HOLLAND, Mich. — He wanted to slip in quietly, like old times, but that was impossible.
Word was out — Kirk Cousins is in the building! — and before he found a vacant seat in Mark Hiskes' sixth-hour AP English class, Cousins already had signed a handful of autographs and smiled for students capturing his photo on their cell phones.
The attention was more than enough to certify his celebrity: Five years ago, in his senior year of high school, a strong-armed Cousins led Holland Christian to its first berth in the football state playoffs.
Now a fifth-year senior at Michigan State, he'll depart at season's end as the Spartans' winningest quarterback of all time.
Beginning in the seventh grade, after his family moved to west Michigan from Barrington, Ill., Cousins lived in a neighborhood across the street from Holland Christian. Although he had stopped by occasionally since graduation in 2007, his visits had been mostly cordial — saying hello to former teachers and coaches, maybe catching a football game when his schedule allowed.
This was more than that.
Cousins said it was his faith that guided him home to the Christian-based private school Oct. 7 — during MSU's bye week — following the Spartans' victory over Ohio State. That faith fueled his desire to be an "HC" student again, even if it was for only two class periods.
As Hiskes distributed his discussion sheets to the students, Cousins asked for one. When he saw they were reading Frederick Buechner's "Godric" — a narrative on the life of the medieval saint — Cousins exclaimed, "I love that book!"
When class was over, student and teacher embraced.
"I'm not sure why he was here, but a lot of him was grounded here," Hiskes said this week. "I think he was coming back to make sure of that, that he's the same Kirk to his core even though circumstances around him have changed."
Told of Hiskes' remark, Cousins smiled. This was Tuesday, and he was sitting in an empty and dark press box on the eighth floor of Spartan Stadium. Four floors below, MSU coach Mark Dantonio was holding his weekly news conference, answering questions about a 24-3 loss at Nebraska, which had followed the Spartans' thrilling 37-31 win over Wisconsin on Cousins' game-winning TD on a Hail Mary throw on the last play.
"Yes. It was sort of like a walk down memory lane for me," Cousins said of his journey back to high school. "But it was more of a chance to get back to what was familiar to me.
"I am somebody who lives a certain way, and I want to be able to truly stand up to that and live that way so people who do get to know me say, 'Everything I've read about him is true. It's not a facade. It's not a front. He's not fake. He's the real deal.'
"I hope to be the real deal."
Cousins smiles again, finishing his thought with a quick addendum, as if anticipating the next question.
"And I also want to be known as a great quarterback," he said. "That I was a great football player here — not just a nice guy, but for people to say, 'He made a lot of plays on the football field.'"
Thursday night, Cousins was scheduled to be the headliner at an event at MSU Auditorium that had been promoted aggressively on campus, including in a full-page advertisement earlier this week in the student newspaper, the State News.
As a member of a Christian group of college students called Cru — formerly called Campus Crusade for Christ International — Cousins said he allowed his name to be used in publicizing the event because he was asked to speak about his faith in Jesus Christ.
The slogan: "Do you agree with Kirk?"
"I was very supportive of it and wanted to step out and be as active as I can in my faith," Cousins, 23, said of the pre-event campus publicity. "I'm excited to be able to have that platform and hopefully have a lot of people who haven't heard about Jesus Christ before, or didn't grow up in the church, or didn't grow up with faith, to hear a little bit about it, and hopefully be stirred to pursue their faith a little further and to grow in it. We'll see what happens."
Cousins said faith is the guiding hand in life, including his decision five years ago to attend MSU even though he knew he wasn't Dantonio's top recruit when the coach replaced John L. Smith.
At the Big Ten media luncheon this summer in Chicago, Dantonio listened with pride as Cousins — the son of a minister — delivered the annual players speech with such conviction that it became the buzz of the Internet; it currently has nearly 150,000 views on YouTube. His message was how playing college football is a privilege that should never lead to entitlement.
"There's an adage, 'A leader sees farther than the normal person' — that's Kirk Cousins," Dantonio told the Free Press during an interview Tuesday at his office.
On the refrigerator of the Cousins' home in Holland, and in his apartment in East Lansing that he shares with his older brother, Kyle, and another roommate, is a handout that describes "21 rules" from Christian Life Workshops that he and his family — parents Don and MaryAnn, and siblings Kyle, 25, and Karalyne, 21 — adhere to.
No. 1: "We obey our Lord Jesus Christ." No. 12: "When we have work to do, we do it without complaining." No. 20: "When we go out, we act just as if we were in this house."
Cousins said that although he's not against attending parties or clubs, he avoids alcohol.
