With 5:48 left in the second quarter of Michigan State’s Senior Day win against Rutgers Nov. 24, linebacker Joe Bachie suffered an injury.
Running out to replace Bachie for one play was linebacker Byron Bullough, a fifth-year senior.
As usual, Byron was ready.
“I can hang my hat high on how I come in to work everyday, pursue my role and do the best I can,” Byron said.
This isn’t surprising if you know Byron’s family history.
Byron’s a third-generation Spartan.
His older brothers, Max (who played at MSU from 2010-13) and Riley (2012-16), were All-Big Ten linebackers. Max was a third-team All-American his senior year and recorded 299 total tackles at MSU. Riley — who’s now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — made the All-Big Ten defense third team his junior year, and was voted to the second team the following season.
Byron’s dad, Shane (1983-86), is 17th in total tackles in MSU history with 311, and his uncle and current MSU defensive ends coach, Chuck (1988-91), is sixth. His grandpa, Hank (1952-54), played guard, and sister, Holly, runs track and field at MSU.
On Byron’s mom LeeAnn’s side, his grandpa Jim Morse was a running back at Notre Dame (1954-56).
His uncle, Bobby Morse, was an MSU running back (1983-86), and his uncle Jim Morse Jr., a Notre Dame cornerback (1977-78).
“I’ve kind of grown accustomed to it over the years,” Byron said. “But, it’s awesome.”
Byron, who only has 22 career total tackles in 41 games, starts on kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns.
“It’s an honor in my opinion to be able to be on the special teams unit as a senior,” said former linebacker Darien Harris who played with Byron from 2014-15. “He could very easily start for any team in the country. I truly believe that.”
Byron has one game left in his career, the Redbox Bowl between MSU (7-5, 5-4 in Big Ten) against Oregon (8-4, 5-4 in Pac-12) on New Year’s Eve.
It’s one last time to represent the Bullough name for the Spartans.
“It means everything to me,” Bullough said after practice Nov. 20. “The Bullough name here at Michigan State is a delicacy. I think I’ve done a good job of carrying that on. It’s pretty crazy it’s coming to an end now.”
Being a starter on all special teams isn’t the only place where the 6-foot-1, 232-pound linebacker's impact is felt. It goes beyond what everybody sees on Saturdays.
“You watch how he works and how he comes here every day, how he handles himself, he’s a true leader of this team and everybody on this team understands that,” Bachie said. “He’s going to bring everything he’s got and give you everything he’s got. If a lot more people were like him in this world, this would be an amazing, hard-working world.”
The influence of older brothers
Out of all three brothers — Max, 26, Riley, 25 and Byron, 23 — Byron was the most likely to commit and attend MSU.
“I’ve always just been a fan of Spartan football and Spartan toughness, really,” Byron said. “I just think this is a special place. Always has been and always will be.”
The three-star athlete from St. Francis High School in Traverse City had a five-word response when asked about his recruitment process: “Michigan State all the way.”
He wanted to live up to the Bullough name.
“I totally embraced it from the beginning,” he said. “I mean, there’s been great success here as a Bullough. But my main focus while I was here was being the best that I can be.”
To be the best he could be, Byron leaned on his brothers who came before him for advice.
“Having brothers play here before me, it was an incredible experience,” Byron said. “To able to talk about them, just the troubles, the ups, the downs, everything about being a Michigan State football player.”
Max didn’t play with Byron at St. Francis or MSU, but sends him texts of encouragement, along with the rest of the family in a group message where they can vent.
“It’s either throw in the towel (or you play) because that’s what you’ll be thinking for the rest of your life,” said Max, who played from the Houston Texans from 2014-16. “He gets everyone to do that. I know it sounds simple and silly, but it’s little things like that get ’em going every week.”
Riley had the opportunity to play with Max and specifically Byron at MSU from 2014-16.
During Riley and Byron’s three years as Spartans, Byron said he learned how to be both a college football player and a man from Riley.
“He’ll get in your face if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to and he just brings 100 percent every time,” Byron said. “That’s something I definitely pride myself on.”
Since Riley and Max went through similar struggles allowed Byron to ask them questions about things they’d already gone through in their time at MSU, he said.
“Coming into college, you’re surrounded by a lot of new things: School, football, socially,” Riley said. “Whenever he had questions, I’d be there to answer them and kind of guide him along, especially when he was a freshman.”
Learning from his brothers, who he describes as “great leaders” and “intense guys,” is something Byron will always cherish.
“I always know my brothers will be there for me, in times of success and times of failure,” Byron said. “Just throughout my college career they’ve always been there for me and really helped me out.”
Being the backup
After his first three seasons from 2014-16, Byron was tuning up for the 2017 season after a great spring camp.
Enter Bachie, who finished 2017 with a team-high 100 total tackles — 8.5 of them for a loss. That was second on the team, along with second best on the team with three interceptions.
