EAST LANSING ---- There is nothing in John Stipek's bio that lists him as a master illusionist but with all of the position changes he's made since coming to Michigan State in 2006, one might think he has powers and abilities beyond some of his teammates.
After beginning his career as a defensive end, a position that earned him a Top 40 rating by Scouts Inc. and high rankings by Rivals.com, the Detroit News and Free Press and the Lansing State Journal as a prep standout, the 6-foot-5, 306 pound Spartan junior, has finally reappeared at a position that seemingly suits him best ---- center.
And while Stipek has settled into a position that doesn't garner as much attention as his recent defensive past, the former Macomb Dakota High School star, along with redshirt freshman Ethan Ruhland, have become the centers of attention after starting center Joel Nitchman suffered a strained knee injury before the end of the first half of MSU's 44-3 victory over Montana State in last Saturday's opener.
It's a role of participation he never thought he would regain after losing his spot on defense. And it's a role he earned after stints at defensive tackle and offensive guard.
"I kind of went into the shadows,'' he said with a laugh. "(Actually,) it's kind of hazy, if you think about it because it was a couple of years ago and you just definitely have to move on. You can't think about the past too much. I got moved into offense and I've never really looked back, never thinking, pondering, could I still be a defensive player.''
But even if he held on to those dreams, no one could really blame him, especially after the start he had as a true freshman during that 2006 season.
"I played against Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern and Penn State. Those were good experiences, especially for a freshman because you're young, you're only 18-19 years and you're like 'woah,' but the new staff came in and in many ways, it was a transition that was difficult for me,'' said Stipek, who finished that season with a fumble recovery and two assisted tackles. "The defensive staff was looking for certain and specific things and that's just the name of the game and, I wasn't fulfilling that.''
While Stipek is ecstatic about the opportunity that he and Ruhland will face this weekend when the Spartans welcome Central Michigan for a noon contest at Spartan Stadium, he has no delusions about what his role is and will be along as Nitchman is wearing an MSU uniform.
"Sure, I'd love to get out on the field but as I said earlier, Joel Nitchman was and is our starting center. He's been doing that for 2 1/2 years. I've only been playing center since spring ball,'' he said of the switch from defense to offense that occurred during postseason preparation for MSU's Champs Bowl when the coaches needed someone to fill in on the scout team because of injuries. "The experience level with him and I are like night and day. So just me getting me getting with the 2's was a great because when I was at guard, I didn't even know where I was playingwise, if I would ever play here or get any playing time.''
Of course that's not the case anymore for Stipek, who originally came in at about 230 pounds and eventually bulked up to 290. Despite losing his spots on defense, and not being able to play guard because, as he admits, 'I was making a lot of missed assignments and mistakes,' he has found his role in Mark Dantonio's grand plan.
"Moving in as a center turned out to be pretty darn good (move),'' he said, in obvious hindsight. "Everything's been good for me. I've been trying to get better everyday so if Nitchman's going to go in on Saturday or not, I'll be ready to play regardless of the situation.
It's pretty cool, you know. I never thought I was going to play offense in college when I first got out here but you know what, I like it very much and it's been a pleasure working as a center.''
With that being said though, Stipek's rise, fall and rise to grace has been a difficult one, eventhough he will never fully acknowledge the emotional rollercoaster ride.
"When I first came here, especially with the switching of the coaching staff and a lot of the things that were going on here, (you wonder) 'where am I going to be, what's going to happen to me,' especially being a freshman. I was lot more jumpy, a lot more jittery, it was almost, I guess, you could say like paranoia. But naturally, I'm kind of relaxed and I had to stay poised because If I'm not going to be poised, that's when mistakes happen. You have to keep yourself focused on the goals.''
That focus has brought him to and kept him, at now, what must seem like his football destiny. In the process, he may have proved to himself that he was better football player than he ever thought he could or would be once he stepped on campus.
"With the transitions, I feel like I've been all over the field and in a way you kind of ponder to yourself, 'wow, now I'm moving here and I've got to learn something all over again,'' he said "And of all of the positions, center has been the most challenging. You got to call out the fronts, you've got to know what you've got to do, you've got to know where the backers are, what's going on. But I guess things just clicked. I really don't have a good explanation as to what happened, things just clicked and you know what, I've been doing O.K.''
No matter how self-deprecating Stipek may seem about his journey or his present situation, a smile sneaks upon his face when you ask him about his time left as a Spartan.
In the media guide, he's listed as a fifth-year senior but on the season's first depth chart, Stipek, who received a medical redshirt season in 2007 is listed as a junior. That means, that a career that probably would have ended at the close of this season is likely to be extended for one more.
"Technically, this would have been my senior year but I've already had a talk with a couple of the coaches in the summer on if (or) whether they would like me to stay another year or not.'' he said. "I would love to stay here for another year, because it's a privilege to be here at Michigan State and it's an honor to come out here everyday and play the greatest sport on earth. I believe they're planning on keeping me. So if they're going to keep me (that would be) wonderful. So far that's the plan.''
And what advice does Stipek offer his peers and those who will eventually follow him in East Lansing?
"It's college football and you've got to work hard. If you don't work hard, you're not going to make any results. So you always have to come in here with a positive attitude and working hard everyday or where is the progress going to be?'' he said. "Yes, I was a two-year captain at my high school and there was definitely some leadership there but like I said before, that's the past. If you're going to bring the leadership there, you've got to carry that here.
"This is the big time, the next level and the leadership back then, you're just dealing with high school kids, now you're dealing with adults. So when it came to moving and the transitions I made, I definitely just kept my mouth shut and worked hard."
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