It was April 2009, Michigan State’s first scrimmage of spring practice. The starting center was out, forcing John Stipek, a converted defensive lineman, to take every snap with the first and second teams.
Stipek had been moved to center during the 2007 bowl preparations, but he really wasn’t showing much development and things would only get worse in the scrimmage.
“We must have had six or seven fumbled center-quarterback exchanges,” offensive line coach Dan Roushar said. “It was a nightmare.”
On that day, Roushar never envisioned Stipek becoming the player he is — a reliable starting center on a team that’s two victories from an 11-1 season, Big Ten championship and possible Rose Bowl bid.
Stipek (pronounced STEE-peck), a fifth-year senior, will make his final appearance at Spartan Stadium Saturday when MSU plays Purdue.
“He is the classic overachiever,” Roushar said.
Stipek, who had played at Dakota High in Macomb, Mich., arrived on MSU’s campus in 2006 for one of the most tumultuous seasons in the program’s history. He was part of former coach John L. Smith’s final recruiting class.
It started out great. The Spartans won their first three games before a 16-point lead slipped away in an unforgettable fourth-quarter collapse against Notre Dame.
“Once we lost that game, the team lost its morale,” Stipek said.
Michigan State also lost eight of its final nine games and Smith got fired.
Stipek had been told he would be redshirted that year, which would have been best for him under the circumstances. But with all of the team’s off-the-field problems going on, suspensions created an opportunity late in the season. He played in four of the final five games, recovering a fumble against Penn State.
Lettering as a true freshman seemed to indicate a bright future, but it didn’t work that way, at least not initially.
Stipek, like almost everybody else, had to prove himself again to Mark Dantonio and the new coaching staff taking over.
It didn’t go so well at first. Stipek quickly found himself demoted back to the scout team. He didn’t play in any games in 2007. As a result, he ended up getting that redshirt year after all.
“It wasn’t very fun,” Stipek said. “I tried to do what I could to make it better or make it right. I didn’t know much about coach Dantonio at the time, besides he built a pretty good program at Cincinnati. I definitely had mixed emotions.”
Stipek was, in part, a victim of the coaching change. The new staff, obviously, wasn’t impressed with his talent.
Many players don’t overcome that obstacle. They either transfer or quietly end their careers as seldom-used reserves.
“I’m sure that ran through his mind,” Roushar said.
Not for long. Stipek decided he was going to make the best of it.
Much of his progress has come in the last year or so. He had bulked up to play on the defensive front, but that extra weight affected his endurance and quickness as a center. Stipek