Remembering ‘Rocket’ still a blast for ex-Spartan Nichol

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

East Lansing — Slow motion — that’s how Keith Nichol remembers it these days.

It’s been almost five years since Nichol, then a fifth-year senior, was at the center of one of the most improbable, exhilarating plays in the history of Michigan State football, and he remembers it now as if hardly any time has passed.

It was Oct. 22, 2011, and Michigan State was hosting Wisconsin in a top-15 battle that took place in prime time in front of a national TV audience. There were wild swings in momentum with the Badgers going up early, the Spartans coming back and taking a two-touchdown lead only to watch Russell Wilson rally Wisconsin to a 31-31 tie.

There was 1:19 left on the clock when Michigan State got the ball back and moved to just past midfield before the drive stalled at the Wisconsin 44. With just four seconds on the clock it was too far for a field goal and the only option was to heave the ball for one last shot at the end zone.

At Michigan State it’s called the “Rocket” formation, something that was practiced each and every week. Nichol, now in his second year as the on-field reporter for the Spartan Radio Network, remembers being sure something good was going to happen when the Spartans were in the huddle. Wisconsin had called a timeout and Michigan State shifted the play to the short side of the field.

As quarterback Kirk Cousins took the snap, Nichol ran toward the goal line. Also heading in the same direction were receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin as well as tight end Dion Sims. Cousins scrambled, bought time, and lofted the ball into the night sky.

“It was very much in slow motion,” Nichol said this week as No. 8 Michigan State prepared to host No. 11 Wisconsin today, the first meeting between the teams at Spartan Stadium since that night. “The ball even floated up there for everybody to see. It was actually in slow motion, I think.”

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What happened next was a blur to Nichol when it happened but has been replayed so many times it’s easy to recite. The ball tipped off the hands of Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis — he was in on defense for the final play — and hit B.J. Cunningham in the facemask. It bounced in the air and fell into the hands of Nichol, who caught the ball just outside of the end zone.

Nichol immediately lunged for the goal line with Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor pulling him in the opposite direction. Abbrederis tried to hit Nichol as he fell to the ground and safety Shelton Johnson came flying in from the end zone to try and push Nichol away.

“I remember that when the ball did bounce up in the air I said to myself, ‘Well, here it is. You can win the game,’ ” Nichol said. “You have all these thoughts flash through your mind at the time. What I wasn’t ready for was the battle at the goal line that was going to occur to get that last half-yard or so.”

The officials first said Nichol was short of the goal line. But a review followed. What actually lasted less than two minutes felt like a lifetime to Nichol.

“It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders and it felt like a 10-minute review,” Nichol said. “Everyone is asking, ‘Did you get in, did you get in?’ I said, ‘You tell me, I couldn’t see that well.’ I felt like I was in but who knows with the review. I just felt like the call took forever and I think I was the last one to see it and realize it was a touchdown.”

When referee Dennis Lipski announced to the crowd that Nichol had, indeed, crossed the line, it took Nichol a second to process the news. Just then, Cunningham jumped on his back.

“The whole stadium went berserk over it,” Nichol said. “It was a pretty euphoric, adrenaline rush. A euphoric feeling.”

Hours later, Nichol finally made it back to his apartment, finally saw the play on ESPN. It was the defining moment of his career, one that took some time to come for the former quarterback who lost out on the starting gig three seasons earlier to Cousins.

And only now, five years later, does Nichol truly appreciate what happened that night.

“As time has gone my sense of pride around that moment has really grown,” said Nichol, who has the ball displayed in his office. “Five years and we’re still talking about that play and how big it really was. To be at the center point of that and have people remember you for those kinds of moments is kind of a humble reminder that life is kind of like that. You certainly work hard for opportunities, and they don’t always come, and when they do you have to put yourself in position to jump at those opportunities and cash in.”

Weeks later Michigan State met up with Wisconsin again in the Big Ten Championship game, losing in the final minutes. It was the toughest loss Nichol had to deal with in his career because he and his teammates truly believed they were the better team.

But he still has the play, and that can’t be taken. Nichol now lives in Royal Oak and runs a wealth management firm, and he says he still hears about the play on a weekly basis.

He loves the radio work he does and how it allows him to stay close to the program while also keeping up with his former teammates in the NFL.

“I have a sense of pride watching those guys,” Nichol said. “I didn’t get to play with Jeremy Langford a long time, for example, but I was watching him on Monday night just to support him. He’s a Spartan Dawg. It’s great to watch all the guys — Le’Veon Bell, Kirk, my good friend Garrett Celek. Trae Waynes had a big weekend.

“It’s just humbling to see how much talent come out of that program and the big moments you remember are very special.”

None more special than “The Rocket.” @mattcharboneau