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Thursday, February 2, 2023

One special day at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing


With a quick flick of Michigan State freshman cornerback Charles Brantley’s right wrist, almost eight months of pent up emotion came out.

In that one singular moment – Brantley’s interception – a repeated shake of my shoulders and a pair of hugs between a son and his parents immediately followed.

Nearly eight months have come and gone since Chris Lee, an Army veteran and my first really close friend from childhood, passed away.

As his father, Mark, shook me from behind before he and Kathy each shared a heartfelt hug with their son Johnny, it finally felt okay to exhale.

While Michigan State was in victory formation to finish its 37-33 victory over Michigan on Saturday, I looked up to the sky and just smiled.

A single tear rolling down my right cheek was my way to say thank you to someone I had known for nearly my entire life.

The Lees are green and white through and through.

Mark, Kathy and Johnny all went there. Mark wrestled and Johnny played baseball. And Chris was the biggest Spartan fan of them all.

Chris helped usher me into their Michigan State family when I made the decision to go there after graduating from Naperville Central in 2001.

There’s no family I’d rather go to war with when it comes to the green and white.

Four former Naperville Central teammates – Payton Thorne, Jayden Reed, Cade McDonald (Michigan State) and Danny Hughes (Michigan) – were opposite one another at Spartan Stadium.

I had the pleasure to cover all four of them in my last few years as the lead prep guy for the Naperville Sun.

Much has been made about the connection Thorne and Reed – friends since middle school and teammates at both Metea Valley and Naperville Central – have.

And that connection was on full display during two crucial plays as the Spartans began clawing their way out of a 30-14 deficit.

On a fourth down late in the third quarter, Thorne found Reed down the sideline for 28 yards, getting the Spartans to the Wolverines’ 1-yard line.

One play later, Kenneth Walker III found pay dirt for his third of five touchdowns and the ensuing two-point conversion got Michigan State within eight points.

“Call came in, I loved it, I knew we had a matchup there,” Thorne told the media about the fourth-down pass to Reed after the game. “Thankfully, they rolled coverage, and I think they played straight man.

“I have confidence that he is going to win that every time (Reed) runs it, no matter who plays him. It felt good coming out of my hand, I was watching and praying that he would come down with it, and he made a good play.”

After forcing the Wolverines to punt on the next possession and getting the ball back, Thorne and Reed were at it again.

Walker III, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, had just run for a 58-yard TD – his fourth touchdown of the game – with 12:29 left in regulation.

Reed made an unbelievable catch in the corner of the end zone to convert the two-point play and tie things up at 30-30.

He had six catches for 80 yards on Saturday and has 33 receptions for 642 yards and five TDs on the season.

In a conversation with me back in August, Reed said he had Oct. 30 circled on his calendar for good reason.

“This one means a ton,” Reed told the assembled media after the game. “It’s bigger than the team. Alumni, fans, everybody in Spartan Nation, this one means a lot. We take pride in this game and every year we take pride in it. We work as hard as we can to come out on top.”

Thorne didn’t have his sharpest game of the season on Saturday, but he was on point and target when he had to be.

He’s been the steady influence offensive coordinator Jay Johnson has needed.

Thorne has thrown for 1,897 yards and 15 touchdowns entering the Spartans’ trip to Purdue this weekend.

The son and grandson of a coach, Thorne’s football bloodlines aren’t discounted in the slightest.

And the emotion of being able to share that type of moment with someone he’s known for a long time was evident.

“This is what I’ve dreamed of my whole life, to play in a game like this,” Thorne said afterwards. “And to do it with my lifelong friend like that, what more can you ask?”

That’s how I feel when it comes to the Lee family.

While tailgating before the game, Kathy was relaying a story of how long we’ve known each other.

Born six days apart and close neighbors for a long time, we met while out for a stroll in the neighborhood as three-year olds.

Mark told me something in the parking lot after the game that left me at a loss for words.

If there was anyone to take Chris’ place for the game that means the most to our university, they wanted me to be there.

Mark said my name came up immediately when he set aside two tickets for Johnny a couple weeks ago.

Nobody can replace Chris, but I’m honored and privileged to know they think of me in that way because I feel the same way.

Chris was a Redhawk wide receiver for two years (1999 and 2000) and was on the Redhawks’ 1999 Class 6A state title-winning team.

The last high school game he played in was on Nov. 11, 2000 in a Class 6A state quarterfinal against Naperville North.

Naperville Central had won 25 games in a row coming into that game and was considered by many people a heavy favorite to repeat.

Alas, Huskies’ quarterback Jay McCareins had different plans in mind as he helped engineer a 36-33 upset.

Chris is buried not very far from Memorial Stadium and you’re almost in a direct line across the street from the scoreboard when standing at his gravesite.

Last Friday marked the first postseason meeting between the two crosstown rivals since that Veterans Day meeting 21 years ago.

Naperville Central went on the road and beat Naperville North, 28-16.

No one will be able to convince me otherwise that the events that transpired in Naperville and East Lansing last weekend didn’t have Chris’ fingerprints on them.

It was fate. And that’s my faith talking.

Last Saturday in East Lansing was emotional and bittersweet and therapy I needed as I continue to process Chris’ absence.

My cerebral palsy doesn’t allow me to drive, so my ability to get back to campus is limited.

Saturday was just the fifth time I’ve been back up there since my graduation in 2005 and my first visit since Sept. 2015 when Oregon was in town.

On the car ride back home with Johnny, several texts went out from my iPhone – mostly ones of thanks and appreciation.

Thank you texts went out to Payton, Jayden, Cade and Spartans’ wide receivers coach Courtney Hawkins.

Thank you texts went out to both Mark and Kathy and a thank you went Johnny’s way as I exited the car at 11PM.

It was a day I won’t soon forget – for all the right reasons.

Blake Baumgartner
Blake Baumgartner
Raised in Naperville, Blake Baumgartner is a 2001 Naperville Central alumnus and a 2005 graduate of Michigan State's School of Journalism. Since March 2010, he has covered football, boys' basketball and baseball for both The Naperville Sun and Positively Naperville. Follow him on Twitter @BFBaumgartner.