And in 2018, the junior captain collected a team-high 94 total tackles, while being named to first team All-Big Ten defense by coaches and second team All-Big Ten by media.
“You can see how special of a player he was on how he’s performed these last two years,” said Byron, Bachie’s backup at middle linebacker. “I always knew there was opportunity everywhere. You just gotta just keep working and hope for the best.”
Even coach Mark Dantonio said Byron probably hasn’t gotten “as much (playing time) this year as he would have wanted to,” but gave him credit for his ability to still make an impact.
“He’s done everything possibly he can to benefit this program, and he plays extremely hard,” Dantonio said. “He’s just behind a very, very good player right now, but he’s a good player in his own right and I would not hesitate to play him. He’s done an outstanding job.”
Because of Bachie’s outstanding play, Byron, who's on the team's Eagles leadership council, knew he had to adjust.
“The last couple years, I’ve taken upon myself to be a leader around here vocally and by example,” Byron said. “I’m obviously not on the field on defense all the time, so I try to do my best on the sidelines or special teams or any way that I can help the team win.”
This leadership approach is also felt by Bachie.
“He’s just a guy that pushes me, he really is,” Bachie said. “He’s had two great springs in a row. He makes me a better player, he really does.”
Bachie and Byron are close — “like brothers,” according to safety Khari Willis.
Byron said he pushes Bachie and others because at the end of the day, football is a team sport.
“You’re trying to get the best record for your team,” Byron said. “I think I’ve done a great job of pushing other guys, pushing myself and now it’s coming to an end. I’m going to look back at everything, and I’ll be happy and proud of everything that I’ve done.”
Bachie isn’t the only player Byron pushes on the team.
Senior linebacker Andrew Dowell said since last year’s fall camp, Byron has been a “true Spartan”, pushing him and everybody else to be better players.
“Byron watches film like he’s going to play 80 snaps,” Dowell said. “You really look up to Byron and what he’s done.”
Harris noticed Byron’s improving leadership and playing ability when he was attending an Aug. 14 practice as part of BTN’s fall camp tour.
Harris said he even texted Riley saying, “Hey man, your brother — I’ve never seen him like this.”
“He was the most amped up and hyped up person on the field,” Harris said. “I think it’s just because he knew a) He didn’t want to have another season like 2016 again in his senior year, and b) he knew the expectations for this season were incredibly high with all the returning talent … He was going to take it on upon himself to be a driving force to make sure this team got to where it needed to be.”
Willis said Byron did just that, becoming “an anchor” of leadership for the Spartans the last couple years.
“He’s embraced his role and what he can do for our team and what he brings to the table,” Willis said. “He understands he’s valuable, super valuable leader for us. A voice for us, regardless of who’s playing and who’s not. He’s leading like a Bullough.”
The end of an era
When this year’s seniors had their annual Friday night dinner before MSU’s last regular-season game, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said LeeAnn attended for Byron, like she did with Riley and Max. Tressel realized then that 2019 will be the first season in nine years without a Bullough at linebacker on the roster.
“That’s going to be strange for me, but his impact, he’s a leader without a doubt,” Tressel said after MSU’s 14-10 win over Rutgers on Nov. 24. “He’s passionate whether he’s a starter or not.”
Because of Byron’s perseverance, Max said he’s noticed the difference in Byron from when he entered MSU to now — when stats don’t matter.
“I think he’s had to show it in a different way than maybe Riley and I did because we got to be the ones up front, leading the charge vocally and playing-wise,” Max said. “The way that he’s handled it and been able to still be a leader on the team, and to have that presence and to have guys listen to you and trust you and believe in you — that to me says almost more than anything.
"I think it’s something hard for me to admittedly do, is to be mature and handle a situation that Byron has at Michigan State these past couple years."
Now, a trip to the Redbox Bowl awaits the Spartans.
“Honestly, the Redbox Bowl wasn’t where we wanted to be at the beginning of the year, but this is what we ended up with,” Byron said. “We’ll have a great time and hopefully get a win against Oregon.”
Max said he knows how much being a collegiate athlete will impact Byron for the rest of his life.
“I’m happy for him,” Max said. “I’m really, extremely proud of him, because of what we already talked about, as well as figuring out his degree, as well as playing five years of football at Michigan State.”
Byron is a four-time Academic All-Big Ten from 2015-18, and will graduate with a degree in finance next week after switching from a supply-chain management major his academic junior year. He’s searching for jobs in the financial field, just like any other graduating student.
It’s clear his love for Michigan State started before he stepped on the campus as a freshman back in 2014. As Dantonio said, “He’s a Bullough, he bleeds green.”
Byron said he’ll miss being around his teammates all the time — teammates who’ve become friends for life.
Byron said he hopes he was a teammate who pushed people to be their best by being a leader in every aspect of football, and to see MSU football succeed, and live up to the family name.
“A guy that did things right around here,” Byron said. “A guy that was a team player, and just came in here with a purpose everyday.”