Kirk Gibson is one of America's most compelling athletes of all times. His clutch-hitting heroics led two baseball teams--the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Dodgers--to World Series Championships. His grand slam against Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series was recently voted the top sporting moment in Los Angeles' history.
As a Spartan athlete, he was equally dramatic. Although he caught many touchdown passes, perhaps his most memorable play was in chasing down the Minnesota defensive player who was streaking down the sidelines and about to convert an MSU turnover. Gibson came flying out of nowhere to make the stop. An All-American in both football and baseball in 1978, he continues to support his alma mater, having served as co-chair of the campaign for the Clara Bell Smith Academic Support Center for Student Athletes.
In his new autobiography, Bottom of the Ninth (Sleeping Bear Press, 1997), Kirk recounts his key role in the "hellacious offensive football machine" created by Darryl Rogers. The excerpts below not only provide an insider's view of an MSU football era, but they also showcase some of Gibby's winning trademarks--such as toughness, loyalty and commitment. --Editor.
(In April 1976) . . . the announcement came: Our new head football coach was a guy from San Jose State by the name of Darryl Rogers.
"Darryl who?" we all wondered. They said he threw the football like crazy, which instantly got my attention, after having caught only nine passes as a freshman. When Rogers first came to speak he was definitely different, and obviously Californian. On one hand, he was strong and direct, as when he told us, "I'm here to win football games." But where a guy like Stolz had this serious, poised, above-it-all air, Rogers was real down-to-earth, and he talked in this kind of voice-through-a-pipe tenor that, at times, made him sound like Kermit the Frog.
What I could not have known in the first days of that season was this: Darryl Rogers would change me life, dramatically and permanently. The first change: we were going to air our the football.
At spring practice, Rogers was already re-tooling the offense top to bottom. First came a new quarterback, Eddie Smith, a skinny six-footer who was going absolutely nowhere in the Stolz system. Smith could do one thing and one thing only--throw a football the way some guys throw darts. He had finished first team All-State in Pennsylvania--beating out future NFL star Joe Montana.
Rogers took one look at that high, quick release, at the way Smith zipped passes downfield, and on the spot made him our starting quarterback ahead of three other guys. With me, though, he wasn't so sure. Darryl had actually wanted to make me an outside linebacker, figuring that was the best way to get the most production from a sophomore with my size and mobility.
But once Mr. Offense got a gander at our team speed--or lack thereof--he decided I'd better stick at wide receiver and help get us some points. We were going to need them in the fall of 1976. Things were still a mess following the probation upheaval, and the results of our disintegrated winter conditioning program left us weaker and slower than any of the Big Ten contenders.
Rogers may not have experienced Big Ten football before, but he was coach enough to understand that we were in trouble. He also understood that throwing the football was one way a weaker team could compete, especially when so many of our best players were on offense.
In the opener against Woody Hayes at Columbus we were bombed, 49-21. I caught a couple of touchdown passes, one of them for 82 yards. A couple of weeks later I caught five passes for 173 yards, which at the time set a MSU single-game record for reception yardage, and we tied North Carolina State, 31-31. I ended up leading the Big Ten in receiving with 748 yards on 39 receptions--30 more than in my freshman year--during a season which saw us finish 4-6-1, mostly because other teams ran over us, or past us.
I separated my shoulder in the season finale, at home, against Iowa. It happened just before the half. Eddie Smith was scrambling for this life, so I came back to help out, breaking off from the coverage and grabbing a pass a second before he would have been chewed by the pass rush. I was zigging and zagging with the ball--anything for a few extra yards--when this linebacker the size of a pop machine blindsided my square in the shoulder, knocking me backward at least seven yards.
He stood over me doing this boxing referee countdown, "one, two, three!" which made me so hot that I forced myself to stagger to my feet. We exchanged pleasantries for a moment or two, and then I hobbled off, looking at the clock as I went. I remember being grateful there were only 27 seconds remaining until the half. When I got inside the locker room, State's doctors right away informed me I had an acute separation of the shoulder--which I'm sure I could have confirmed on my own. The pain was so strong I couldn't lift my arm.
"Basically, we can do one of two things," they told me. "We can block it out (give me a pain-killing injection), or just go with it." Not for a moment did I or anyone else suggest I might be out of the game . . .
Chalk up another lesson in sacrifice, driven by the psychology of mind over matter, as I wasn't taking any injections in the shoulder with a 4-inch needle. So I ran the whole half with my shoulder tucked in protectively. I might as well have stitched a bulls-eye to my jersey. Every time we ran a play, the lovable Hawkeyes made sure to pile on and grind the shoulder extra hard.
