It’s a mystery how Javon Ringer can be three different people on any given MSU football Saturday. First he’s a kid, waking up in a hotel room to watch Saturday morning cartoons before going out to play football with his friends. Give him a few hours and he’s an athlete — 5 feet 9 inches of muscle, heart and motor standing tall in the Spartans’ backfield. When the game ends and most fans have piled into their cars, he’s a humble adult: shaking every hand, signing every autograph, taking every picture before leaving for the night.
In a world of coddled athletes with egos the size of stadiums, the three faces of Ringer on a football Saturday are as fresh as the morning air in the heart of football season. And whether it’s the athlete, the adult or the adolescent in Ringer, each face continues to show itself Sunday through Friday.
When coaches at Chaminade-Julienne High in Dayton, Ohio, Ringer’s alma mater, would forget to blow the whistle to stop a running play during practice, Ringer’s teammates would come to a standstill.
He wouldn’t. He would keep running. Off the field. Through the parking lot. Through the high school campus.
“Coach, you forgot to blow the whistle,” players would say before retrieving the star athlete.
Ringer is a dream tailback. He sprints the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, bench presses 400 pounds — levels typically reserved for linemen — keeps playing until he hears the high-pitched squeal of a coach’s whistle, and, according to MSU running backs coach Dan Enos, never has an off day.
During the summer, when other teammates are running the steps of Spartan Stadium, Ringer is in tow with a 20-pound vest smothering his shoulders and another 20 pounds clinging to his waist.
This year, Ringer is also carrying the extra weight of more carries and expectations on his broad shoulders. But through seven games, his rushing numbers are so far off the charts, they can’t be contained by axes.
Ringer’s 1,112 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns are both tops in the nation, making him arguably the best collegiate running back in the country.
The astronomical statistics aren’t novel for the senior; in his three years as a starting running back at Chaminade-Julienne, Ringer averaged more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns per season, despite missing half of his senior year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
As a runner, Ringer has all the gifts necessary to play on Sundays. He rumbles downhill like an out-of-control boulder, isn’t afraid to deliver a devastating shoulder into a linebacker, has tremendous hands out of the backfield and loves to throw a crucial block for his quarterback.
“I see him a lot like a Willie Parker or a Clinton Portis type of back,” said former MSU running back Jehuu Caulcrick, referencing the veteran rushers for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins, respectively.
Ringer’s biggest question mark entering his senior season — his durability after tearing two ligaments in his right knee in three years — has been answered thus far. Despite carrying the ball more times per game than in Pee Wee, middle school, high school and his first three years at MSU, Ringer has emerged unscathed so far this season, proving his mettle for the NFL.
At 21 years old, Ringer has the maturity and loyalty of a man three times his age.
Ringer’s education started early under his parents, Eugene and Darlene, both ordained ministers.
Once Ringer started gaining attention for his football ability (a 251-yard, four-touchdown performance for Chaminade-Julienne in Ohio’s 2002 Division II championship game as a sophomore solidified his title as a football dynamo), he remained humble even as colleges started calling.
When recruiters from Ohio State, which Ringer first considered for college, started pursuing him, Ringer only listened to one school at a time.
“Picking schools is like dating a girl — you’re loyal to whoever you’re with,” Ringer would tell his high school football coach, Jim Place.
Because his ACT score didn’t meet Ohio State’s academic standards, Ringer started focusing on the Spartans.
“The day (Ohio State’s recruitment) fell apart, he said, ‘No problem, coach. That’s not God’s plan for me,’” Place said.
During his recruitment by the Spartans, an assistant at Southern California, the Roman Empire of modern college football, called Ringer to ask if he would be willing to talk to Trojans head coach Pete Carroll. Ringer declined the offer because he wouldn’t cheat on MSU’s coaches.
After committing to MSU, reaching academic eligibility and emerging as one of the country’s most explosive backs, Ringer maintained his low-key attitude.
Unlike the nation’s bankers, Ringer takes all of his credit (which there is plenty of) and gives it away to everybody. Offensive linemen, fullbacks, tight ends, coaches and waterboys — each is more deserving of kudos than the ball carrier in Ringer’s eyes.
