SAN DIEGO — Michigan State linebacker Chris Frey wheeled around shooting photos and video of the control room inside the bowels of the USS Essex (LHD 2) Navy Assault ship on Tuesday. The dimmed lights cool air blasting through made it feel like a solitary cave dwelling.
And just as rarely seen. Frey, born in Virginia while his father served in the Navy, grew up in a large military family. He sent the images to his cousin, who was stationed on a Navy ship for nine months, helped him to grasp the significance of Michigan State’s all-access tour.
“He was like, ‘Dude, you’re so lucky,’ ” Frey said. “‘Those are some of the things that I was never even able to see. You’re getting to do things that most people that are in the Navy and Marines and are on ships like this don’t get to do.’ ”
No. 16 Michigan State (9-3) has come to California to take on No. 18 Washington State (9-3) in the Holiday Bowl on Thursday. That’s the primary focus. But that game will be just one of many for each and every player. But the Tuesday tour won’t likely ever be repeated by any of them.
The moment didn’t go unappreciated. Frey and teammates stood, taken aback, as a woman working on the ship told them she had just graduated from high school several months ago. Similar ages, but much different roles. The message Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio hoped his players would take seemed to resonate.
“There’s pressure involved in every job that they have, much like there’s pressure involved in a game for players that are playing on the field,” he said. “But I think the difference is this is life decisions. We play a game. This is life decisions that they impact. The protection of our country and everything that goes along with it is much more meaningful and special than a football game.”
Michigan State strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie was the Spartans’ recipient of the Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp Trophy on Tuesday, bestowed upon the member of the program who displays the qualities of unselfish dedication and teamwork. Thirty different people received votes, but Dantonio deemed Mannie most deserving.
“The one thing I want to say, because I don’t want to take away from the tour, is this is the greatest honor I’ve ever received,” said Mannie, a USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame member, upon receipt of the trophy. “I want to thank all of you for your service to our country. God bless you all. This is unbelievable, and I will cherish this for the rest of my life.”
The enormity of the moment could even be felt in reactions to the sheer size of the ship, which weighs 40,500 tons when fully loaded. The labyrinth of staircases and slim hallways led to one small group getting lost. Then a crew member peaked his head out of a doorway with directions.
“It’s just a chunk of metal, but it’s a maze inside,” he said with a grin.
What lasted just a few hours felt like much more — not because it was boring, by any means, but because the tour left Michigan State with so much to take in. The prevailing takeaway seemed to be an increased respect for those who serve.
As the team walked down the dock at Naval Base San Diego at the end of the visit, running back LJ Scott turned and put his straightened hand to his forehead, saluting a crew member standing by. The young man saluted in return.