As Iowa was our last game, and with no bowl games to go to, I had the off-season to let my shoulder heal. The coaching staff, though, wasn't about to let up on us. To combat our serious deficiency in strength and speed, on came a winter carnival known as the Be-At-Jenison-At-8 a.m. conditioning program. It was headed up by our offensive line coach--and former Green Beret lieutenant--C.T. Hewgley. Each morning, after we had gotten up and walked across the dark frozen campus and on into Jenison Field House, we could look forward to Hewgley bellowing at us as we sweated and steamed around the indoor track.
We'd begin with stretching exercises, then he'd have us jumping over these tall boxes, then on into sprints--220s, 110s, 60s, and 40-yard sprints. He punished us all winter long. Hewgley's drills were irresistible to me. I turned every sprint into a race, and my teammates picked up the challenge.
You could see what was now happening with our entire football team. We were getting back our character, our speed, our muscle, our purpose. It was becoming our team. The greatest challenge to the coaching staff and to the players was fighting through the first year of probation and working hard in the off-season to re-develop the total team concept. We had to set new goals now that the prospect of a Rose Bowl had been taken away.
We were also responding to the Rogers offense, which was very innovative by college standards. By the start of our '77 season he was placing more and more trust in Eddie Smith to run the offense with greater freedom at the line of scrimmage.
Soon all of us were able to read defenses and react to them. Smith was calling audibles at the line, and the receivers were changing routes on the fly. We were now the aggressors. It was very complicated, but the genius of Rogers was that he had a terrific way of making it sound so simple: "It's no big deal," he'd say, kind of spreading his hands, palms up, and shaking his head. "If they go right, you go left. They go deep, you go short."
The guy could coach. And practices were interesting. Very NFL in nature. The air horn would sound, right on schedule, and we would move from one drill to another, always working on the pass offense. All day, every day.
By the start of my junior season I had come a long way from being a skinny high school first-team All-County (Waterford, MI). When I arrived on campus in '75 I was 188 pounds, and I finished the season at 198. My sophomore year I was 208, then 218 as a junior. By the time I cam back for my senior season, I was at 227. Even better my 40-yard times had gone the opposite direction each year: 4.6, 4.5, 4.4, 4.3, and even a split-second lower.
Size and speed were great, but they still didn't stop me from getting "cut" during our home opener against Purdue. I caught a ball deep in Purdue's end of the field and began churning upfield, running over a couple of defenders on my way to the end zone. That's when a linebacker, Fred Arrington, torpedoed me with his helmet, right on the side of my shin bone. It was the first time I had ever been "cut," and I went flying. I hurt for three weeks.
Ray Greene, our receivers coach, who had worked in the old World Football League, a few nights later taught me a little maneuver known as "The Flipper," which was designed to put the cut artists out of business.
I would take the ball while running and cradle it in the arm opposite the defender's side. If he were coming low, helmet first, I would get down just as low to intercept him, discreetly submarining my fist into either his solar plexus, beneath his shoulder pads, or square into his Adam's apple, which would leave him gasping for air.
While trying for the next 10 minutes to find his breath, he could contemplate the wisdom of plowing his helmet into a man's lower leg. It was purely a survival tactic--one that ensured that if a tackler tried to cut me, he would pay for it.
Football is an intimidating sport, and you absolutely must be the intimidator. When I looked across that line of scrimmage, I knew I had to own the defender, physically and mentally, because when you've defeated him both ways, you have an edge. I call it the mental press.
The Flipper was just a new addition to my overall strategy: I wanted to punish a tackler, not illegally or unethically, but to the point where he would close his eyes. If I could get a tackler to close his eyes--believe it, most players close their eyes at contact--then I could make him miss, and outrun him. And with those two advantages on my side a lot of big gains were guaranteed.
We finished our '77 season 7-3-1, 6-1-1 in the Big Ten--a half-game behind Michigan and Ohio State. And it could have been better, considering we lost 23-21 to Washington State, and tied a lowly Indiana, 13-13.
I had missed most of the Indiana game with a bruised heel, then I missed all of the next two games. It was the only time a football injury cost me any extended time. But within a few weeks my heel was better. It was getting scary at season's end, just how potent our passing game had become, and sure enough, the pro scouts were beginning to line up as we swung out of autumn '77 and into the off-season.
Early the next spring, 12 NFL teams--among them the Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, and Minnesota Vikings--sent scouts to clock our best players. The event was scheduled for the indoor track at Jenison Field House.
That day I chose to be one of the last guys to run, knowing it would be to my advantage to take the time to prepare fully, and be seen. I remember warming up very methodically, very slowly, trying to establish a proper blood flow by making it easy for blood and oxygen to get to my muscles.
