Ryan Van Dyke, once a can’t miss prospect for Michigan State, is now its biggest ‘what if’
The 1998 recruiting class at Michigan State reads like a fantasy football draft.
Future pros Antonio Gates, Julian Peterson, Josh Thornhill, Ulish Booker, Jace Sayler, Josh Shaw and Little John Flowers were all new additions in Nick Saban’s fourth season in East Lansing.
Eleven-year, All-Pro NFL receiver Plaxico Burress, who went on to catch 64 touchdowns, including the game-winning grab in Super Bowl XLII, also got his scholarship that season.
None of those names came with the hype and expectations that surrounded Ryan Van Dyke.
The 6’ 5”, 223-pound quarterback from Marshall was one of the top recruits in the nation, courted by Notre Dame, Ohio State and nearly every other Division I program in the country.
He says he came to MSU because he bought into Saban’s vision.
There was another reason, too.
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“I didn’t want to line up against the guys Saban was recruiting,” Van Dyke laughed.
Van Dyke was a natural-born leader and a winner, claiming a state championship during his junior season. He also took Marshall back to the Silverdome his senior year.
“He was what you are looking for: tall, strong, tough and a good arm,” former MSU offensive coordinator Morris Watts said. “Everything was there. He was the guy we wanted.”
Those traits had Watts making the 100-mile round trip to Calhoun County as often as he could.
Van Dyke’s potential was supposed to make him the face of the Spartans. There was talk of a Rose Bowl on the horizon, and he was going to lead the charge to Pasadena.
It never happened.
Inside his office in the Northwest Mutual building in the downtown of Northville, looking out a large plate-glass window onto North Wing Street on a drizzly spring afternoon, Van Dyke leaned back in his black leather chair and shook his head in disgust.
“That was the hardest time of my life, without a doubt,” he said. “The absolute hardest time of my life, mentally and physically.
“I got hurt every year.”
To say the hulking gunslinger from south-central Michigan was injury prone would be a gross understatement.
“He was snake bit,” Watts said, from his home in Branson, Missouri. “There were times when he would be down, but he wouldn’t let himself stay down. He would get himself in position to be the guy, then all of a sudden, he was hurt.
“That’s a tough situation. It’s not something that’s easy to go through.”
The injuries came early and happened often. Van Dyke calls it “fate.” At the time, he called it a pain in the you-know-what.
In his second game as a true freshman, an Oregon defensive back – the smallest guy on the field, according to Van Dyke – separated his left shoulder, leading to off-season surgery and a subpar first season in East Lansing.
“I’ve never ever been associated with pain like that,” Van Dyke said, rubbing his freshly shaven head. “I was totally out of it. They had to cut my jersey off and everything. I thought I was disfigured. I played the rest of that year scared to death.”
He played in seven games that season, throwing two touchdowns in only 63 attempts.
Year two didn’t go as planned, either.
A season that would end in a Citrus Bowl victory over Florida started with a linebacker diving into Van Dyke’s right foot, causing a stress fracture. He played in just four games.
The injury left him thinking he would get a medical redshirt, gaining an extra year of playing time. Instead, he was inserted into the Ohio State game after Bill Burke was injured.
“I blew (my redshirt) on 3 ½ quarters of football,” Van Dyke said, referring to playing in wins over Northwestern and No. 13 Penn State to end the season. “That was a huge sacrifice I made. I didn’t have to do that, but I don’t regret it. I would expect someone to give that effort to me if they were on my team.”
But, with Burke healthy again, Van Dyke was relegated to the bench during the 37-34 bowl victory over the Gators in Orlando.
Van Dyke said he has no ill-will toward Burke getting the start in the Citrus Bowl. Burke knew the offense. Van Dyke still wasn’t getting many reps in practice because of the lingering foot issue.
“It was pretty tough on him,” said former MSU teammate Tony Grant, who was the team’s long snapper and played all four years with Van Dyke. “He just couldn’t catch a break. It was extremely frustrating for him. When one of you is suffering, you suffer as a team.”
Before his junior season, Van Dyke switched his jersey number from 13 to 3, hoping all the injuries and misfortunes would stay with the “unlucky” number.
He found out in the 2000 season-opening win over Marshall that, no matter what jersey number he wore, suffering followed.
“Two helmets went ‘bam’ on my right thumb.” Van Dyke said, showing his hands side by side. “It hurt so bad and blew up like a balloon within an hour. It would’ve been better to break it. It would’ve relived the stress. I couldn’t even button my shirt.
“That was supposed to be my coming-out party.”
Thoughts of transferring crept into Van Dyke’s mind before his final season in East Lansing. With sophomore QB Jeff Smoker earning praise and more playing time, the senior decided to finish what he started. Plus, he was assured that there would be an open QB competition in the spring.
He got in the best shape of his life that offseason. He called his workouts “legendary” and said he was physically the best he had felt since high school. “I was like Rocky,” Van Dyke laughed.
It wasn’t enough. Smoker was named the 2001 opening day starter.
Van Dyke was a backup, and he was left off the list of team captains.
“I lost my job. That’s it,” Van Dyke said. “It was humiliating.”
Watts, who is credited with turning Smoker into the Big Ten passing leader that season, said it was tough to watch Van Dyke’s effort and sacrifice go for naught that fall. But he was quick to refute that Van Dyke and Smoker had a strained relationship because of the decision.
“Maybe at times the competition wore on them a bit,” Watts admitted. “Knowing those guys really well, there was never anything bitter to it at all. Day-to-day disappointments are only natural. Ryan understood that the best way for us to be successful was to be a team guy.”
And Van Dyke had an impact.
Spelling an injured Smoker in week three (The second game was rescheduled because of the Sept. 11 attacks), Van Dyke’s senior highlight was leading the Spartans to an improbable 17-10 win over No. 23 Notre Dame in South Bend. That was a special game for Van Dyke, who dreamed of being the QB of the Fighting Irish in his youth.
He would play in six games during his final season, throwing for 569 yards and four touchdown passes for the 6-6 Spartans.
His lowlight came in week five against Minnesota.
“I got high-lowed, and it was a late hit with no flag,” he said, describing getting hit in his legs the same time he caught the crown of a helmet in his own. “I don’t remember anything. That was my last play in college. I didn’t know my name, why we were dressed like this, what day it was and why are all these people were there. Are we in the Silverdome?”
When the dust settled, Van Dyke had a severe concussion and a broken jaw.
“I remember walking into his apartment after the jaw injury and seeing him drink through a straw,” Grant said. “That was devastating. I felt terrible for him. He was just getting in a groove.”
Van Dyke tried to take snaps with the first-team offense a month later. He couldn’t call plays. It had nothing to do with his wired jaw. He said he just couldn’t get the words to come from his brain and out of his mouth.
During that practice at Spartan Stadium, Van Dyke said, he quit for the last time in his life.
After being berated by a coach and told to get out of the huddle, Van Dyke walked out of the stadium and into the unknown. For the first time in years he wasn’t a football player anymore.
Van Dyke calls his experience playing for MSU complex and humbling.
“I’m going to play some tunes right now, if you don’t mind?” he said, as he fidgeted with his phone. “Whenever you hear a song it takes you back. Like in college, you remember right where you were.”
The Rolling Stones song, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” comes out of the Bluetooth speakers at his desk.
“Coach Saban always had Rolling Stones on,” Van Dyke smirked.
Behind Van Dyke, there’s a Spartan helmet flanked by a mini Spartan Stadium on the top shelf. High school memorabilia fade into helmet plaques from both the Seahawks and Giants, two NFL teams that gave Van Dyke a chance after his tumultuous, injury-riddled career at MSU.