the Spartans

The memories began to come back.

Same old Spartans. Here we go again. Another bowl loss.

A team that taunts its fans with potential, but fails to finish.

Written off by many before the Outback Bowl started, a 16-0 halftime deficit had just about everyone throwing in the towel. Even Kirk Cousins acknowledged the Spartans were rattled and some doubt had crept in.

But in that Michigan State locker room, the 85 green-and-white clad Spartan football players heard their coach tell them a simple message that had such meaning to so many of them.

Just believe.

The two-word manta of a 12-year-old girl named Paige from Okemos, who has become an inspiration to the Spartans in her battle with cancer. Her story touched the members of this team, and it impacted them, taught them and showed their true character — as people, not just football players.

If there is one thing these Spartans have, especially its seniors, it is tremendous character. In its off-field honors — Cousins and Arthur Ray Jr. — to its on-field effort, they do not lack in defined character and it is not in them to shy away from long odds. And that is exactly what they faced.

But this was nothing new. For most of the season, the label “underdog” was stamped on their chests.

I tweeted at the start of the second half, “Let’s see how much pride the Spartans have. This half will tell all.”

Boy, did it ever and genuine Spartan pride defined the second half. It was bigger than them. Bigger than an individual in this game. So, they stared down everything going against them and overcame it through pure determination.

From number 1 to number 99. From freshman to fifth-year senior. The strength and the heart to battle and battle and battle emanated through the whole second half.

The defense roared with energy, celebrating every play, because they made so many big ones. Called upon time after time, the passion and physicality of each and every defensive player pushed them through the bigger Georgia lineman and they smacked any Bulldog who dared to touch the ball.

The offense fought for every yard it could get. Le’Veon Bell ran hard like a man possessed, hitting players harder than they hit him. Brian Linthicum, Keith Nichol, Keshawn Martin and B.J. Cunningham hauled in passes and stretched the field.

The mistakes still happened, but the Spartans had the resilience to bounce back repeatedly. Rolling with the punches, they fought their way back into the game and sent it to overtime.

And that’s when this happened:

In case you missed it, announcers Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico had this to say: “These two teams they look as excited as I’ve ever seen. Well that’s the team that came back from down 16 and now the Georgia side, some of their players are trying to get their players rallied up to do the same. but clearly, the momentum of the side of the team that came back from down 16-0.”

While all of this is true, it was so much more than momentum on their side. The camaraderie of a team dancing, jumping, shouting and celebrating on the sideline in a game they had not yet won is more valuable than the biggest BCS bowl payout.

Strong traits such as unity and passion are inherently interwoven throughout the Spartans.

And that character made all the difference in the end.

“This makes it all worth it,” Cunningham said. “All of the tough losses and people questioning us, because this wasn’t about trick plays or Hail Marys. This was all about the heart, baby. This was about a team staying together and knowing we would be rewarded.”

Heart, now that they have and that they showed us all.

In that, they taught us all something … these really aren’t the same old Spartans. We doubt them, and within themselves they might waver, but they do not falter and never fold.

For the past few seasons, the Michigan State football team has entered Spartan Stadium, arms linked as one cohesive unit, to a song called “The Second Coming.”

It says: “We take what we want, we born warriors. If you fall, get up and try it again. If you drop, get up and try it again. … We tired of being runners-up, we coming up. We ready for whatever you put in front of us. Blood, sweat, tears, we dripped all three just to get here. No longer will I wake up and my dreams just vanished. It’s staring right at me, I must take advantage. Hard work pays off, you get what you put in. So why stop now? Gotta keep pushing. We in a fight to the finish, so why not fight til you finished?”

These words epitomized the Spartans effort against Georgia. Their character was that of warriors. They fell and dropped and got up again and again. They took on anyone and everyone. And they fought, oh, did they ever fight.

Above all else, they finished. They finished it Monday.

“They completed the circle,” Dantonio said later of his seniors. “They finished. … It’s the last time they’re playing. It’s the first time they’ve won a bowl game.”

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Posted on January 4, 2012, in Football and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I really, really enjoyed this article. Well done. A great summary of the emotion of the day.

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