I walked around, shook my legs and body, getting real relaxed, trying to establish peak circulation to produce my best performance. And then I ran. And the scouts just stood there, almost blankly, staring at their watches. I wasn't satisfied at all.
"I can do a lot better than that!" I yelled.
They all kind of looked at me, and one of them said, "You did pretty good, son."
"No. I want to run again."
And I did. Two more of the most thunderous 40-yard sprints I could manage.
"What'd I run?"
Not a word from one of those guys. I was getting irritated. Finally, I asked Darryl, and all he said was, "You did jut fine, Kirk."
"Well, what'd I run?"
"You only ran a 4.2."
Turns out they all had me under 4.3 seconds, between 4.20 and 4.28. The NFL guys weren't accustomed to seeing those kinds of times. Certainly not from a guy 6-3 and 227 pounds.
A while later, Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' chief talent scout, said I'd be the 1978 Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Brandt could embellish sometimes, but it was shaping up that I could be a first-round football draft pick in 1979. Exciting stuff for a guy whose goal for so many years had been to play professional football.
Our MSU football team was my first priority. It was all because of my teammates. We had come too far together--from a 4-6-1 team faced with probation to legitimate Big Ten contenders. I enjoyed them too much. The bond between us was deep, beyond anything most people--outside of tightly knit teams -- could understand. I would never have walked out on those guys. Never. Not for a million dollars. Not for five million.
As I drove back home to East Lansing to start my senior year, I marveled at how much had changed from the day my folks had dropped me off three years earlier. Michigan State was my home, and I was one of our team's leaders.
When we got on the football field, we just channeled all that closeness and spirit into intensity, and, more impressively, into the most hellacious offensive football machine I could ever have been a part of. Our 1978 team held the Big Ten record for scoring average per game, 41 points, until Penn State topped it in 1994. We scored on one blazing touchdown pass after another that season. It wasn't just me. We had Gene Byrd, a real flyer, at the other wideout spot, and tight end Mark Brammer, who went on to play for the Buffalo Bills, as the other primary receiver. We also had a bunch of good running backs--Steve Smith, Bruce Reeves, Mike Hans--who were as involved in the pass offense as our wideouts were.
Still, because he had an amazing ability to deliver the ball before a defender could close, Eddie Smith was the big reason we scored on so many long pass plays. He had amazing touch and timing. We would make our reads and find a hole in the coverage, then turn around just as the football was about to burn a hole through our jerseys.
Smith's bombs could break up a game fast, but running across the middle was my passion. There was more punishment there--some awful collisions--but I loved getting tough yardage that might soften u a secondary later in the game. Even on an incompletion, if I were running full-tilt and somebody hit me, the next time there was a good chance they wouldn't want to hit me.
Had we hung onto Smith, our triggerman, at the start of the '78 season, I'm convinced the worst we would have finished that year was 10-1. But after going up on Purdue, 14-0, early in the opener, we lost Smith when he broke his hand scoring our second TD. Our offense was paralyzed, and we ended up losing 21-14. By the fourth game of the season, Smith was healed and we were back in our rhythm, but we missed an opportunity to beat Joe Montana and the Irish, losing 29-25. We were 1-3, and about to face nationally ranked Michigan, our arch rival--in Ann Arbor.
We shocked all the experts with a huge upset of Michigan, 24-15. It was the game that ultimately made us Big Ten co-champions--and launched us to an amazing 8-3 season. It would have sent us to the Rose bowl had it not been our final year of probation. Then came the torchings: 49-14 over Indiana, 55-2 over wisconsin, 59-19 at Illinois, 33-9 over Minnesota, 52-3 at Northwestern and 42-7 over Iowa in my final football game as a Spartan.
Football is an intimidating sport, and you absolutely must be the intimidator. When I looked across that line of scrimmage, I knew I had to own the defender, physically and mentally
Our MSU football team was my first priority. It was all because of my teammates . . . I would never have walked out on those guys. Never. Not for a million dollars. Not for five million.
Our 1978 team held the Big Ten record for scoring average per game, 41 points, until Penn State topped it in 1994.
* Excerpted from Bottom of the Ninth, written by Kirk Gibson with Lynn Henning, with permission from Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, MI. The $35 book is available at local bookstores or can be ordered through Sleeping Bear Press at 800-487-2323.
BASEBALL TRIPLE--Former Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson (left) and former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda (right) joined Kirk Gibson in Detroit for the announcement of his autobiography.
In his only season as a Spartan baseball player, Kirk hit .431, led the Big Ten with 7 home runs and 23 RBI, and made All-America (Sporting News). MSU coach Danny Litwhiler called him "the best power hitter" he ever had.
The Gibby reception from Steve Smith was one of MSU's foremost offensive weapons enroute to the 1978 Big Ten football championship.