EAST LANSING — Jon Misch is not quite what you’d expect.
Think about Big Ten linebackers, and you’re probably picturing a wild man like Dick Butkus or Chris Spielman, or a physical specimen like LaVar Arrington or even Misch’s current Michigan State teammate, Greg Jones.
Not someone who probably had to slip the sports information staff $5 to generously list him at 207 pounds on the roster.
And certainly not someone seated at a piano bench.
Shoot, quarterbacks around here can’t even get away with playing the piano without having their toughness questioned.
Some things aren’t quite what they appear, though, and Misch is perfect proof of that.
Told he’d never get anywhere with football, the Waterford native and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s grad did the unexpected and earned himself a Division I scholarship. Afraid to even practice when he got to MSU, he did the unexpected, and not only lasted until his fifth year, but made himself into a rotation player in the deepest position on the squad, and a vocal leader, to boot.
And just when you think you’ve got him pigeonholed, Misch goes and pulls something else unexpected, like he did in the talent contest in the buildup to the 2007 Champ Sports Bowl.
At the time a redshirt freshman with a broken right foot, Misch limped on stage, unstrapped his orthopedic boot and knocked out a rendition of a Chopin melody that brought down the house.
“It was fun to be able to play for them. It was kind of funny, because as soon as I got done, every single player was like, ‘I didn’t know you played piano,’ ” remembered Misch, noting the jaws that dropped around the room. “I’m not sure if it’s the talent that I have on the piano, or the fact that they see me sitting still, and that amazes them more.”
He amazed members of his own family by sticking with football, despite a build in high school that would generously be termed “slight” as a 195-pound defensive end.
“If anybody ever tells you that you cannot do something, take it as a challenge, because my junior year of high school, my dad told me that I should stop playing football, because I wasn’t going anywhere with it,” Misch said. “I took that as a challenge. I worked as hard as I could to be able do something the next year, and now I’m playing Big Ten football, and I’m living a dream.”
Don’t think that means his Spartan career started out with a bang. It took him a while to get comfortable.
Misch redshirted in 2006, then played in all 12 regular-season games — including two starts — in 2007 before breaking his foot, which cost him that year’s bowl game, as well as the first six games of the 2008 season. Since then, he’s played in 20 straight games, starting two.
And just when he’s comfortable enough in his own role — as a backup at all three of the linebacker positions — that he can help the youngsters along, his career is beginning to wind down.
“Something my mom (Lori) has been really trying to remind me to do is always remember that this is the last season I’m ever going to have, so every summer workout, when I’d call her, and say ‘I’m exhausted. I can’t believe I’m doing this right now,’ she’d always be like, ‘Well, enjoy it, because it’s the last one that you’ve got,’ ” Misch said. “I look back at the past two years that I’ve been here and I remember coming in as a freshman, and being so scared to even go out and practice that I’d be like hiding behind people. Now, I’m just dying to get out there and practice as much as I can.”
As one of the unit’s vocal leaders, the once-shy Misch has no problem taking one of the younger linebackers aside during practices, to explain an assignment, or help instill the proper work ethic.
“We have a good mix of seniors in the linebacker room, because Greg Jones leads by example. People can watch Greg and say, ‘OK, I want to do it like that.’ And then Jon Misch and Eric Gordon are guys who are willing to say, ‘Hey, we’re going in to watch more film.’ ‘Hey, we’re going to put in extra time after practice just as linebackers,’ ” Spartan linebackers coach Mike Tressel said. “So we have a good mix here. It’s like, ‘Hey, watch the film. Look at (No.) 53 (Jones). Look at that motor, and see if you can replicate that.’ And then you also got the guys who are actually yanking them by the jerseys, and saying, ‘This is what we need to do off the field to get better.’ You hope that combination can help us.”
The Spartans have recruited increasingly well at linebacker over the past few years, and those incoming freshmen and redshirt freshmen have already impressed the coaching staff and their elder teammates.
“I’ve seen a lot of intensity, a lot of will to learn, and really athleticism across the board in our freshman class. We’ve got a lot of great players, just from watching them work out, you can tell they’re going to be amazing,” Misch said. “Not only are they ready to play, they want to play, like right now, so I think we’re going to have a lot of competition from them, and I’m really excited to be able to see what they can do.”
Those freshmen still have a long way to go to be as amazing on the field as players like the all-world Jones, but if they get there, it won’t be unexpected.
At least not in the Jon Misch sense of the term.
Matthew B. Mowery covers colleges for The Oakland Press. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @matthewbmowery.