KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He stayed to help clean up. Who does that? Here was this tall, rail of a kid with the Opie Taylor haircut, selflessly packing away Tupperware and moving furniture on command. Yes, sir. No, ma’am. Thank you. You’re welcome. God bless.
This was how Gary Spani first met his son-in-law — or rather, the tall, rail of a kid who would become his son-in-law — back in the spring of 2011. The graduation party for his daughter Shalin, then a standout guard with the Kansas State women’s basketball team, had lilted gently to a halt. All that was left were family and the usual stragglers.
One straggler in particular, this lean, soft-spoken, smiling sort who happened to be pals with a friend of Shalin’s, asked if he could lend a hand. And Spani remembers looking Collin Klein straight in the eye and saying: “I don’t know you, but I’m going to pray for you. I really feel I should pray for you.”
Spani was a wicked linebacker at K-State back in the day, the program’s first consensus All-American in 1977, one of the few shining lights in the decades when the Wildcats aimlessly roamed the football wilderness. He knew Klein was part of the current program, a quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-quarterback-again, but that was really about as far as it went. He knew that he was a nice kid. Faith and family first. Tougher than an old leather shoe. But mainly, a very, very nice kid.
“So I was very definitely praying for him,” Spani says now, chuckling a bit at the thought. “I didn’t realize I was praying for my future son-in-law.”
This proved to be an especially glorious Thanksgiving weekend for the Spani clan, a splendid capper to a splendid autumn. All the girls could make it back, for once — even Taber, who plays basketball at Tennessee — and Collin’s second bye week with the 10-1 Wildcats fell on the holiday, with K-State’s regular-season finale slated for December 1 against Texas.
Sunday meant a group outing to the Denver Broncos-Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium (Gary is a former Chiefs captain, the franchise’s all-time leader in tackles (999), and now a part of the club’s sales & marketing department), while earlier meals were buttressed by marathon card games. Usually, it was Pitch, an old family favorite, a tradition Klein had to pick up on the fly during his first Thanksgiving with the new in-laws.
“That was pretty interesting,” Spani recalls. “I’ve learned that Collin is a pretty fast learner, let’s put it that way. By the time he left, he had it pretty well under control.”
See, there’s not much about Klein, K-State’s senior signal-caller, that really surprises Spani anymore. The two Wildcats greats talk every week, generally — yet it’s funny how little of the discussion centers around the topic of football itself.
“Shalin’s whole family is an amazing family,” says Klein, who’s slated to play his final home appearance Saturday night. “Getting to know all of them has been just a blessing and now to be a part of it, it’s just been a blessing. We have talked a little bit about football here and there, but mainly, it’s been about life on life, family on family, kind of. Because again, obviously, we both love football and it’s played a role in our life, but like you said, it’s not the most important thing.”
The bond goes deeper. Shalin, whom Klein wed this past summer, was home-schooled, just as Collin was in his native Colorado. Both families stress the importance of the Scripture and selflessness first, a common base and a shared foundation.
“I had some great friends who had boys who played high school football,” Spani says. “Now I’ve got an amazing blessing to have a son-in-law who’s finishing off his last year at my school. It’s been an incredible blessing to take it to a deeper level than just watching K-State play. I get to walk through it with Collin, so it’s been pretty amazing.
“We go over to the house of (K-State College of Veterinary Medicine dean) Ralph Richardson — that’s where we have our postgame activities, over there. We’re probably there for two hours, (and) we probably spend 15 minutes talking about the game. I’d ask him, ‘Gosh, what did you see here? Did you miss this or was the receiver supposed to this and he didn’t do that?’ So, yeah, we do some of that … but not a lot of it.”
Spani understands the drill better than most. His father-in-law is a football giant, too; his wife, Stacey, is the daughter of Frosty Westering, the iconic coach at Pacific Lutheran, a Division III gridiron power out of Parkland, Wash. Of course, Gary’s no slouch at the icon game, either, having been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002 and to the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame the next year. Whether it’s Manhattan, Kan., or Kansas City, Spani is hard to miss — his name can be found plastered in giant letters inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium and Arrowhead, a fact which Collin’s brother, Kyle, enjoys ribbing his older sibling about every now and again.
“He is everywhere,” Kyle Klein says of Papa Spani. “Yeah, he’s all over the place. I kind of give (Collin) every once in a while, like, ‘Hey, you’re going to be tackle No. 1,000 for Mr. Spani,’ all that kind of stuff.”
Collin? Collin just takes it. Takes it and smiles.
“We’ve had a lot of fun,” he says, “and we’ll have a lot of fun in the future.”
Gary laughs as he recounts The Phone Call, the backstory with a backstory all its own. It’s January 2012 now, and the nice kid with the Opie Taylor haircut has gone from picking up plates to becoming one of Shalin’s closest confidantes.
Spani had discouraged his daughter from dating, per se, so the feeling was that this was becoming serious. There was a family summit one Sunday in Topeka, in which “Shalin really expressed her heart in a very vulnerable way,” Gary recalls. “She couldn’t say the word, ‘marriage.’ (It was) ‘Muh, muh, muh.’ But she knew that she knew.”
Klein knew that he knew, too, and had actually called Spani to ask permission to court his daughter.
“Yeah, I think he would have rather played Oklahoma,” says Doug Klein, Collin’s father. “I think he rather would have been saying, ‘Hike.’”
There was one catch, of course: Spani’s cellular phone had broken down, and wouldn’t be repaired until Monday.
“You know, if you expect Collin to call you,” Stacey Spani told her husband on the drive back from Topeka, “you probably really need your phone.”
Sure enough, with the phone back in working order Monday, there was a voicemail from Collin. Spani returned the call in kind.
“I said, ‘Collin, you called me, how can I help you?’” Gary says. “And he says, ‘Mr. Spani, I have two questions to ask you. First, I’d like to spend more time with your daughter, with the purpose of engagement.’ And I said, ‘OK.’
“Then we started talking a little bit, and I said, ‘Colin, what do you know that I don’t know?’ And he goes, ‘Mr. Spani …’ and he started laughing.
“‘To be honest, not that I wouldn’t be honest, I just have to tell you what happened. I think it was the third week of (Cotton Bowl) practice, I was driving down the road, after practice. I was driving down the road and I heard the Lord speak to me, as clear as anything. And He said to me that I was going to marry Shalin Spani.’
“And obviously, I was like, ‘Whoa, OK, that got my attention.’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s your second question?’ And he said, ‘I’d like to ask for guidance as to how to move forward, and I like to ask for prayer and wisdom as to how to move forward.’ So it was pretty amazing in a lot of ways, for a young man doing what he did. So it was pretty easy for me to say, ‘This is a good thing.’”
It was a great thing, as fast as it was furious, the first whirlwind of what would become a memorable year. There was a February engagement at the beginning, July nuptial in the middle, and a football season for the ages at the end.
Then, a few weeks ago, the tall, rail of a kid with the Opie Taylor haircut was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, at the center of the Heisman Trophy debate, right arm cocked at the ready. For all his accolades, Spani never got an SI cover, not all to himself. The family bought 10 copies.
“You don’t kid about that,” Spani says, chuckling again. “Not when he’s outdone you.”
Like father-in-law, like son.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org