Playing Football at Michigan State University


by Michael Dinkins

When we were adolescents and young adults, our psyches were vast, virgin fields with an insatiable thirst to discover, nurture and grow into the unique individuals we would become. It was our nature to seek such understanding. In time, answers came. And most adults, having long ago formed self-assessments, continue to navigate life in line with those opinions of self. 

What is your view of yourself? What is the basis of your opinion? You may define yourself as a distinct combination of your life experiences, lessons learned, education, accomplishments, and the influences of family, friends, mentors or lovers. You may even say you are still and constantly evolving. 

What would you think if I said there is only one yardstick you should use to evaluate yourself? It’s true. If you want to know what that is, where I found it, and how you can use it to thoroughly assess your life, too, please keep reading. 

A “Raye” of hope

In 1972, I was a six-foot-two, 205-pound high school football player. It was my senior year. I had 4.8 speed in the 40-yard dash and a burning desire to play Big Ten college football on a scholarship. 

I’ll never forget the day my coach introduced me to Jimmy Raye, a coach at Michigan State University – Raye’s alma mater and my ideal choice. He had come to watch me practice. It was great to be in this man’s line of sight – the first black quarterback to win a national championship with the 1966 Michigan State Spartans. My first thought was, man, he is small. If he played at State, so can I. He was six feet tall and less than 180 pounds. My confidence grew. 

About a month later, I got the letter. It felt like a lightning rod in my hands. I went to my bedroom where I could be alone when I opened it. The letter started by saying I had talent but (and there it was, the dreaded but word) they could not offer me a scholarship. However, the letter did invite me to come and try out for the team. 

That was good enough for me. As a matter of fact, I decided I was going to show them that I was the second coming of hall of famer Willie Lanier, who was nicknamed “Contact.” And if possible, I was also going to get jersey number 63! 

The letter was signed by hall of fame coach Duffy Daugherty. I didn’t know it at the time, but that letter would be the pinnacle of my football career. I should have kept it.  

Off I went to MSU

My college football career started with a three-minute physical at the campus clinic. They took my blood pressure, shined a light in my eyes and looked in my ears. I stuck out my tongue, coughed, and it was done. Now I could get my gear and go practice. To my disappointment, all they gave me was a pair of shoes, shorts, tee shirt and a helmet. Good thing I brought my own socks and jock strap. Regardless, I was cleared and ready to practice football at MSU! 

As I wondered which way it was to the stadium, I was instead directed across the street to an open field. There gathered 104 other recruits who had received the same letter I did. For the next two weeks, a coach, who must have been mad about having to manage the walk-ons, ran us and ran us until we became smaller versions of ourselves. I had dropped down to 195 pounds, and probably two-thirds of the recruits quit under the physical and mental strain. 

No chance was I quitting

I knew I wouldn’t get my full practice gear until I convinced the coach I had the right stuff and stamina. When it was time to run high-intensity wind sprints, I made myself move like the wind despite being so exhausted I was seeing stars. The perseverance paid off. At the end of practice one day, the coach finally sent me to the varsity locker room to get my gear. 

Recruits who made it this far spent a week learning the defensive strategy MSU’s team would play two weeks later. The following week, stuff got real. We moved to the stadium to actually practice against MSU’s varsity players. I was able to assess my skills on the field against a Big Ten college football team. Oh, what a humbling experience. What I thought was aggressive was not. What I thought was fast was really slow. Every day – a series of Big Ten epiphanies. 

There were clearly two tiers of players. Those who would go on to the NFL – Billy Joe DuPree, Brad Van Pelt, Joe DeLamielleure, Bill Simpson – were two cuts above everyone else. I was three cuts below NFL talent. During wind sprints, I was outrun by second- and third-string linemen. During scrimmages, I was thrown around like a ragdoll, couldn’t get off blocks, and I got dragged for yards before help arrived to bring down running backs. DeLamielleure was only going at half speed while I was giving it everything I had. DuPree stiffed-armed me into the third row of the stadium to let me know he was the man. He was cussing and saying G-d all the time. I started to say something but fear kept my mouth shut. 

I gave it my all until I finally saw the writing on the wall. I was not going to be the next Willie Lanier. I wasn’t even cut out for college football. 

Where did my confidence come from in the first place?

Before playing against Big Ten talent, I played in a Class C division of small, rural high schools in southwest Michigan. My graduating class at Bangor High School had only 105 students. Our league had 200-pound linemen for whom a calendar (not a stopwatch) was needed to time them in the 40-yard dash. I jest, but such was the reality in our subpar league. 

Before my Big Ten experience, this was all I knew, and it was from this perspective that I graded my gridiron abilities. While I did not dominate, I made first team all-conference two years in a row and my assessment was that I was good – an aggressive, hard-nosed football player with talent. I was very confident. 

As I later learned, my personal experience with football was extremely limited and in no way a gauge I could use to measure my true abilities. 

I lost a dream – and found a yardstick

I released my grip on football – but I found a connection, many years later, between it and becoming a disciple of God. What I had learned on the field, I also had to learn in life – that assessing myself based on what I had personally experienced was not how I was going to measure or define myself going forward. My true measure became my choice to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior and the extent to which I would allow God to change me. 

There was nothing I could do when I realized I did not have the talent to play in the Big Ten, much less the NFL. The gap was too big. However, when I realized I was a sinner, the way forward seemed too easy to believe and achieve. 

Once the Holy Spirit was in me, I was able to better understand the Word of God for guidance. Passages and scripture suddenly began jumping off the page. Resounding convictions sprung up within me. My view of the world, as limited as my view of football as a high school senior, opened up. I became a wide receiver, filled with a new kind of hope and joy, inspired by an infinitely higher purpose. 

As the years and decades passed, I followed my calling from spiritual athlete to coach, so that I could help others find their way to God. 

Who are we in the eyes of God? 

In a word, we are imperfect. To be perfect in His eyes, we would have to live sinless lives from birth until death. This is not possible. It is also impossible for some parts of ourselves to be perfect and other parts sinful. 

The Bible teaches us that every part of our being is sinful – our intellect, our emotions, our desires, goals, motives, and physical bodies. In Romans 7:18, Paul says, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, within my flesh.” And in a letter to Titus (1:15), Paul says, “To the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and conscience are corrupted.” 

For believers and non-believers alike, those words can be hard to hear, but we hear them in different ways. What nonbelievers hear is that they are filthy and unfit to be in the presence of a Holy God. Hard stop. Spit it out. Paul’s words are too salty for them to take in and digest. Nonbelievers use the yardstick of their experiences and feelings to determine they are good, and that God will be pleased with them. They are wrong. 

Believers hear something entirely different. We know we cannot by our works make ourselves worthy in the eyes of God. We know this truth. But with this reality comes good news. When we humble ourselves, confess our sins, repent and accept the grace of salvation, it leads us to eternal life in paradise with a loving God. 

Back in my football days at MSU, I would have welcomed a higher power to rely on, to help me play against Ohio State and stop two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin from running through us, over us and around us. 

But that was then. Today, with an ever-loving, ever-forgiving God in my life, it’s a whole new ballgame. What a vast and beautiful field to nurture and live by. 

Michael Dinkins is an elder and Sunday school teacher at Rockbridge Church in Allen, Texas.