Thursday, February 2, 2023

Leader of Men

In a rare opportunity, the MSU football team has tapped a sophomore to lead the Spartans in battle

October 15, 2009

MSU’s starting sophomore quarterback Kirk Cousins is only the second sophomore to be named a captain in the program’s history. But off the field, Cousins focuses his time on philanthropy, family and faith.

Photo by Matthew Mitchell/MSU Athletic Communications | The State News

Don Cousins came to campus a few weeks ago to hear his son, Kirk, speak to the members of Campus Crusade for Christ. MSU’s sophomore quarterback held up the team’s playbook for the team’s well-documented rivalry game — the annual tilt with Michigan.

“He said, ‘This is what the coaches have put together for the Michigan game and if we execute what’s in this book, the belief is we can beat Michigan,’” Don recalled his son telling the group.

Then Kirk went on to tell of one playbook that never leaves his backpack.

“He held up the Bible and said, ‘This is the playbook for life,’” Don said. “For me, as a dad, that little analogy right there summarized what my wife and I have been trying to be about with our kids since they were born.”

Raised as a devout Christian by his parents, Kirk Cousins took the values and convictions he learned growing up in Chicago and Holland, Mich., and applied them to his life — as a son, student, friend and football player.

And although Cousins has five starts at quarterback for the Spartans this season and likely many more in his future, he won’t allow football to define him.

Faith and family come first for one of MSU’s most mature 21-year-olds.

Faith

One of three children, Kirk Cousins has been immersed in faith his entire life. He calls his father — who is in the ministry, speaks around the country and authors books that sell in Christian bookstores — “the major leader” in his life.

Cousins views his faith as a relationship with God — not making it a religion or about rituals, but a relationship.

“I want to talk to him, I want to be in prayer with him, I want to be giving him my requests and my worries and my stresses and the pressures I face,” he said. “I want to give that over to him because he says, ‘Cast your burdens on me because I care for you.’ So he cares for me.”

Before Cousins came to MSU in summer 2007, he was fresh off a two-week Bible study in Israel, a trip he said “really got me focused on what was most important right before I came here.”

Raised in a Christian home and going to Holland Christian High School, coming to MSU would be an enlightening experience.

“When I came to Michigan State, obviously it’s a worldly place; things are very different,” Cousins said. “People don’t talk the way I’m used to hearing people talk back in Holland. People don’t act the way I’m used to people acting back in Holland on Friday nights and Saturday nights, so I knew pretty quickly that if I wanted to honor the Lord, it was going to be more of a challenge here than it was back at home. I was going to be more swimming upstream, going against the grain. I just checked myself right away. I said, ‘Am I going to be a man and step up?’”

But it was a conversation with his father that really set the tone for him.

“He said, ‘Kirk, we’ve raised you for 18 years now and we’re letting you go. We have to figure out if you’re going to be a man on your own or are you going to stoop to people’s lower expectations or are you going to take the high road?’ and I decided that’s not going to be me,” Cousins said. “I’m going to be somebody who takes the high road. That’s what I did.”

But being away from home weighed on Cousins early. He said he was homesick, scared and alone, despite his family being only 90 minutes away. He couldn’t even imagine what his teammates from across the country — or students who came from across the world — were going through.

“I’m not a big person who likes change,” he said. “But I just kept reminding myself that the Lord led me here and he’s got a plan for my life and I’m going to trust him and trust that if I continue to honor him, he’s going to have a plan and I can see now, two years later looking back, how the more I just stayed the course and just continued to honor him and not get sidetracked, he’s continued to provide and honor me.”

And that was important for Cousins to reaffirm his beliefs, considering what many students indulge in — partying, drinking, swearing — and the pressures of a major university’s social scene.

“There’s nothing wrong with going out, there’s nothing wrong with having a couple of beers,” he said. “Sometimes I may give people the wrong impression that that is wrong and I don’t want to do that because there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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Cousins said he’s busy to the point that when he gets a chance to sit and watch TV, that’s all he wants to do. After games, you can find him watching whatever football games are on at the time. He also is active in Athletes in Action and hosted a Bible study group for the team this summer, which 10 to 15 players regularly attended, he said.

Marching to his own beat

Don Cousins said he and his wife, MaryAnn, felt joy when Kirk was named a team captain in August — just the second sophomore captain in program history.

“Kirk has always been a young man who set the bar, so to speak,” Don said. “He’s always been someone who’s marched to the beat of his own drum, as my wife likes to put it. He’s an independent thinker and he has a strength of character that has allowed him really, over the course of much of his life, to make decisions for himself.”

Don recalled a time Kirk was in high school and was invited to see a PG-13 movie with some friends. From a young age, Don said they always instilled the message, “When you make good decisions, good things happen, and when you make bad decisions, bad things happen,” a simplified version of a proverb Don is fond of.

Don said Kirk researched the movie and it contained some questionable material, but Don let Kirk make the decision on his own, asking him, “Would going to that movie be a good decision or a bad decision?”

Sure enough, Kirk called Don back a few minutes later and said he decided to pass on the movie.

“When something is unfolding that is not keeping with his own values and convictions, he has no problem with standing up and saying, ‘I’m going to take a pass on that,’” Don said.

Cousins always has been ahead of the curve, always been a leader. Whether it’s putting an arm around a teammate who fumbled or hanging out with members of the Spartan Marching Band on Sparty Watch, Cousins believes in doing the right thing.

“I want to have great success here as a student, as a football player and then as a leader on this campus,” Cousins said. “I want to be a person who has some influence here on people, and students in general. I want to be a person that, when I leave, people say, ‘He had a positive impact on this university.’”

