Gibson's HOF college football career set stage for diamond drama

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Kirk Gibson

They know him mostly for his Hollywood home run with the Dodgers and for his hair-flying leap celebrating a World Series-clinching homer on behalf of the Tigers in 1984.

They know him as a baserunning freight train who nearly knocked Blue Jays catcher Pat Borders across Michigan Avenue and into Windsor during a memorable Tiger Stadium collision.

They know him as a big-league manager. And as a coach. And, now, as a Tigers baseball announcer.

What too many forgot or didn’t know was how marvelous Kirk Gibson was as a college football player at Michigan State.

A reminder arrived Monday when Gibson was named part of the 2017 class for the College Football Hall of Fame.

Gibson’s years at MSU as a breathtaking speedster, whose big body and churning legs could traumatize defenders, earned him induction alongside former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, as well as quarterback Peyton Manning (Tennessee), Adrian Peterson (Georgia Southern), and seven other players and coaches: Marshall Faulk (San Diego State); Matt Leinart (Southern Cal); Bob Crable (Notre Dame); Dat Nguyen (Texas A&M); Bob McKay (Texas); Danny Ford (Clemson); Mike Ruth (Boston College); Brian Urlacher (New Mexico); and Larry Kehres (Mount Union).

“Yeah, it’s almost like football, given that I was known as a baseball player, I probably didn’t think I’d have this kind of opportunity,” Gibson said Monday, by phone from Arizona, where he was attending a seminar and offering lavish thanks to family, coaches, teammates, and fans for his latest sports plaque.

“It’s a bit of a surprise. I’m just grateful for the path football laid for me.”

In fact, were it not for football — and for a Michigan State football coach’s impulse — Gibson likely never would have come within a realm of playing big-league baseball.

Gibson had finished his junior season of football at MSU in 1977 when Darryl Rogers, then the Spartans’ head coach, sized up a receiver who was on his way to being a first-team All-American, and said:

“You don’t need spring football. Why don’t you try out for baseball? It might help your market value.”

It was an unselfish act by Rogers, spurred by MSU baseball coach Danny Litwhiler, who knew Gibson had played American Legion baseball during his high school days at Waterford Kettering High.

MSU great Kirk Gibson makes College Football Hall of Fame

Gibson shrugged and held the thought. A few months later, after a May home-run barrage had turned him into a national marvel, he was on his way to becoming potentially the first overall draft pick in the 1978 big-league draft. He ended up being grabbed by the Tigers in the first round, 12th overall, falling only because some teams weren’t sure about his NFL plans.

In fact, Gibson was considered by many NFL talent evaluators in 1978 to be the likely No. 1 overall NFL prize in the league’s 1979 draft.

He was a monstrous force at wide receiver because of his size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and his incredible speed. Gibson, in fact, was timed by NFL scouts in 1978 at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash. It was speed that few, if any, NFL-grade running backs could match.

Gibson signed with the Tigers in June of 1978 but, because of an NCAA rules change, was allowed to return that fall to finish his football career. With quarterback Eddie Smith firing bullets to him on crossing routes that devastated many a Big Ten defensive back, Gibson was on his way to NFL front-office billboards everywhere.

He also helped bring the ’78 Spartans a Big Ten football co-championship.

But the Tigers and baseball had won. Gibson was still taken in the ’79 NFL draft, by the Cardinals in the seventh round, who gambled that if baseball didn’t work out for the MSU colossus they would retain Gibson’s NFL rights.

Baseball, though, became his passion and his career that continually distanced him from the consciousness of a new generation of fans who knew him principally for his stage-drama proficiency with the Tigers and Dodgers.

Some, though, never forgot about his football roots — including Big Ten cornerbacks who often found themselves playing 10 or more yards off a receiver who could burn them in two strides.

MSU assistant coach Bob Baker once turned to Rogers after Gibson had pulled off yet another highlight-room play and said:

“He’s not your average bear.”

Gibson remembered the compliment when it was mentioned Monday.

“I still am,” Gibson said, with a chuckle. “Only in a different capacity.”