Rondell Biggs waited. And waited. And waited.
He already had scholarship offers from Iowa and Michigan State. But Biggs was holding out until he heard from the school he desperately wanted to attend.
Biggs’s high school coach at Southfield-Lathrup High School in Southfield, Stephon Thompson, lobbied Michigan’s assistant coaches, pointing to Biggs’s grades, discipline and work ethic. Thompson said he was sure Biggs was a “Michigan kid.”
Finally, the call came from then-defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann. The Wolverines were ready to offer one of their last scholarships to Biggs.
Before the visit, Thompson sat Biggs down and told him to compose himself.
“I said to Rondell, Michigan is going to come in on you, but you can’t disrespect these folks (from other schools),” Thompson said. “He said, ‘Coach, thanks a lot, because if Michigan comes in, I might not be able to help myself.’ “
Despite Thompson’s warnings, Biggs stood up in a rush of excitement when Herrmann walked through the door wearing a leather jacket embroidered with Michigan’s famous block-‘M’. His coach told him to sit down, and Biggs complied.
But the mile-wide smile of a dream fulfilled remained stuck on Biggs’s face.
“I’ve never seen him smile like that,” Thompson said.
Immediately, Biggs made his decision. He broke the news to then-Michigan State coach Bobby Williams.
“He said ‘Coach Williams, I’m sorry, but I’ve wanted to go to Michigan all my life,’ ” Thompson said. “Williams said, ‘Good luck, and we’ll see you across the field.’ “
On Saturday, Biggs will line up across the field from Michigan State for the final time, as the Wolverines’ starting defensive end. But much like his drawn-out recruiting process, the fifth-year senior’s path to this point has not followed the typical road map. Setbacks and pitfalls littered the way, all conspiring to keep Biggs off Michigan Stadium’s turf. Through it all, Biggs has persevered, earning the right to take it to the Spartans one last time.
An “unnecessary” blow
It was the type of moment most people would want to shut out of their minds forever.
But a week after it happened, Biggs specifically requested a tape of it, to use for “motivation.”
The video clip, as Biggs describes it, goes something like this:
During the 2005 Michigan-Michigan State game, elusive Spartan quarterback Drew Stanton scrambles out of the pocket. From his defensive end position, Biggs chases Stanton. But 330-pound Spartan offensive tackle Stefon Wheeler cuts Biggs down at the knees. The horribly timed block seriously injures Biggs’s knee.
With or without the aid of video, the incident remains fresh in Biggs’s mind.
“I remember everything,” Biggs said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. . I planted my knee, and he caught me right at the right time.”
The block – which Biggs called “unnecessary” – came at precisely the worst moment for Biggs. During the early part of 2005, Biggs had been playing the best football of his collegiate career, and earning more and more playing time. But because of Wheeler’s hit, Biggs was forced to rehab his knee instead of chasing down quarterbacks.
“He was coming into his own last year,” Thompson said. “He was starting to get good playing time. It just really hurt him in that State game. When he got tweaked, I was like, ‘Aw man, that’s too bad.’ I thought he was really coming around.”
Although Biggs returned to action later in the season, the injury took its toll. Biggs underestimated its seriousness and attempted to come back before he was fully recovered. As a result, he wasn’t nearly as effective as he was prior to the Michigan State game.
For Biggs, the rehabilitation process was long, painful and frustrating. But the experience taught him a lesson – a lesson he’s reminded of every time he pops in the tape of that fateful game in East Lansing.
“It was hard,” Biggs said. “But I learned a lot from it – you’re not promised anything. Nothing is promised. For me to get injured, it kinda made me work harder. It made me take advantage, go out and play hard. You can’t take this for granted.”
High school highs . and lows
Growing up, football wasn’t even on Biggs’s radar. He saw himself as a basketball player, through and through.
But by the time he reached high school, he began growing out instead of up, which didn’t bode well for his future on the hardwood. So, in ninth grade at Southfield-Lathrup, Biggs decided to put on the pads for the first time. The experience was underwhelming, to say the least. The Chargers went 0-9, and Biggs decided he’d played enough football for a lifetime.
“I wasn’t having fun,” Biggs said. “We lost every game. I just thought football wasn’t my thing, so I quit.”
