Out of the blue, Kerry Reed got a phone call from an old mentor last year.
“I’m watching you guys on ESPN right now,” said Reed’s former Greater Miami Pop Warner coach and mentor on the other line.
Of course, it was the Northwestern game. Reed, who caught 95 passes for 1,213 yards at Michigan State from 2005-06, has hardly played in a more exciting game than that one. And that includes five seasons in the high-scoring Arena Football League, where he currently plays for the Arizona Rattlers.
Nine years after that game, networks still put it on TV, and people still stop and reminisce about what they saw that day: a 38-3 deficit, a 35-point comeback, a 41-38 Michigan State win on the road. A comeback of that magnitude had never before been achieved. Coming up on the 10-year anniversary on Oct. 21, it’s still untouched.
“It’ll go down in history as one of the greatest college games played,” Reed says. “It’s just good to be a part of it because if you look 10-15 years on down the line, people still see that game.”
Ashton Henderson, a freshman cornerback on that team, hardly believes a decade has passed. The emotions remain fresh, and the lessons learned continue to transcend football.
Henderson and one of his best friends from that team, junior safety Travis Key, published “Beyond the Gridiron” in 2014, hoping to help incoming college athletes acclimate mentally and physically to the new environment and challenges. One chapter called “Handling Adversity” tells the story of that game.
“I’ve talked to my students about it who I work with,” Henderson says. “To say that was 10 years ago is unreal.”
A shaky start
The 2006 season had at least begun well.
Coach John L. Smith, dealing with the pressure that follows two straight losing seasons, led the Spartans to wins over Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Pittsburgh to kick off the season.
Then came the battle for the Megaphone Trophy. A pair of touchdowns from Reed helped Michigan State to a 37-21 advantage over No. 12 Notre Dame. At home. With just over eight minutes remaining. What could go wrong?
Two Brady Quinn touchdown tosses put the Spartans on the ropes, and an interception from senior quarterback Drew Stanton was returned for a touchdown to complete the fourth-quarter turnaround.
What USA Today called a “stunning” comeback led to an unraveling. First, Michigan State lost at home, 23-20, to a two-win Illinois team on homecoming. The next two losses were more understandable, if not acceptable. First, the Spartans dropped a 31-13 decision at No. 6 Michigan, then 38-7 to No. 1 Ohio State.
Next on the schedule: Northwestern, which had trounced MSU 49-14 in East Lansing the year before. Pat Fitzgerald had taken over following the tragic death of the Wildcats’ coach, Randy Walker. The Wildcats had lost four straight as well, but Smith tells Land of 10 he still expected a smart, disciplined, opportunistic team.
“That’s the way they’ve been since Fitz has been there.”
‘A game we should win’
Travis Key knew that, as a walk-on, he had a small window of opportunity.
Despite being a regular special teams player since his first season, he’d found it tough to break into the regular defensive rotation. Nickel and dime packages served as his main way to get on the field up to that point in his third season with the Spartans.
So when multiple injuries led to his number being called, Key knew the Northwestern game would be his one chance to prove himself as the starting safety.
“The Northwestern game is really the beginning of my career at Michigan State,” Key remembers. “I knew that I had to go out and not just manage. I had to go out and be a spark. I had to go out and make some big plays and prove that I was worthy of being a member of that team, worthy of being a member of that defense and worthy of being a starter.”
Henderson found himself in a similar spot. Injuries led him to be tossed into the starting role at bandit, just a few games into his true freshman season. “I had to grow up quick,” he says.
If there was a game for inexperienced players to step in, this was it. After consecutive games against the two best teams in the conference, 2-5 Northwestern showed up next on the conference slate.
“This is a game we should win,” Smith remembers telling his team. “You’ve got to compete against these guys, where Ohio State, everybody looks at that as a game maybe you shouldn’t win. The belief factor was much greater coming out at the Northwestern game than it was at the Ohio State game.”
The notion of being favored didn’t help. Northwestern came out hot for that 11 a.m. local time kickoff, while the Spartans didn’t seem ready for that kind of high-powered offense. An opening-drive field goal got things going, but then the Wildcats’ offense unleashed itself.
Sophomore quarterback C.J. Bacher did whatever he wanted in helping the Wildcats build a 17-3 lead, and when he’d had enough, he pitched it to running back Brandon Roberson, who threw for a touchdown of his own.
