This is special. And a certain sports celebrity, known more for baseball than for football, appreciates the exclusivity.
Of the thousands of men who have played football at Michigan State, only 11 have been selected for Spartan Stadium’s Ring of Fame, with Kirk Gibson becoming the 12th when he’s inducted during Saturday night’s Notre Dame game.
Gibson’s identity is tied more closely to his years as a home-run-bashing World Series outfielder for the Tigers and for the Dodgers, with the Dodgers his employers when he hit his eternal 1988 game-winner off Dennis Eckersley.
But it all began with football. The national acclaim. The exceptionalism. The recruiting by Michigan State, which later led to his head coach, Darryl Rogers, suggesting, rather incredulously, that spring football his junior year would be of little value to a 6-foot-3, 220-pound All-American wide receiver.
Why not try out for baseball? It might help his market value, Rogers sagely suggested.
A few months later, a man who was considered a No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NFL draft, instead became a first-round Tigers steal.
But football gave his astounding career its birth. More important in Gibson’s mind, football delivered to him teammates and everlasting friends, many of whom will be with him Saturday night, on the field.
“I was hoping for that, I wanted my teammates on the field,” Gibson said Thursday. “That’s the coolest thing about it.”
Eddie Smith and Mike Densmore. Jim Hinesly and Rick Audas. Mark Tapling. Steve Otis. Mike Decker. Mike Marshall. Morten Andersen, who this summer entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On and on the list goes. So many of Gibson’s gang, which was a Big Ten co-champion in 1978 but barred from a bowl-game ticket, will be there as Gibson is enshrined.
That no-bowl oddity, of course, is a big reason why Gibson and his cohorts feel such a bond.
MSU was wrapping up in 1978 a monstrous three-year NCAA probation sentence triggered — and some would say, railroaded — by investigators who went nuclear on the staff of former head coach Denny Stolz.
The Spartans were barred for three years from bowls and appearing on television.
Rogers arrived shortly after Stolz was fired and by 1978 had Smith at quarterback and Gibson sprinting for passes that often turned into touchdowns because of Gibson’s certified, NFL-clocked, 40-yard dash time of 4.28 seconds.
But it wasn’t only the co-championship with Michigan that season of 1978, or games during seasons earlier, which galvanized the Spartans.
“We were on probation, and they didn’t bail,” Gibson said of his teammates. “We stuck together. And we got it done in that last year.”
Gibson had been lightly recruited out of Waterford Kettering High in 1975 until a Stolz assistant, Bill Davis, spotted him on film as Davis inspected another prep star.
Seven months later, Gibson was a Spartans starter. A year later, after Rogers arrived, he began hauling in Smith’s bombs. By his senior year, in 1978, after he had already played one season of minor-league baseball for the Tigers, he became a steady, even mesmerizing, sensation. He averaged 21 yards per reception during his time in East Lansing, still an MSU record.
Gibson tore apart secondaries with his speed and shredded tacklers with his size and fury. He made coaches like Rogers, who were from California and familiar with football and Olympic-grade track stars, marvel at an athlete who was almost beyond comprehension.
Rogers, a one-time Lions head coach, also will be at Saturday night’s game.
Gibson also has been asked to address head coach Mark Dantonio’s team prior to Saturday night’s kickoff.
“That’ll be interesting,” Gibson said. “One or two minutes to say something powerful to these young men.”
Gibson earlier this year was granted more sports posterity when he was brought into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I know a lot of people say, he played football?” Gibson said, poking fun at his later, and greater, baseball celebrity. “But this award Saturday goes so much beyond football.
“The young Sparties (players) probably don’t realize it yet, but hopefully they can have a group of teammates and friends the way I have. These guys are unreal, just true friendships. And they just keep getting stronger.”
In fact, the gang still gathers regularly. Tapling suggested a few years ago that an annual Sparty Party golf outing be inaugurated. It was and now moves about the country. Rogers joined the group last winter in Florida.
His teammates were also with Gibson this summer, at his ranch, west of Rogers City, for a golf outing and fundraiser on behalf of Gibson’s charitable foundation, which supports research on Parkinson’s disease, with which Gibson was diagnosed in 2015.
“We rented a bus and went to the ranch to play golf and have three days of true friendship,” Gibson said. “That’s the whole deal.
“And Saturday night, it’s all about recognizing just that.”