Column: Saying goodbye to Michigan State’s Mike Sadler, a punter and a friend, is really hard
EAST LANSING, Mich. – I had no case of writer’s block back on March 2. That’s a credit to Bryn Forbes mostly, as the Michigan State sharpshooter had just hit 11 3-pointers in a win at Rutgers.
Nevertheless, my phone vibrated at 8:37 p.m. and Mike Sadler’s name popped up with a suggestion on how to approach my coming game story.
“In your game recap please include something along the lines of ‘the only other place you can find this many 3s at a sporting event is the student section at the big house,'” the message read.
It was not the first such suggestion from Sadler, who often would text me during MSU games with serious commentary or snarky, witty thoughts – the proposed jab at the attractiveness of students attending Michigan football games being the latter … I think.
And it’s just one of the countless texts that made me laugh amongst the tears last Sunday as I lay on my bed for hours after learning that a good friend had passed away late Saturday night in a car accident in Wisconsin, which also claimed the life of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz.
I should preface this by saying that there’s always a sense of a relationship between a journalist and the subject he covers. It’s a working relationship built on mutual respect, understanding and a healthy distance.
Mike, as he did in every aspect of life, had no regard for the norm, blitzing by it in his standard transcending fashion as only he could.
As has been well-documented in the past week, Mike was brilliant without being conceited; filled with twisted jokes and laughter of the most contagious manner. He was one of those rare athletes who earned All-American honors for his play on the field, but it paled in comparison to what he was doing off it. He was, probably most importantly in his eyes, a better running back than punter.
I saw all that, but he was, most importantly in my eyes, a consistent, loyal, kind and impactful friend.
The person I got to know during his playing days through covering those Michigan State teams was the same person I got to know as a friend as those days grew shorter, starting with a Sunday night encounter at the best bar in East Lansing, Crunchy’s, and conversations about our hometown west of Grand Rapids.
His ability to draw people in with his charm, smile and humor is something I’m not sure I’ve seen in another. The way he could draw a crowd and hold it was matched by how you could spend hours around him and never experience a lull.
I think the best praise I can give Mike is that he had a way of making any friend feel like his best friend when you were with him. You felt that way because, in that moment, you were. That was one of his gifts. He just had a way of being so present and engaged that while he might well have been the most interesting man in the world, he made you feel that way instead.
The feeling came in texts asking me to check out his latest tweet so he would feel like he was funny – as if validation was required. It filled me the final time I spent lengthy time with Mike, as we had beers and chicken parm sandwiches at The Riv in East Lansing and talked law school and relationships among a whole lot of goofiness.
It came in discussing the tone of portions of his personal statement as he applied for law school and it was there the final time I saw him when he snuck up on me at Sound Mind Sound Body in June.
It’s been heartbreaking spending the past week knowing I won’t have that honor again of feeling that way with the person I shared a hometown with, a love for beer with and a ridiculous sense of humor with.
It was surreal and shattering to stare at the rock on Michigan State’s campus last Sunday evening and see “RIP Mike Sadler” freshly painted in white, while knowing his name was on my phone in my pocket on a list of people I needed to see in my final week in Michigan before making the move to South Carolina, which comes in a matter of hours.
That move would have come Sunday, but my bosses at SEC Country, the sister website to Landof10, graciously allowed me to stay in East Lansing longer to attend the celebration of Sadler’s life at Spartan Stadium. Many words were spoken, the most stirring coming in a resolute manner from Mike’s mom, Karen; the most memorable coming from his sister, Katie; and the some of the rawest coming from former teammates Darqueze Dennard and Travis Jackson.
All the heartfelt messages about Mike brought me back to the realization I’ve been wrestling with for the past week: The world lost a shooting star that was shining brightly, but had yet to reach its peak splendor. We struggle with death as a society, but never more so than when we see promise stolen with a life cut far too short.
You see, being Mike’s friend was like being along for the ride – a front-row seat to see just how far he would go and what greatness he would achieve, which we all knew would be immense.
That’s the kind of feeling that remains with someone who says the words “I said no to Harvard” as he picked Stanford for law school this fall. He said that statement – one reserved for very, very few – that afternoon at The Riv in a fashion that truly encapsulated who he was because he just said it. It was another lofty achievement that he passed off as ordinary amid the jokes, self-deprecating humor, quick wit and kindness.
But that’s just who Mike was and that’s what makes his passing so hard to come to terms with still as someone who got to know him professionally and then personally. The player I watched shooting footballs through the jugs machine at the other specialists during a practice and the friend who coerced me into trying his spicy Bloody Mary mix while telling stories and jokes I can’t in good conscience put into written word is sorely missed.
I’ll soon take a seat in the Williams-Brice Stadium press box at South Carolina for the first time. In that press box, I know my phone isn’t going to vibrate with any game commentary or ridiculous game story ideas from Mike, but given the South Carolina mascot, I can only imagine what would have popped first into the head of a good friend and then appeared on my phone.
I’ll miss him then as I miss him now.
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Previously, he covered Michigan State from 2013-16 for 247Sports and Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.