Zeke thrills MSU fans at Spartan football games
With wind speeds of almost 20 mph last Sunday, Zeke the Wonder Dog III struggled to catch frisbee after frisbee thrown by his owners, Jim and Terri Foley, at West Ottawa High School’s practice football field in Holland, Mich., the couple’s hometown.
The weather wouldn’t cooperate, and as hard as Zeke tried, he couldn’t make it to the yellow disk before it skidded across the grass.
Like any dedicated athlete, Zeke needed to practice.
Jim Foley was determined to give him the chance to catch a few frisbees, so he packed his van, which is marked with a “MSUZEKE” vanity plate, and headed out to find an indoor location.
When the Foleys finally pulled up at the Holland Civic Center, they knew they’d found the right place.
Jim Foley of Holland, Mich., lets Zeke the Wonder Dog III out of the car to practice their routine, Nov. 11, 2012, at West Ottawa High School in Holland. Foley started performing with Zeke the Wonder Dog back in 2001 to revitalize a tradition dating back to 1977. Adam Toolin/The State News
Zeke the Wonder Dog leaps off of trainer Jim Foley's back Oct. 16, 2010, at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans went on to defeat the Illinois Fighting Illini, 26-6, in their homecoming game. State News File Photo
Although the center was filling up with fans hoping to watch a semipro basketball game between the Holland Dream and the Battle Creek Knights, Zeke was fired up to steal the show.
After a quick conversation with Holland Dream coach Teddy Davis, Jim Foley had secured a place for Zeke to practice — the yellow lab took the court during one of the game’s timeouts and performed, sporting his rubber booties that the Foleys affectionately call his “Nikes” and catching frisbee after frisbee.
“When he hears the announcer talking, I think that’s when he thinks they’re talking about him, and he goes nuts,” Jim Foley said. “You can’t hold him anymore; when they announce him at a game, it’s game on.”
What started out as an MSU football halftime show at the first game of the 1977 season has since turned into an MSU tradition famous to Spartan fans across the state.
But that tradition, which died in 1984 and was brought back to life in 2001, could die again if a young Spartan does not eventually step up to be the new Zeke owner.
The Foleys’ days of coaching Zekes are numbered, and they’re hoping someone will take up their frisbee.
“It really is a tradition that needs to be perpetuated,” Jim Foley said. “I may not be around for it, but I would love to hear there was a Zeke 20 when I’m in heaven, you know?”
When then-student Gary Eisenberg started throwing frisbees to his dog during his night shift at a gas station on Harrison Road, he never thought he was training a legend.
The original Zeke the Wonder Dog first performed in September 1977 after being named the winner of a national frisbee competition.
Over the next seven years, the student section grew to love Zeke.
“The students would chant, ‘Zeke! Zeke! Zeke!’” Eisenberg said, who now lives in West Bloomfield, Mich. “He really was a phenomenon.”
But after Zeke began to slow down in 1982 and Eisenberg’s second dog, Keze, was hit by a car and died, the halftime frisbee performances were put to rest in 1984.
That is, until Mark Hollis, now the athletics director, decided to search for a new Zeke, associate athletics director Paul Schager said.
Jim and Terri Foley had been performing with their dog Dexter at basketball games and other sporting events in Holland, Mich., when they were asked to perform at an MSU football game.
The first game to which Jim and Terri brought their dog Dexter — whom the MSU community knows as Zeke the Wonder Dog II — in 2001 was nothing less than surreal.
“We had two weeks to get ready for the first game, and it was a whirlwind,” Jim Foley said, beginning to chuckle to himself. “I walked out on that field, and I had an instant anxiety attack.”
Terri Foley cried the first time her dog performed in Spartan Stadium.
“They did a video of the original Zeke and gave a little history about who Zeke was so that people who didn’t necessarily know the Zeke tradition could join in and become part of that tradition,” Terri Foley said as she began to tear up. “I’ll never forget how much the crowd was cheering, and I walked along the side — the tears were just running down my face.”
Now, Terri Foley jokes that she feels like a hockey mom, preparing her dog for games in the same way a mother prepares her child for travel tournaments.
On the morning of each home game, Jim and Terri Foley pack up their van and drive to East Lansing a few hours before the game, walking Zeke around to tailgates so that Spartan fans can see their beloved canine.
“It’s nuts; we get there, (and) Zeke just gets overwhelmed as soon as we open the door and get him out of the car,” Jim Foley said. “It’s not uncommon if we try to walk up to the stadium before the game to get (stopped for) 100 pictures.”
But the Foleys love the connection Zeke is able to make with people, and they make connecting with the fans a major priority because they see their dog as a “goodwill ambassador” for MSU.
They also let Zeke interact with the Spartan Marching Band and the football players.
During halftime, band members feed Zeke apples after he runs off the field.
“He knows exactly what to expect,” band manager and music education senior Ryan Fountain said. “It’s funny because he sniffs around and comes over to the apples — he just eats them whole.”
Jim and Terri Foley said they appreciate being a part of the MSU community, and although it can be hectic on game days, they wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Mark Hollis told us when we started this we would truly have to be Spartan fans because it was going to be a lot of commitment,” Jim Foley said. “It has been, but there’s nothing better than being a Spartan fan.”