November 1, 2012
Don't Call It Redemption
EAST LANSING - If you're looking for a player that represents much of how Michigan State's football season has gone, you may need look no farther than Bennie Fowler.
There may be no one on the Spartans' roster who better epitomizes the wide range of emotions, successes, failures, and the resiliency and resolve to overcome adversity better than the 6-foot-1 junior wideout.
Even when you listen to him talk about the responsibilities of his position, you can apply them to the ups and downs of a Spartan season that saw the team lose three of its last four games by a total of six points before showing signs of life with a huge overtime win at Wisconsin last Saturday.
"As a receiver, you've got to learn to read coverages on the run, you can't let the atmosphere get too crazy or let it bother you or anything,'' said Fowler, who regained a No. 1 spot on the Spartans' wide receiver depth chart before the Wisconsin game. "You've got to be poised out there, calm and know what you're doing at all times.''
That pretty much describes the way Fowler had to find his way back after a depth chart demotion that saw a true freshman rise above him for playing time.
Dropped touchdown passes, along with missed catches that cost MSU chances to extend drives were hampering Fowler's chances of making his mark, especially after battling back from a foot injury that cost him time in his development at his position. But much like MSU's team, which seemed to be reeling from consecutive close losses to Iowa and Michigan, Fowler recovered to provide a couple of big touchdown catches that proved to be game winners.
His first came in MSU's comeback victory over Indiana back on Oct. 6 after being benched in favor of first-year wideout Aaron Burbridge but none may have been more important than his overtime TD grab against Wisconsin.
Until that catch last Saturday in Madison, Wis., where he pulled down a back shoulder toss from junior quarterback Andrew Maxwell on an out route, many felt the fortunes of this season's team were not only dwindling but hanging in the balance as to whether MSU would have a chance to make a bowl game for a sixth-straight season.
But both Fowler and the Spartans pulled it together.
And while much of the credit for Fowler's return from the brink of what could have been a very disappointing season should go to his attitude and character, he refused to enjoy his success without acknowledging those around him.
"Maxwell and I had some opportunities earlier in the season, against Notre Dame, I had a drop, and then on third down against Ohio State I had another drop, so I had opportunities to make plays and I didn't make them but lately I've been making the plays and I'm proud of the way I responded. But I'm also proud of Maxwell and the way he's kept coming to me and the way we've kept fighting. We didn't give up on each other and I'm really happy about that.''
Despite what stands as the biggest catch of the season, just like he did after his game-winning score against the Hoosiers, Fowler once again downplayed the importance of his contribution in the victory, refusing, once again, to acknowledge personal descriptions like 'redemption' and 'satisfaction' that came up previously after his for his 36-yard TD catch against the Hoosiers that helped MSU to a 31-27 victory.
Instead, he once again deflected the praise to others inside his circle who were instrumental in helping him get through a tough time.
One of those people was the father of a high school classmate, Detroit Pistons' President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars.
"(Getting through) it wasn't as tough as people might have thought because I've got some great people in my corner, my coaching staff, and Joe Dumars is a mentor of mine,'' said the 218-pound Fowler. "So I reached out to people like Joe D. and my high school coach and they said, 'you watch athletes like LeBron James and you see how the media sometimes comes after him,' that's just part of the job so you've just got to take the good with the bad.
"He (Dumars) said, 'you've just got to keep play through that because no great athlete has had smooth sailing.' Everybody had their ups and downs and if you want to become a great athlete, you'll find out how much you really like the game in the way you respond to all of the criticism. That's kind of how this team is. We've lost some tight ones to some good teams but we just have to keep playing and learning how to finish. It's also the (lack of) experience (for everybody) of playing in big games. It's just a learning curve but we're getting better as things get going.''
That lesson in finishing came to pass for Fowler and the Spartans at Wisconsin and marked the culmination of what seemed like an eternal journey back to success, especially after coming off two 11-win seasons.
Fowler has come back too, all the while never abandoning the practices and work habits that put him in the position to have the kind of success he's finally enjoying in a difficult season. The 20-30 minutes of extra pass catching reps after practice, the extended film study, those commitments never went away and as a result, Fowler is starting to see the fruits of his labor on a more consistent basis.
In his first five games, he totaled 16 catches and one touchdown. In his last four games, he has 12 catches and two touchdowns - both game-winners.
The best news for Fowler and the Spartans as they both begin to regain their form is that November has arrived and since Mark Dantonio's arrival five seasons ago, November has turned into a month when the Spartans have played some of their best football. If that remains true and Fowler's game is starting to peak, look for MSU to enjoy better consistency on offense, something Fowler is more concerned with than any personal success he has enjoyed of late.
"I feel good about it (the way I've been playing lately) but I still don't see it as redemption. I just see it as making a play that I should be making. So it's just about all of us making those kinds of plays we're supposed to be making and we'll be fine.''
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