And don’t even get him started on the Heisman Trophy. He’s more concerned about this week’s game against Ohio State, whom he has never beaten as a Spartan. And next week, he’ll spurn the bronze statute to focus on the Maize and Blue, which he also hasn’t beaten. And the week after that, the Badgers will be in his sights. And the week after that … well, you get the picture.
“I know he isn’t sincerely thinking about it, but it would just be so awesome if he could win the Heisman Trophy and be a role model for all the kids out there,” Place said.
Off the field, Ringer has never met an autograph he won’t sign, a picture he won’t take or a smile he couldn’t make.
Whether it’s speaking to young students about growing up, attending charity fundraisers or operating the inflatable bounce castle at elementary school carnivals, Ringer is one of the first MSU athletes to volunteer for community service.
When a group of elementary schoolers visited practice last week, many wearing green Ringer jerseys, he crouched down and gave a wide grin, as if taking a school portrait in third grade, for each child wanting a photograph.
“As soon as I saw out there all the little No. 23 jerseys, I wanted to make sure I spoke to them and took some pictures with them just to make sure they come away here with a positive outlook on things and just a smile,” Ringer said.
Ringer also is like those elementary schoolers waiting to meet their Spartan hero.
Hidden beneath his fierce running style lies a little boy at heart.
During Friday nights on the road last season, Ringer and Caulcrick, his roommate, could be found in their hotel room, watching professional wrestling. To carry over the previous night’s lessons, the pair would wrestle over the remote Saturday morning when Caulcrick wanted to watch college football pregame shows and Ringer clamored for cartoons.
Like any youngster captivated by “Batman,” “Dragon Ball Z” or “Tom and Jerry” cartoons (all favorites of Ringer’s), he boasts a gullible side easily persuaded by authority.
In his younger days as a Spartan, older running backs would mischievously send Ringer to see coaches, like a middle schooler being sent to the principal’s office, when he wasn’t being summoned. Other times, players would usher Ringer onto the field during practice when his name hadn’t been called.
In position meetings, Ringer is known as a daydreamer always in need of a cup of coffee. Although Enos said Ringer’s lapses rarely last more than a minute and don’t affect his performance, Caulcrick would later hear about his fellow running back’s mental drifts.
“Man, do you ever wish you had Dragon Ball Z powers?’” he would ask Caulcrick, drawing a quick, “No, not really,” in response.
Ringer’s hijinks extend beyond the football team to the MSU athletics department’s student-athlete support services.
Angela Howard, associate director of student-athlete development for MSU, who often seeks out Ringer for community appearances, has fallen victim to the senior’s habit of trying to spook friends.
Ringer will sneak up behind Howard and others to scare them, which always draws a laugh from the Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I can’t believe how many times he can get me,” Howard said. “I keep telling him when he goes down on injured reserve because if I turn around and hurt him, it’s not going to look good.”
On the field, Ringer’s laid-back personality helps carry him to record-setting numbers. Whether it’s sitting on the bench cracking inside jokes or ribbing quarterback Brian Hoyer about his sack-saving blocks, Ringer’s attitude doesn’t waver.
“That’s another reason why it makes him so special,” Enos said.
Making sense of Ringer
So what drives a determined football player as playful as Dennis the Menace and humble as Mother Teresa to become a future NFL running back?
How do you make sense of Ringer, a rare breed of athlete who gets hit every week, wakes up early in the morning to lift weights but still makes everyone he meets instantly fall for him like MSU rushing records this year?
“Honestly, my number-one motivation is my family,” Ringer said.
“I want to continue to work hard and be successful, so, Lord willing, I can go to the NFL and just be able to support my family.
“And two, I just love playing with my friends. It’s fun being out here. People who don’t actually play football, I don’t know if they understand how it is just being out here with your brothers and the brotherhood that you develop being on a team. It’s fun.”
For the athlete in Ringer, it’s about ending his senior season of college on a winning note, beating rivals he has yet to slay.
For the adult, it’s about providing for family and honoring God by using his talents in the NFL.
For the adolescent, it’s about playing with friends and having fun on a cool autumn evening, like any other child tossing around a football in his Dayton backyard.