Hall of Famer Kirk Gibson took off after landing at MSU

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Kirk Gibson is known for his skills on the baseball diamond but he was in his element Tuesday night, joining Peyton Manning, Steve Spurrier and Marshall Faulk as members of the College Football Hall of Fame at the induction banquet in New York City.

Kirk Gibson found his greatest fame in baseball, but he first burst upon the scene as an All-American wide receiver at Michigan State.

Before joining the Tigers, Gibson was an All-American receiver. Gibson had been largely ignored by big-college recruiters during his football years at Waterford Kettering High. He was headed for Central Michigan and coach Roy Kramer until an MSU assistant coach, Bill Davis, spotted Gibson on film as Davis inspected another higher-profile player.

Gibson was invited to campus, was offered a scholarship, and committed to the Spartans and to then-head coach Denny Stolz.

Seven months later, Gibson was starting at wide receiver after his speed and ferocity so impressed the coaching staff a freshman became an instant starter.

"I came to Michigan State University as really the last guy in," Kirk Gibson said Tuesday morning before his induction at the 60th NFF Annual Awards Dinner. I wasn't a guy who was highly touted. I think my credentials going in was 'honorable mention Oakland County.' But I had a plan. And, again, I've had great teammates and great mentors along the way to encourage me to see how good I could be in my beliefs. Michigan State University and the people I became associated with, they were the right people."

A year later, after a horrific NCAA probation sentence gutted the Spartans’ bowl hopes and TV appearances for three years, a new coach, Darryl Rogers, was leading the Spartans and preparing to launch a pass offense under new quarterback Eddie Smith and a fleet wide receiver who, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, had Olympic-caliber speed.

Gibson’s ascent as an extraordinary headline-making athlete had begun.

He began snagging Smith’s passes and turning them into game-breaking sprints. He averaged 21 yards per reception during his MSU career, still a Spartans record.

Gibson could lay waste to defensive backs on go-routes, or he could tear them apart on crossing patterns where he would slip or crush tackles for huge gains and, often, touchdowns.

He turned to baseball almost impulsively when Rogers suggested to him after his junior season that he did not need spring football. Why not give baseball a shot, which could benefit Spartans baseball coach Danny Litwhiler and, Rogers thought, potentially boost Gibson’s market value when his athleticism knew no bounds?

What seemed a lark turned into a decision that would change the sports landscape in Detroit, Los Angeles, and throughout baseball as Gibson became a dynamo on two World Series championship teams, with the Tigers and Dodgers.

But it was football that had triggered his collegiate and professional sports life. It was football in which a man so big ran for NFL scouts a 40-yard dash that 40 years later still astonishes: 4.28 seconds.

It was football that unleashed a man of fury and skills so astounding they made seasoned coaches like Rogers, who had a Californian’s perspective on athletes and Olympians, shake their heads at his incandescence. It was football where Gibson would, by NFL scouts’ consensus, have been the first overall pick in the 1979 NFL draft had he by then not signed with the Tigers.

It was a College Football Hall of Fame career, his days and years at Michigan State. And now those times and that player are enshrined eternally.