The Michigan State offense didn’t look particularly poor. Stanton connected with Reed five times for 51 yards in the first half, while running back Jehuu Caulcrick rushed for a solid 36 yards. But when the Spartans had a chance to score, receiver Carl Grimes fumbled.
The deficit should have been 27-3 at halftime. Fortunately for Michigan State, Wildcats kicker Joel Howells missed a 36-yarder wide right as time expired. Mercifully, the Spartans trailed by 21 points.
“We just crapped our pants, to put it mildly,” Smith recalls.
Broken chairs, broken hearts
What happened in that locker room at halftime?
It depends whom you ask. Smith suggests things got pretty intense.
“We had a couple broken chairs and things at halftime,” he says. “We had a couple fits thrown in the locker room.”
Henderson doesn’t recall any destruction of property, but he can attest to the level of tension and disappointment. “Metaphorically, there were some broken hearts,” he says with a laugh.
Key, ever the optimist, remembers things a bit differently.
“The morale with the team and the morale in the locker room when we went in at halftime was actually pretty good,” he says. “Coach Smith and the other coaches came in, and they gave us a pep talk, told us that it wasn’t over, and we honestly believed that.”
Whatever the case, Michigan State’s fortunes didn’t immediately turn around. A roughing the kicker penalty gave Northwestern second life on its opening drive, and the Wildcats turned that into a touchdown. Then a Stanton interception was returned to the 10-yard line, and it became 38-3 five minutes into the half.
It was then, as Key remembers, that the Spartans realized they wouldn’t stop the freefall with individual excellence. Ten players doing great work won’t make up for the mistakes of the 11th. They would have to do it collectively.
“In that moment, we were all in it together as a family,” Key said, “and we weren’t really concerned about who got the credit, who made the plays and this and that. It was more so just about being accountable to each other, and that allowed us to put shades on and not focus on what the score was.”
Stanton had already found success with Reed, but on the following drive, he spread it out, hitting four different teammates, the last of whom was Caulcrick for an 18-yard touchdown grab. 38-10.
Michigan State stymied Northwestern’s run game, forcing a 3-and-out. A 31-yard punt gave the Spartans great field position, and running back A.J. Jimmerson capped off the drive with a 4-yard run. 38-17.
“It was like Murphy’s Law,” then-junior linebacker Kaleb Thornhill says. “It was like what went bad went really bad, but when it went good, things just tumbled and it was like a domino effect. We got a stop. We got a score.”
For a moment, it seemed the momentum had stopped. Tyrell Sutton broke free for a 64-yard rush down to the Michigan State 11-yard line. Two plays later, the Wildcats found themselves lined up in that same spot on third down.
Thornhill took a few steps forward. Then he saw Sutton coming at him. For a 242-pound linebacker, that’s not a good sign.
“That running back’s coming full speed at you,” Thornhill explains, “and he’s a running a route. Usually they go left to right, but when you’re in Cover 2, when he goes around you, I had to get back there and take him vertically. I got a little bit of my hands on him, but obviously it wasn’t enough to stop him from continuing to go vertical. I looked over my shoulder knowing I was beat.”
And there was cornerback Demond Williams, who lay a massive hit on Sutton. The ball popped up, and when it fell, it landed in the waiting arms of a trailing Thornhill. That would be the one interception of his college career.
“Thank you for covering my butt,” he remembers telling Williams as they ran to the sideline. “That was really your interception.’”
‘Nothing could go wrong’
Any momentum looked to be halted when Stanton had to exit the game following a late hit from Corey Wootton. Backup Brian Hoyer (now playing in the NFL, like Stanton) stepped in and completed four consecutive passes, but the fifth was picked off in the red zone by Northwestern’s Brendan Smith.
The fourth quarter having just begun, a 21-point comeback would require a touch of magic. That came after the ensuing 3-and-out from Northwestern. Wide receiver Devin Thomas, a staple on special teams, approached Smith on the sideline before the punt.
“Well, Coach, I’m not getting blocked by this guy,” Smith remembers him saying. “Even though you don’t have block calls, should I go?”
“Certainly!” Smith said.
Just as Thomas said, he went unblocked coming in from the right, and his diving block of Slade Larscheid’s punt sent the ball bouncing toward the opposite sideline.
There couldn’t have been a better player in position to grab the loose ball than Henderson. At Lincoln (Fla.) High, he had returned several blocked punts for scores in this same manner and on the same side of the field. He scooped it up and returned it 33 yards for the score. 38-24.