"I don't want to put anything in my body that may alter my ability to make a good decision," he said. "It's something I just don't need to have a good time."
For the first few years after graduating from high school, Cousins attended an annual Man Party held each spring outside Holland. The picnic included the school's male teachers and alumni playing games like Chicago-style softball (no gloves), fireworks wars and mud running in the soybean fields nearby.
The event was BYOM, as in, bring your own meat for grilling. There also were kegs — but they were filled with root beer, said Mike Dozeman, Cousins' close friend and fellow Holland Christian grad.
Cousins said he idolizes Tim Tebow, the second-year Denver Broncos quarterback and outspoken Christian who has become a flashpoint for detractors and admirers alike.
"I would love to meet him," Cousins said. "If I was mentioned in even the same sentence as Tim Tebow, that would be an honor. His character, his positive attitude, his leadership — he's the best."
Although Cousins has become more forthright about his convictions, he said he has never tried to push his beliefs on his teammates. He hosted about 15 at his apartment Monday night for Bible study.
"If you talk to my teammates, I think they would say I've been respectful and never been intruding or difficult," he said. "The guys on the team have been very receptive to me being outspoken about my faith. I've talked to some guys who believe there's not a God, and they're teammates of mine, and we agree to disagree on that and we move forward as teammates. I have a lot of respect for those guys, and I feel they're tremendous teammates."
Spartans senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham said: "People know that Kirk is very Christian-based. But he won't come up to you and be like, 'Do you know about the Lord?' or anything. If you want the Word, he'll give it to you. But if not, he's not going to bug you about it. It's not like he's pushing people."
The first pass that Cunningham ever caught from Cousins didn't count in the record book. This was their freshman year, first scrimmage, and Cunningham will never forget how Cousins came running up to him afterward, yelling, "B.J.! We're going to be doing that on Saturdays one day!"
Cunningham, the Spartans' all-time leader in receptions (187), has caught 16 touchdowns in his career — "All from Kirk," Cunningham said.
Cousins doesn't have to look at family photo albums to be reminded of the importance of football in his life.
The first center he ever lined up under was his father, who began hiking balls to him shortly after Kirk learned to walk. Don Cousins also helped coach him through high school.
When Kirk was severely burned in a kitchen accident by a pot of boiling water when he was around 18 months, his comfort items were a football and a book called "The Truck that Drove All Night."
"When he took his binky out and said, 'Plane! Plane!' looking out the window, we knew he'd be OK," said MaryAnn Cousins, his mother, who has been a flight attendant for more than 30 years.
Although he was also a standout in baseball and basketball, football was a sport that knew no season for Cousins. Even in the dead of winter, if older brother Kyle wasn't available, Kirk would beg little sister Karalyne to play outside in the snow with him.
"He'd say, 'I'll play on my knees and you can wear two pairs of snow pants and two coats,'" she remembered with a laugh.
This past season, Kyle Cousins — a former standout pitcher at Calvin College — has put his career plans on hold as he assists his brother during his final college season.
"On Saturday before the Wisconsin game, it's a night game, so we're sitting in our hotel room, and Kyle comes over with a meal that he knew I would like — sweet potatoes, pasta and salmon," Kirk Cousins said. "What's unique about him is there's been no jealousy, no lack of support. He comes to every game. He prays for me. He wants to help wherever he can.
"After that Wisconsin game, when I saw him, I gave him a hug and he had tears in his eyes because he was so happy for me. You can't have a better big brother than that."
Cousins, the only MSU quarterback to beat Michigan three straight times, has excelled in the classroom, too. The kinesiology major has a 3.68 grade-point average and has been honored nationally for his academic achievements, one of which will take him to New York in December to be recognized.
"In two months, we'll all go our separate ways as a group of seniors, and we've spent, essentially, every day together for five years," he said. "I don't think you fully appreciate that brotherhood until you're gone."
At the beginning of the season, when Cousins was asked to sum up his career at Michigan State, he said it was a challenge — in part because of the pressure he has put on himself.
"Sometimes it can be challenging to live life like that because you empty yourself one too many times," he said. "I keep reminding myself to enjoy the process, and not just the product at the end."2 comments on this story
When Cousins spoke to his mother on the phone last week, he told her his dream is to have a career in football beyond college.
"God has a plan in my life, and I hope that it includes football in the NFL," he said. "But if it doesn't, God's bigger than my plans."
Last month at Holland Christian, after class, Cousins was surprised and honored when Hiskes presented him with a collection of poetry. The book included a poem that the teacher had written called "What I'd tell Hamlet."
Asked how he inscribed it to his former student, Hiskes grabbed pen and paper.
"For Kirk, A great young man and an inspiration to me," he said.