Thursday, May 28, 2020

2019 MSU Football Seniors: Things remembered

"I'm forever grateful for these guys." - Kenny Willekes

November 29, 2019
<p>Redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the game against Tulsa at Spartan Stadium on Aug. 30, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Golden Hurricane, 28-7.</p>

Redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the game against Tulsa at Spartan Stadium on Aug. 30, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Golden Hurricane, 28-7.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Michigan State will celebrate 21 seniors at Spartan Stadium Saturday as it takes on Maryland for Senior Day. This will be the Spartans' last chance to gain bowl eligibility and go 6-6. Although this year wasn't the prettiest under Dantonio, the resilient team dwells on the good. 

Throughout his 13 seasons with MSU, coach Mark Dantonio has endured winning seasons, losing seasons, injuries and unpredictable circumstances. Each season etches in a memory for Dantonio, something that sticks with him.

"What I will remember about this senior class will be their ability to stay focused," Dantonio said. "To be able to weather some storms as they have moved through it. You know, 2017, we had a bounce-back year, won 10 football games, and then last year, we had a lot, a lot of close games. Could have won a couple of those."

Among the graduating seniors, Raequan Williams, Brian Lewerke, Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes have played together the longest. 

"I'm forever grateful for these guys," Willekes said.

Their journeys became similar. Through the 'storm', they had to rely on themselves and their trust in the program.

"They maintained who they were," Dantonio said. "I was extremely impressed at our five defensive players that could have gone out early chose to stay. That was a huge statement I think for this program and something I think I'll remember those guys all for, whether that's (Williams) or (Mike) Panasiuk or David Dowell or Joe Bachie or Kenny Willekes, all five of those guys could have went and that was a testament of their attitude towards this football team."

Not only will Dantonio finish this season with a memento, but the seniors will also take something with them when they leave.

"Family," Williams said. "And that hard-nosed work ethic. I feel like this whole senior class just taught me work ethic. When I got here I met Kenny, he taught me how to work. And Bachie taught me how to work ... That's going to stick out the most, that family and that hard work aspect."

The Chicago native is slated to start his 41st consecutive game on Saturday, which would tie Shilique Calhoun (2013-15) for the most starts in a row under Dantonio. Williams has 28 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 48 career games, including 6.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks this season. 

Another senior making his mark in the record books, Lewerke, reminisced on his experiences at MSU as his Spartan career winds down.

"I'll have friends for the rest of my life," Lewerke said. "I'll remember times in the dorm freshman year, just hanging out with everyone. Every fall camp was fun, going around to rooms and seeing guys. Just being together in this place and being in the locker room with all of them would probably be my best memories."

Lewerke has seen first-hand the ups and the downs of the program, but has been able to make history despite the rocky road.

"There's no other Spartan quarterback in the history of football here at Michigan State that's thrown for over 7,000 yards and run for over, 1,000," Dantonio said. "That's very impressive."

Former walk-on defensive end Willekes impressed Spartan fans and earned himself a scholarship spot after his first year on the team. He, too, will treasure what this team has been through.

"The brotherhood and the friendships that I've built with all these people," Willekes said. "I feel like we've been through a lot of adversity here at Michigan State, as a whole university and as a program. There's been a lot we’ve been through but I feel like it made us closer as a brotherhood."

One of the biggest hurdles the Spartans had overcome was the loss of their defensive backbone, Bachie. After testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, Bachie's suspension ended his Spartan football career with four games left. But due to his character and all that he has done for the program, he will be recognized at the Senior Day ceremony.

"I felt like treating this just like an injury," Dantonio said. "If you know Joe Bachie and you know how hard he's worked and the leadership that he's shown on this football team over the course of time, I have to be respectful and honor that. You know, I want him to be a part of that day."

It seems no matter the score, the Spartans will be remembered for every snap, every play, and every sack that helped shape the program to what it is today.

"They have maintained a positive approach and sometimes as much as anything," Dantonio said. "That's to be applauded. I'll respect them forever for that reason."

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