“The energy when that happened – that stadium went dead,” Henderson said. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Added Key, “I think that was the point where we knew we were going to win that game.”
Sure enough, the Spartans forced another 3-and-out, and then Stanton, back in action, marched them down the field, finishing off the drive with a twisting and turning 12-yard touchdown run of his own. 38-31.
Next drive: Another 3-and-out. Michigan State held on 3rd-and-1, forcing Terrell Jordan back a yard. After the punt, the Spartans took over at their own 42-yard line, and so began an essentially perfect drive.
“There were points where I just felt like nothing could go wrong for us,” Thornhill says. This drive marked one of those moments. Stanton completed six straight passes, the last of which soared to T.J. Williams for a magnificent grab in the back of the end zone. 38-38.
Northwestern would have just under four minutes to respond, starting at its own 15-yard line. When Bacher and his offense lined up for the first play of the drive, Key saw what he had been waiting for all game.
“It was a play that we had watched as a defense over and over and over and over again, preparing for, that we hadn’t seen up to that point,” he says. “But as soon as they came out in the formation, I believe it was like a pro left. They had trips. They had a tight end, two wideouts left formation set up. And we had a solo coverage call. I was the backside strong safety. The corner was on the outside receiver and stretched our free safety to the No. 2 receiver.”
Key became responsible for Northwestern’s Eric Peterman. Right when Peterman came off the line, Key knew he was going vertical. He jumped the route and starting running toward Peterman.
“I got my eyes back on the quarterback,” Key said, “and he tried to lob it up there, and I came into the lane and picked it off.”
Key took the interception 10 yards down to Northwestern’s 30-yard line. With three minutes left, the Spartans already found themselves in good position for a field goal try, so they rushed six times, milking the clock while gradually moving down to the 11-yard line.
With 18 seconds left, Brett Swenson stepped up. He had started the day with a field goal and would look to break Northwestern hearts by ending it with one. From 28 yards out, he drilled it. Pandemonium surrounded Smith, who walked the other way down the sideline as if it was the only thing he could do to keep himself from jumping for joy.
Northwestern would have one last shot, but there was no doubt. This day belonged to Michigan State. The clock hit zero, Bacher was hit as he threw and his pass hit the grass before the hands of his intended receiver.
Finally, Smith showed some emotions. His players rushed the field and mobbed their teammates. The moment was so memorable that Key can’t remember it.
“We all sort of blacked out at that point,” he says. “It was like a dream sort of coming to reality. You don’t really know what’s going on. You’re happy. There’s so many emotions going on at one time.”
Reporters and commentators realized the magnitude of the moment. Michigan State had pulled off the biggest comeback in Division I-A history. The message was relayed to the nation, which watched in astonishment.
Only the players hadn’t heard. Soaked in Gatorade in the visitors’ locker room, they wouldn’t see that stat until the Sunday newspaper came out. Some of Henderson’s friends and family surely notified him, but the 150 messages on his phone seemed too daunting to tackle right away. And, in truth, the stat mattered less than what had led to it.
“You would’ve thought we had won the national championship,” Thornhill said of the celebration. “To us, it was more the resilience we’d displayed and everybody knowing what we just accomplished in a single game just came to fruition at the end of the game.”
Thornhill tweets inspirational quotes almost every day.
It comes with the territory. When he’s not serving as director of player engagement for the Miami Dolphins, he co-heads (along with Key) APEX Academy, a Michigan nonprofit aimed at helping at-risk students prepare for college through football and academic mentorship. Motivating athletes is his job.
On Sunday, he posted a quote from the 2006 film “Rocky Balboa.” It goes like this:
“It’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. It’s how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
Though it wasn’t necessarily what he had in mind, Thornhill thinks it can be applied both to what the 2006 Spartans went through in that game, as well as what the current team faces now. Just as it did 10 years ago, Michigan State faces Northwestern in the midst of a troubling losing streak.
The 2006 team’s whirlwind victory ultimately gave way to four straight losses to finish the season. The Spartans fired Smith and hired Mark Dantonio. Though it was no longer his team, Smith says he still took pride in watching his former players like Henderson, Key and Thornhill compete.
And those players still look back fondly on what they accomplished under Smith in that game, 10 years later. As time passes, the significance of their accomplishment continues to resonate.
“It means so much more and just shows you the value of time … and how it’s the most precious gift on the earth,” Henderson says. “I’m telling you, it doesn’t seem that long ago.”