The stage was set for Thompson – who didn’t coach Biggs during his freshman year – to enter Biggs’s life. Ironically, the pivotal meeting occurred on a basketball court, where Thompson laid out the realities of Biggs’s situation.
“I said, ‘Be honest, are you 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7? Are you breaking the rim down?’ ” Thompson said. “Rondell’s a very intelligent young man. I said, ‘Think about opportunities football will provide you versus basketball. I’m not your father, I’m not your minister, but I’m a guy who sees talent in football.’
“I told him, ‘I don’t want you to feel pressure. When you come out on the field, I want you to come out with a goal in mind, to pay for the next four years of college. You won’t do it in basketball.’ ”
Biggs listened, and he decided to give football one more chance.
“He came back, and he said, ‘Coach, I don’t know if it’s for me, but I’ll give it a try,’ ” Thompson said.
Thompson’s instincts were right – Biggs was a natural. Biggs picked up in days skills that others took weeks to learn. Under Thompson’s tutelage, Biggs quickly developed into a star, helping Southfield-Lathrup earn its first-ever playoff berth.
By his senior year, Biggs had become one of the top defenders in the state of Michigan. But because of his late introduction to the game, he didn’t go to any prestigious football camps and flew under the national recruiting radar.
What separated Biggs from the pack – and eventually piqued Michigan’s interest – was his innate ability to get to the football.
“We used to laugh because he got by people with the greatest of ease,” Thompson said. “The game was about getting to the ball for him. He didn’t even want to play offense. He just wanted to hit people.”
Being offered a scholarship at Michigan was a dream for Biggs, but his first two years on campus were downright nightmarish. Off the field, Biggs struggled with his new surroundings. Even though Southfield lies just 40 miles northeast of Ann Arbor, Biggs felt homesick. And he had trouble adjusting to Michigan’s academic load.
“Everything came at me real fast,” Biggs said. “And I had to grow up real fast.”
On the football field, Biggs’s early experiences mirrored his other struggles. Still too small to compete against Big Ten offensive linemen, Biggs spent the vast majority of his underclassman years riding the bench.
Biggs’s troubles came to a head when Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called the disgruntled defensive lineman into his office and offered him transfer papers. Carr’s message to Biggs came through loud and clear: Shape up or ship out.
Biggs chose the former, hitting the books and weight room with a newfound determination. Before long, Biggs began growing into the hard-nosed, ballhawk defensive end that Thompson had envisioned years before when he approached Biggs on the basketball court. During 2004, his redshirt sophomore year, Biggs found his way onto the field for all but one game. He even picked up two tackles in Michigan’s tightly contested Rose Bowl matchup with Texas.
“It was just a gradual process,” Biggs said. “I had run-ins with the coaches. Anything bad that could have happened probably happened to me. But I worked hard, I changed my attitude and things changed for the good.”
Carr agreed, noting how much Biggs has grown – literally and figuratively – since his arrival in Ann Arbor four-plus years ago.
“His first two years here, he really struggled, because he hadn’t gotten big enough,” Carr said. “He wasn’t strong enough to compete against the offensive lineman. But he persevered. He’s a resilient guy. He just kept working.”
Reaping the rewards
In many respects, Biggs’s fifth year in maize and blue has brought his football career full circle.
The guy who quit football in ninth grade now cherishes every down he plays.
The guy who struggled academically at Michigan is on track to graduate in December.
The guy who was a late recruit and an undersized third-stringer is now starting for one of the best defenses in the nation.
And on Saturday, Biggs will close yet another circle. The guy who was aggressively recruited – and later injured – by Michigan State will get one last chance to battle the Wolverines’ intrastate rival.
The Spartans can’t take a motivated and healthy Biggs lightly. In five games this season, Biggs has started every contest and has already set career highs in tackles (10), tackles for loss (five) and sacks (three, second best on the team).
But even if Michigan State initially shuts Biggs down on Saturday, keep your eye on No. 91. After nine years of trial, tribulation and ultimately redemption on the football field, Biggs knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.
Put simply, there’s nothing the Spartans – or any other team, for that matter – can throw at Biggs that he hasn’t seen and overcome already.