Injured, passed over and now QB2: Damion Terry's Spartan journey
As the hourglass on Damion Terry’s MSU career comes trickling to a close, his cumulative stats won’t pop off the page.
Once a highly-rated recruit — a four-star to be exact — Terry graduates this upcoming spring semester having played in 24 games. He’s credited for 356 yards passing, 225 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns, one on the ground and the other through the air.
Nothing too extravagant.
His tenure in East Lansing was far from ideal, he’ll admit that much. He’s been passed over for QB1, starting just one game his five years. Injuries and adversity have been the nasty plague for him, limiting his production on the field.
But no matter, this is his story. And he has no regrets.
“I love it here, I wouldn’t change anything,” Terry said. “I’m a Spartan for life.”
From Steeler to Spartan
Terry’s football career started as a Steeler. Well, kind of.
Just like many other future athletes, the first gridiron action Terry saw was in pee-wee. Though he did admit playing for the Steelers as a five-year-old in Western Pennsylvania went a long way.
He was dubbed “the natural” by his coaches then. And while he started on offense as a youngster, it wasn’t anywhere near the gunslinger he eventually became.
“I was over the weight limit because I was tall for my age, so I was actually left guard,” Terry said with a smile. “So I was fooling around, trying to get my Tyler Higby, David Beedle impersonation.”
He didn’t become a quarterback until eighth grade, when his team, one lacking a QB2, trotted him out there. It’s stuck with him ever since.
By the time college football creeped from a dream to reality, he had dropped his other sports — his “first love,” baseball, and basketball. That was early in high school.
Then he became the starting quarterback for Cathedral Prep, an all-boys prep school coached by Mike Mischler, his sophomore year. Or in other words, big-time football.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in our school’s history,” Mischler said. “His length was an advantage for him, but he was much more than that. Very strong arm, smart quarterback. He had excellent vision and capability.”
As his name started to grow, then came the phone calls. While his mom, Shelby Staaf, said she let her son do his thing during the recruiting process, it was much more than that. “Russian Roulette,” she called it.
Until finally, Terry chose life as a Spartan.
“Right when I stepped foot on campus, it felt at home,” Terry said. “It was kind of a comfort feeling. I know I visited a couple other places, WVA, Pitt, stuff like that. I didn’t have the feel I did when I stepped foot here.”
‘We Want Terry’
The chants were impossible to ignore for anybody within the confines of Spartan Stadium, much less a true freshman patrolling the sidelines.
“We Want Terry,” the crowd roared amid an early quarterback controversy in 2013.
It was an experience Terry described as “surreal,” especially for a kid just months out of high school. Though the fans never did quite get their wish.
While he ultimately redshirted that year, there were still some positives.
“You play football for 13 straight years and then bang, you got to put the brakes on, you’re not ready yet,” Terry said. “Some people handle it and take it differently, but I needed it. I loved my redshirt year.”
For the rest of his time at MSU, it was painted with setbacks, and an overwhelming amount of it. He saw sparing action at quarterback and wide receiver in 2014 and 2015, backing up future NFL quarterback Connor Cook.
In those years, his shining contribution was against Ohio State in 2015, the team he grew up rooting for — though he admitted that sheepishly. The game is already inscribed in Spartan lore, a 17-14 upset victory capped with the Michael Geiger field goal and windmill.
Terry teamed up with one of his good friends in Tyler O’Connor to pull off the win in Columbus.
“That game, it was awesome,” Terry said. “I went in there with a little bit of an edge.”
Even when the door did open after Cook graduated, Terry battled O’Connor and current starter Brian Lewerke for the job. It didn’t help he had two surgeries going into fall camp before the 2016 season.
While he did see time in 2016 — including a start — there was still much to be desired, seeing action in only seven games.
It was life as a backup quarterback, a moniker Terry became accustomed to over time.
“Damion’s been a warrior,” head coach Mark Dantonio said after Senior Day. “When you’re the No. 2 quarterback, sometimes you don’t get to take as many snaps. You remain vigilant, you remain ready. Ready to go at all times.”
A start to remember
Limping into the last game of the 2016 season, nursing a putrid 3-8 record, the Spartans had little to play for on the road against then-No. 8 Penn State.
Except it was still a milestone for Terry, as he learned he earned his first career start just hours before kickoff. In his home state of Pennsylvania, no less. To this day, it’s still one of his favorite moments as a Spartan.
“That was unbelievable,” Terry said. “Anything I could have ever imagined or dreamed of. My first start, that was huge for my confidence to get that going again. Just finally starting after sitting for four years.”
