Thursday, May 13, 2021

Remembering the 'goofy little Italian' Father Jake Foglio

October 20, 2020
Father Jake Foglio at the football spring game on April 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications.
Father Jake Foglio at the football spring game on April 1, 2017. Photo Courtesy of MSU Athletic Communications. —
Photo by MSU Athletic Communications | The State News

At times in our lives, we run across people who have an inexplicable impact on whoever they meet.

Catholic Priest, MSU faculty member and former MSU football chaplain, Father Jake Foglio, was exactly that person for many.

Foglio, who worked at St. John’s Catholic Church in East Lansing, died Monday, Oct. 5 at age 91. His funeral service was held on  Oct. 12. 

“He was ridiculously funny, he was holy and kind and thoughtful,” Father Joe Krupp, who served as a chaplain with Foglio for the MSU football team during Mark Dantonio’s tenure, said. “And was one of those rare people who was very smart and very humble. That’s a combo you don’t often encounter.”

Like many former MSU football players and people who encountered him, Krupp remembers Foglio for what he was: a stout, old, Italian man who had a voice that boomed seemingly from the heavens that he spoke so often about. 

He served in and around the MSU and the East Lansing community for more than 40 years. He was a mentor, confidante, and “father to many,” Krupp said. 

Even on the football field, at practices and in a church, the guy who was hidden behind the piles of lineman and linebackers on the MSU sideline was a leader of faith in the East Lansing community.

“He never met a stranger,” former director of personnel and player development Dino Folino said. “If he opened his shirt, his heart (would’ve) come out.”

The impact he had was wide-reaching well beyond his short arms. It touched not only the hearts of those in Mid-Michigan and East Lansing but coaches and athletes alike in the MSU football program.


‘He was tough’

Foglio was born to an Italian family in New Rochelle, New York on March 23, 1929. Foglio, the last name, might give that away.

He started out at Southwest Missouri State College, then went to Michigan State University in 1948. He graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications to begin working in radio broadcasting. His first job was at WTVB in Coldwater, Michigan.

His life changed suddenly in the early ’50s however, as the United States was thrust into the Korean War, one that was against the then-perceived threat of communism. 

A man who largely lived his life to preach peace was drafted into the United States Marine Corps where he served until 1953 in the Atlantic Ocean.

“He was tough now,” Folino said, remembering the arguments and fiery attitude of Foglio.

In 1970, Foglio’s path reached to how many know him today: He became an ordained Roman Catholic Priest after attending Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, where he originally graduated from in 1957. 

“You could go back and talk to guys who played in the 60s and they’ll talk about him like he was their best friend,” Folino said, who became a part of the MSU football program in 1988. 

Foglio served as the Spartan team priest for more than 50 years. Starting at the end of Duffy Daughtery’s tenure, he worked under former Spartan head coaches Daughtery, Denny Stolz, Darryl Rogers, Muddy Waters, George Perles, Nick Saban, Bobby Williams, Morris Watts, John L. Smith and Mark Dantonio for a total of 48 seasons with the program. 

‘How do you explain uncle Jake?’

“Man, how do you explain uncle Jake?” Krupp said, in a broken voice. “He was a teacher, he was a priest, he was an uncle, he was a brother, he was all those things ... he was a boxing instructor for the Marines.”

“You sat down with him for an hour … and he’d talk your ear off,” Krupp said. “He would. But if you started talking about your pain, he would shut right down and hone in. You know what I’m saying? It was kind of badass to sit there and watch this man that truly could talk your ear off, but when you had a need, he stopped and he became laser-focused.”

Oftentimes, clergymen and priests are seen as just that, especially for young people in college, but for Krupp and others, Foglio was so much more than that. He was a friend, Krupp said. 

“Father Jake was great, definitely a mentor,” former Spartan offensive lineman Travis Jackson said. “Someone that was always around that you could count on for good advice and we always had great talks with him. I think the best way to put it ... he brings light into your life.”

As a priest, Krupp said, you often put on a front. The toughness Foglio, who Krupp says was “cut” into his late 70s from the years of boxing, exemplified was what inspired him.

