Niyo: Done grieving, Joe Bachie out to make NFL teams start believing

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — There are five stages of grief, and the way Joe Bachie describes the end of his college football career at Michigan State, it sounds like he went through all of them in pretty short order last fall.

There was denial, of course. When Bachie got the news he’d tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug banned by the Big Ten Conference in October, the Spartans’ senior captain and defensive leader says he was dumbfounded.

Joe Bachie's senior season at Michigan State was cut short by a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug. Bachie said Thursday is was an over-the-counter supplement.

“The immediate reaction was, ‘There’s no way,’ you know?” Bachie said Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine, making his first public comments since the suspension that sidelined him for the final five games of the season. “I knew what I was putting in my body, I thought.”

But he thought wrong, he soon learned. And to hear Bachie explain it now, it was a foolish mistake, but an innocent one, taking a pre-workout, over-the-counter supplement that the linebacker now believes “was just tainted a little bit.”

“You can never really trust exactly what’s in those over-the-counter things,” he said. “I took it one time for just an extra lift on a Tuesday, tested six days later, (and) I failed. I thought I was gonna be perfectly clean. I’ve taken this product in the past when it was (NSF-)certified and I passed five or six Big Ten/NCAA drug tests. So when this happened, it was heartbreaking.”

He’d let himself down, his team down, and perhaps the toughest part, Bachie acknowledged Tuesday, was breaking the news to his father, Joe Sr., who’d coached him as a youngster and instilled him with a no-nonsense, do-the-right-thing ethos.

“Telling my dad, it was tough to spit words out of my mouth,” the younger Bachie said.

Tough to show his face for a time, too, as he went through the isolation stage in the grieving process. A season that was already going sideways in East Lansing was threatening to go off a cliff when Bachie’s suspension was made public during Michigan State’s bye week.

“And before that, when you walk around campus, you’re one of the guys — you’re a football captain,” Bachie said. “After that, I stayed in the shadows. I stayed to myself, really just focused on the last month-and-a-half of school.”

There’d be a bargaining stage, too, as Bachie appealed his suspension to the Big Ten with help from MSU administrators and even his roommate, Kenny Willekes, an All-Big Ten defensive end.

“He was just as pissed off as I was,” Bachie said. “He was looking everything up that I was trying to look up, trying to figure out, ‘What happened here?’ He was like. ‘Dude, there’s no way. Something’s going on. You gotta figure this out. We gotta appeal this.’

“But he was the guy who was supportive the whole time, too. He was my roommate. We’d go home and there were some tough nights there, obviously.”

Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie led the Spartans in tackles his first two seasons as a starter.

Time to refocus

Eventually, Bachie’s appeal was denied, the Big Ten upholding a mandatory one-year NCAA ban for a first-time offense.

“That was obviously a big loss,” Willekes said. “He’s one of the most well-respected players on our team. When Joe Bachie speaks, everyone listens.”

That’s part of the reason he stayed on as a “student coach,” with head coach Mark Dantonio’s blessing, and dove headfirst into his new role, as uncomfortable as it was initially.

“I stayed and went to every meeting, every lift, every practice, all the home games,” Bachie said.

Still, when he’d leave the Duffy Daugherty Building, “I went right back home to my apartment,” Bachie said, repeating the mantra Dantonio frequently repeated in team meetings. “You’re always defined by what you do next, so I just tried to stay out of everything and get my mind on what’s next for me in life.”

That meant graduation in December, first and foremost. But then it meant refocusing his attention on the NFL dream he has been chasing. A former two-star recruit with mostly Mid-American Conference scholarship offers coming out of Berea-Midpark High School in suburban Cleveland, he says not much has changed in that regard, for him or for Willekes, a former walk-on himself.

“We’re guys that really weren’t supposed to have the careers we had,” Bachie said. “But all we knew was work.”

It showed in his on-field production, earning team MVP honors as a sophomore in 2017 and leading the team in tackles his first two seasons as a starter. It’s also why he was a two-time captain, the unquestioned leader in the middle of the Spartans’ defense.

“He’s got a commanding presence,” Willekes said. “He’s going to do all the right things. He’s going to watch more film, lift more weights and work harder than anybody in the room.”

'I've worked my tail off ...'

That’s what made the suspension — and the cloud of suspicion that inevitably brings with it — all the more galling for Bachie.

“I’ve worked my tail off and for it to come up as some type of steroid,” he said, shaking his head. “You go back and watch my sophomore and junior film, you see me playing at about 240. I was a big meathead-looking guy. You go to my senior year, I was playing about 227-228. There was no juicing, no steroids, nothing like that going on. I was trying to show my athleticism, trying to show my speed all (last) year.”

And for good reason, because NFL scouts likely were feeling the same.

“I thought he did a good job directing traffic (at Michigan State),” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said last week. “He could float and sort and fill and make some plays there. I just thought he had really average speed and range. And I didn't anticipate he would get drafted.”

The suspension won’t help him there, obviously. But Bachie’s hoping the last two months of training will, as he has focused intensely on improving his speed and explosion working out with other Rep1 Sports clients at a training facility in Irvine, California. His roommate there is Washington quarterback Jacob Eason, and they’re joined there by fellow draft prospects Adam Trautman, Matt Hennessy, Jack Driscoll, Ben Bartch and Collin Johnson.

“I just want put up good numbers here, show everyone that I can run and I can move in space,” said Bachie, adding he hopes to post a 40-yard dash time under 4.6 seconds. “I think that’s kind of the knock on me, or the thing everyone’s trying to figure out. I believe I’m gonna run well here, jump well. I feel like I should open some eyes.”

First, though, he knows he’ll have to tackle some questions, as NFL teams — Bachie met with his hometown Browns on Wednesday, among others — demand answers about why he finished his career on the sidelines.

“You’ve just gotta be honest with ‘em,” Bachie said. “You try and make something up, that’s when things go wrong. So be honest with ‘em, be yourself, and (let them know), ‘Every time you put on that film, it was always Joe Bachie. It was never Joe Bachie plus something.’ I’m still a great football player, still a great leader and I’m ready for this next step.”