It was so sudden he couldn’t even tell his mom beforehand. Delton Williams, a former high school and college teammate, had to go over to Staaf to tell her pregame.
“I just lost it and started crying,” Staaf said when she heard the news. “I got really nervous and excited. I ran back up the seats, started texting my mom and family. Just to make sure that everyone was glued to the TV that he was getting ready to start."
Unfortunately, almost like clockwork, even Terry’s first career start came with a damper. He was knocked out of the game after he suffered a concussion.
Adding insult to injury, it was arguably Terry’s best game of his career. He was 7 of 12 for 101 yards passing, moving the ball well into Penn State territory. The surprising 12-10 MSU lead at halftime had Terry’s fingerprints all over it.
Towel over his head, eyes teary on the sideline, his junior season ended with a whimper.
It was one of many roadblocks for Terry, battling another injury, just another addition to his long list.
The Last Supper and the final hurrah
For the last time ever, Terry woke up at the Kellogg Center for gameday. He had his final "Kellogg meal" the night before, a tradition Spartans have become accustomed to.
The day marked the beginning of an end, as Terry’s college football career was finally meeting its inevitable conclusion.
“Just waking up, just a lot of memories start going through your head,” Terry said of Senior Day. “I remember my first time ever running out of the tunnel. So it was bittersweet on the walk and just waking up, knowing it’s your last time ever sleeping at the Kellogg.”
And as he met up with his family who made the trip for his fateful game, he was met with a pleasant surprise — a three-page letter from his mother.
“She remembers everything,” Terry said of the letter. “When I was reading it, I kind of felt like I was a reading a highlight film of me since I was five, first suiting up for pee-wee football. All the way till now. It was a cool writing she did, and it definitely touched my heart.”
While the game itself could've been warmer amidst a snowy storm, by the end of it, MSU was putting the finishing touches on a 17-7 win over Maryland. There was also one last Terry got to snap the ball.
In victory formation with the clock ticking down, the fifth-year senior trotted onto the gridiron, looking for that final play. His figure appeared on the jumbotron, eliciting a roar from the remaining crowd.
While the Terrapins ruined the moment by coming onto the field, the sentiment was there.
“It was kind of cool hearing the stadium chant for me,” Terry said. “I loved that moment, and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
Despite his final snap on Senior Day stolen away from him, Terry did see some action in the Spartans’ finale against Rutgers, a 40-7 blowout victory. He led a touchdown series that was ultimately MSU’s last score of the regular season.
Though after a trying five years, Terry’s contributions have always been of the off-field variety, not the accolades from within the gridiron.
“I look at Damion’s experience as how he has developed through the process of five years and his impact on our team today,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said.
“He has done a great job in the room as far as leadership, being an example to Brian," he continued. "Helping Brian through the process of being the quarterback. So he’s really had a great senior year even though publicly people may not see that.”
And surprisingly or not, despite everything — there was never the thought of transferring or quitting. It wouldn’t have been fair to his teammates, said the fifth-year senior.
“Did it get hard? Definitely,” Terry said. “I’d be lying to you if I said it didn’t get hard or it ever come up, but I didn’t really give it any real thought of quitting. It’s tough when you get hurt, but I just kept fighting through."
It’s those same teammates who have seen Terry’s growth over the years, or even received some tutelage somewhere along the way from the fifth-year senior.
“He’s been a great teammate,” Lewerke said of his fellow gunslinger. “I hang out with him on the field and off the field, we always crack jokes together and laugh at some of our guys if they mess up on film.”
For now, post-football life isn’t anywhere set in stone for Terry. After living his life within East Lansing the past five years, the future is a relative unknown, plans still on hold.
He has talked to O’Connor, the former quarterback now living in the middle of Big Ten country in Chicago.
Though Staaf wants him to unwind a little bit, as moms are wont to do.
“Football’s controlled his life for 17 years,” Staaf said. “I want him to be able to relax a little bit before he gets to the real world. Maybe take some Damion time and figure out what he wants to do because he’s going to have a lot of opportunities."
Terry's career will come to a close once MSU plays its bowl game. Then finally, he'll be able to think of his Spartan legacy and the five years he spent donning the green and white.
And yes, even now, after all these years, Terry has no regrets.
“I love my time here," Terry said. "I honestly wish I could go back and do it all over again. I’m excited for everything Michigan State has blessed me with. I’m grateful for all the opportunities looking forward.”