“I believe in God, I mean right, obviously? He showed me what that looks like,” Krupp said. “When we try to be like God in everyday world, he showed me what that looks like … there was a point in 2011 where I was low, man, I had a lot going on in my life and it was tough. When you preach you keep that stiff upper lip for everyone else but nobody knew I was struggling and I saw him and I just poured out my heart.”

“He just started praying for me,” Krupp said. “That’s what he would’ve done … that goofy little Italian.”

‘Holy crap, who is this guy?’

A talented high school football prospect and practicing Catholic, Tyler O’Connor grew up a Notre Dame fan. 

When O’Connor led the Spartans, who were No. 12 in the country on that cool September evening in 2016, to a 36-28 road win at then No. 18 Notre Dame in one of the first and probably most important starts of his collegiate career — he ran to find Foglio. 

“My favorite picture of all time from playing at Michigan State is a picture of him and I after the Notre Dame game,” O’Connor said. “It was just kind of like an interesting kind of twist and someone got a great picture of us after that game. That's my favorite picture to this day of me when I played at Michigan State.”

That favorite photo is of an embrace between two men of faith, one who quarterbacked a team that had just come off an appearance in the College Football Playoff — that then went 3-9 in one of Dantonio’s final seasons. O’Connor threw for 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions that season.

The other was a man who was there through the good and the bad — the ups and downs of playing a constantly maligned position at one of the highest levels. O’Connor leaned on him, not just in that photo, but always, he said.

“Thinking of tough times, my senior year wasn’t all sunshine and daisies and roses, right? It was not pretty,” O’Connor said. “On Sundays when we would have our film review and stuff like that he came in after team meetings when everyone was kind of done and heading home for the night. (Then) we would sit back and talk for a little bit, there was no one else around … he stayed late and not that I ever begged him to but he was always (available).”

Even as he dwarfed in size next to some of the best athletes in the midwest, Foglio’s impact on O’Connor and others proved to not judge someone for their physical appearance. 

“He could muster up some strength in his voice,” O’Connor said. “Like the guys giving the pump up speeches before the games and he’s an 80-year-old or something guy at the time and he’d hit you in the chest with his fist that he used to box with and it’d hit you and you’d be like, ‘Holy crap, who is this guy?’”

A voice that boomed above the crack of helmets and screams of coaches is not easy to forget. 

“He was just always around,” Former walk-on MSU football player John Jakubik said. “Just one of the presences that when he’s there you feel it, didn’t speak a whole lot. (A) really small man, but just one of them cats that when they speak you sit up straight, you listen ... soak it all up.”


An impact beyond his lifetime

Foglio had a well-documented relationship with Dantonio, MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and his alma mater: MSU. The short “goofy little Italian” as Krupp called him, even gave a commencement address in 2001.

Foglio’s prominence extends beyond his life, with the Foglio Chair of Spirituality in the MSU College of Arts & Letters that was established in 2018. 

Its purpose is to leave something behind. As he departs those who loved and cared about him, his legacy remains with the endowment that helps fund faculty positions at the university.

“It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Father Jake Foglio, a man of great faith who cared so much not only for Michigan State University,” Izzo said in a statement. “But for our students and our student-athletes, especially our football team, during my years here. He was a person who you could confide in, and who cared for you and your well-being, regardless of who you were. He loved you before you even got a chance to know him. He was as real as they come.”

That realness is what formed the relationships that so many reminisce on. Krupp, who was extremely close with Foglio, always had him there for his own struggles in his lowest moments.

“The big thing for me is, I believe Jesus was the son of God and that God took flesh and walked among us … we call that incarnational, right?” Krupp said. “That literally means taking on flesh. I think that's what Uncle Jake did, I think he put flesh on God for a lot of people.”

He wasn’t perfect, Krupp said, but he was the example that many strived for in his life. From the Thanksgiving dinners at the Folino’s to his final breath. 

“I miss the old man,” Krupp said.

This article is part of our Halloween print edition. Read the entire issue here.


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