Builder of people

Cousins isn’t afraid to speak his mind in the locker room.

His speeches to the team aren’t superficial — they have meaning, senior receiver Blair White said. Senior defensive end Trevor Anderson called them “powerful.”

When Cousins was a senior point guard for the Holland Christian boy’s basketball team, a freshman was brought up to varsity and likely would take a lot of playing time from two of Cousins’ friends.

“I looked down to the end of the court and I see Kirk standing around the free-throw line and he has his arm around this freshman kid,” Don Cousins said, fighting back tears. “He’s got his arm around this freshman kid and Kirk was clearly the leader of the team. … For Kirk to put his arm around that kid before the game began was sending a message to that kid, as well as to his teammates, but specifically to that kid, that words can’t explain. That’s Kirk.”

Running backs coach Dan Enos, who recruited Cousins to MSU while quarterbacks coach under John L. Smith, says the team really responds to Cousins’ leadership.

“He’s a guy that when he makes a mistake, he owns up to it,” Enos said. “He never tries to point fingers at anybody else and actually probably puts too much blame on himself sometimes that he shouldn’t, but that’s what great leaders do.”

Cousins said he leads by being positive and encouraging people, but he sometimes will get frustrated and have to “get in a guy’s face a little bit.”

“But I try to be somebody who builds into people and really invests in them,” he said.

Cousins said a lot of leaders in America care about themselves more than others, and that’s not the way to do things.

“What leadership is, is going down and bringing people up,” Cousins said. “It’s not, ‘Look at me, I’m up here, come up to my level.’ It’s going down to their level and bringing them up and taking them to where they couldn’t have gotten.”

Anderson said he’s watched Cousins blossom into the leader he is and, as a sophomore, Cousins has earned the right to say the things he does.

“He’s not trying to overlead,” Anderson said. “He’s not letting people get in his head and tell him, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that.’ He’s going out there and being able to play at the same time and knowing when to say something and when to shut up.”

Don Cousins said Kirk understands what leadership is about — it’s not all about being the hardest worker or the most diligent.

“My son understands leadership is about caring for his teammates as people,” Don Cousins said. “He has lived that out in such a way that when they elected him as a captain, they saw that in him.”

Enos said he “absolutely” would call Cousins a natural-born leader.

“I think that’s a great way to put it,” he said. “Some people can be great leaders and not be great players and some people can be great players and not be great leaders. We think he has the potential to do both.”

Serious implications

Last October, Detroit sports personality and columnist Rob Parker said in a segment on WDIV-TV in Detroit that Cousins was involved in an off-campus fight that sent hockey defenseman A.J. Sturges to the hospital.

Cousins was with his family in their hotel room at the time. For anyone who knew Cousins, they likely knew the report was incorrect.

Cousins said the situation didn’t bother him much because he knew he wasn’t there. Instead, his thoughts on the situation shifted to an unlikely source.

“Who I really felt bad for was the guy who wrote the story, because I thought he was the one who was going to take the hit on this,” Cousins said.

Said Don Cousins: “I’ve got to admit, that wasn’t the way I was looking at it.”

MSU head coach Mark Dantonio came out at his weekly press conference two days later and defended Cousins.

“What’s not fair to do is what Rob Parker … from The Detroit News, who went on TV the other day, WDIV-TV Sunday night in Detroit and made a reference to Kirk Cousins being at the heart of this whole matter, which is totally inaccurate and I take offense to that, his family takes offense to that and he was with his family all night Saturday night and I think that borders on slander and if you’re going to say something, you better get it right,” Dantonio said.

“So, here’s a young man who does everything right and he’s thrown under the bus by somebody who has no credibility in my mind.”

Don Cousins said Dantonio’s aggressive defense of his son “meant a great deal” and the truth only affirmed who Kirk was.

Parker and the station later apologized to Cousins, his family and the university.

“Coach Dantonio has always done that, he’s always defended our players and especially players who are trying to do the right thing all the time,” Kirk Cousins said.

“We have a saying around here that, basically, what we say is, ‘do the right thing all the time, period.’ No matter what situation I’m in, I’m going to try to do the right thing all the time. I think Coach D was just trying to defend a player who he trusted.”

Self-proclaimed sinner

Through everything he does, Cousins is quick to point out he’s not perfect.

When Cousins makes the rare off-color remark, his teammates are there to let him hear about it.

“Every now and then, a swear word will come out but they’ll look at me and they’ll catch me and say, ‘Kirk, you can’t do that. Not you.’ And they almost coach me more than I coach myself making sure that I don’t go down the wrong road,” he said.

“I just tell them, ‘Hey, that’s Jesus Christ inside of me. That’s not me. I’m a sinner. I’m a horrible person, but Jesus Christ inside is special and he can be special inside you, too, if you let him.’”

He says the team has been “great” about not ridiculing him for his strong faith and what he’s trying to do.

And even if football doesn’t work out for Cousins, he still has a bright future ahead of him.

On a premedical track, Cousins said it’s his dream to play football as long as he can, but he’s not counting on it.

He plans to put everything he has into football and school at MSU and “let the chips fall where they may.”

He said he’d eventually like to go to medical school to become a doctor.

“It’s truly rewarding to be here as a student and it’s a real blessing to be here at this university and the support that we receive from the student body, the marching band and all that,” he said.

“There’s just such loyal fans here. It’s just great to be a part of. I’m just living a dream, really, and hopefully there’s better things in the future to come.”

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