One Last Chance
Seniors play final game in Spartan Stadium Saturday
It’s going to take Chris Norman a little longer than usual to suit up Saturday.
It will be the last time the senior linebacker steps onto the field at Spartan Stadium as a player, and he plans to savor every minute, down to the tying of his cleats.
“I’m going to walk a little slower; when we get dressed in the locker room, I’ll put my pads on a little slower,” Norman said. “And I say that just because I want to get the chance to take it all in. I won’t have the opportunity to come back to Spartan Stadium as a player and do those things, so I really just want to savor the moment.”
Pregame will go a little differently for senior running back Larry Caper.
The Battle Creek, Mich., native also will be suiting up one last time, but he doesn’t plan to dwell on the gravity of the moment until after he takes the uniform off for the final time.
“It’s just a regular week,” he said. “I won’t really feel like what it’ll be like to be out there for the last time until I’m not out there anymore, and I see the guys out there playing next season.”
And although Norman and Caper will handle the emotions of Saturday’s Senior Day matchup against Northwestern in two very different ways, they find themselves connected in another way.
For the past four years, Norman has been a staple in MSU’s linebacking corps.
The Detroit native was named one of three captains at the beginning of the season and has started 30 of 47 career games, recording 185 tackles during that time.
And Caper also has cemented his position in MSU mythos, scoring the game-winning 23-yard touchdown in the Spartans’ 26-20 overtime victory against rival Michigan in 2009, his freshman year.
But now the two find themselves in a unique position.
Norman has taken a backseat to sophomore Taiwan Jones, while Caper’s watched junior Le’Veon Bell take the reins at running back.
“Sometimes it takes a big man to look at things and say, ‘OK, I’m still part of this football team,’” head coach Mark Dantonio said.
But for Caper and Norman, there was no question how they would handle taking on a limited role.
“I wasn’t going to lay my bed in bitterness,” Caper said. “I was just going to come out here and make sure I’ve got these young guys ready for next year.”
Caper and Norman have earned the title of “eagle” — a term used by the team to denote the 12 players selected as team leaders during preseason camp.
When Jones began to see more time at the linebacker position, Norman told Dantonio he was willing to do whatever it took to help the team win.
“I will always be a Spartan, and I will always help this program in any way I can,” he said.
Bell — Caper’s muse — said it’s his predecessor’s upbeat and positive attitude that makes him a leader by example. “If we had a lot more guys like (Larry), we’d be a better team than we are now,” he said.
Dantonio said Norman’s leadership is more grounded in his willingness to do what it takes to win, and be a “servant” to the team — a nod to Norman’s religious roots.
With his foundation in faith, it should come as no surprise that linebackers and special teams coach Mike Tressel praised Norman’s belief in the team even before he first donned green and white.
“Chris believed in Coach Dantonio and his vision, me and my vision, so that makes him extra special, without a doubt,” he said. “Now hopefully he feels a lot of pride in what happened here. Not just in his great career, but what’s happened here, because he had a big part in it.”
Regardless of what happened in East Lansing the past four years and what will happen Saturday at Spartan Stadium, Caper and Norman will be the first ones to admit their time at MSU has shaped them for the rest of their lives.
“I came in here as a boy, and I’m leaving as a 21-year-old man,” Caper said. “Through this whole process, I’m a better man out
Coaches, players reflect on career of team cornerstone
Every week, Chris McDonald takes his spot along the Spartans’ offensive line, looks to his left, looks to his right and rarely sees the same people lined up alongside him.
As the senior offensive guard prepares to crouch along the MSU football team’s (5-5 overall, 2-4 Big Ten) offensive line for the final time at Spartan Stadium on Saturday (noon, ESPN2) against Northwestern (7-3, 3-3), he will do so as the leader and dependable mainstay of a group that’s fought just to survive the season.
The Spartans have used six different offensive line combinations this season, and McDonald has been the sole member of the group to be counted on each and every week.
With senior offensive tackle Fou Fonoti and sophomore center Travis Jackson each suffering season-ending injuries, and former all-conference guard Joel Foreman gone to the NFL draft in April, McDonald has been the one player head coach Mark Dantonio said his team has been able to rely on, describing him as an All-Big Ten-caliber performer.
“Chris has been a staple in our offensive line this season. He’s been the one guy that I think, basically, has remained intact,” Dantonio said.
“He’s the one guy that’s had a consistent start every game for us on the offensive line. He’s done that really throughout the last three years. He’s an extremely hard worker. He’s been very consistent in everything that he’s done for the past five years. (He’s) been really a role model for us on the field. He’s taken a leadership approach with our offensive line really throughout the offseason; and during the season, he’s a quiet leader.”
Junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell first noticed his teammate’s work ethic back when the duo was on the scout team together three years ago.
Maxwell said he remembers how disappointed McDonald was not to be among the team’s top offensive guards, but instead of hanging his head, it motivated him to keep working
“I know that was kind of a disappointment to him. He was really hoping to crack the two-deep that year,” Maxwell said. “But just all the work he’s put in to be a two- or three-year starter now for us, he’s been one of our most consistent linemen. … The hard work and durability that he’s shown has been a real constant for us.”
In addition to the injuries to his fellow linemen, McDonald said it’s been tough to deal with as much losing this season as in the previous two seasons combined, but his teammates have made it a special year.
“You look at the beginning of the season, (and) you didn’t think we were going to be 5-5,” McDonald said. “We had higher expectations, but, you know, I wouldn’t change it for anything. I love these guys, and I think we’re a good football team. We’re just trying to think about the last two games and trying to win them.”
Jackson said the thought of already having played his last game with McDonald and not being able to help him close out his senior year in style is one of his biggest regrets.
“That’s where it becomes really tough having an injury,” Jackson said. “You want to be able to play for them and make their senior years great years, and you can’t do it.”
But more than the accolades, Jackson said the thing he’ll miss most about his teammate is his ability to impact those around him.
“He just really brings the guys together,” Jackson said. “He brings the guys along … who haven’t gotten as much playing time. He just brings them along with him. He’s a guy on the field that plays really well, but he makes the guys around him better.”
And for junior running back Le’Veon Bell, who currently leads the Big Ten in rushing, he said none of his success would have been possible without the determination and toughness of the big man who plays in front of him.
“He’s been there every game, playing through injuries, playing through whatever he has had and blocking his butt off, and I thank him every day for it,” Bell said. “I need him more than he needs me. He’s done everything for us, and I just want to make sure I send him out the right way. Last game at Spartan Stadium and send him out with a win.”