In this age of social media you would think Kyler Elsworth and Nay Thornhill would have talked by now.
Elsworth is the Michigan State’s Rose Bowl Defensive MVP from the 2013 the New Year’s Day win over Stanford in Pasadena. Nay is the younger brother of the late Charlie “Mad Dog” Thornhill, an All-Big Ten linebacker and Spartans legend from the 1965-66 Michigan State Big Ten and national championship teams.
You may remember a couple weeks after the Rose Bowl Lansing State Journal’s Graham Crouch wrote an excellent story that appeared in his paper the Detroit Free Press. The article detailed how Elsworth soaring tackle reminded so many people of “Mad Dog” and his ability to fly over the line for the Spartans as well as his days at all-black Addison High in then-segregated Roanoke, Va.
Nay said his phone blew up with messages from Michigan State and Roanoke friends.
“I still have them; I didn’t delete them,” Nay said. “One of my old friends from Roanoke, Lou Brown, texted me, ‘I’ve only seen one other guy make that kind of play.’ ”
Nay mentioned Sherman Lewis, Clint Jones, Gene Washington, Jimmy Raye, Ernie Pasteur and other former Spartans who attended the Rose Bowl said they saw the same Thornhill flight in the play.
“To this day, I have wanted to tell Mr. Elsworth what he did and how my family and I felt about it,” Nay said. “That play touched us. That was something spiritual.”
Nay, 64, considered Charlie not only a great athlete, but a father figure; their father died when Nay was 1.
“I followed him everywhere,” he said, including to Lansing in 1968. “No one was allowed on the team bus when he played in high school, but the coach let me on. I carried Charlie’s shoes for him.”
Social media didn’t result in a connection – no doubt because social media has an attention span of minutes. It took some old-fashioned personal connections of one person knowing another and passing on the word. That’s the way the world used to work.
I met Nay when Jimmy Raye and I presented a book discussion and signing recently at the Historical Society of Greater Lansing for our book, “Raye of Light.” Nay attended the event. Also attending was a Michigan State friend of mine from our days living at Wonders Hall, Chris Iden.
Chris introduced himself to Nay since his daughter, Nathalie, had formerly worked with Nay at the State Capitol. They began talking about Elsworth since Chris’ daughter attended Goodrich High with Kyler.
Nay mentioned he was still hoping to speak with Elsworth to some day thank him. Chris did what he could to exchange contact information. Chris’ effort intrigued me enough to think Michigan State fans would appreciate an update on Elsworth.
I made a phone call to the Montreal Alouettes, where Elsworth is on the practice squad. It turns out the Alouettes’ general manager is Jim Popp, a former Michigan State player from the 1980s.
Popp had the weight to cut through the filters that shield pro athletes and arrange an exchange of phone numbers for Kyler and Nay to finally meet on the phone. Kyler tried to call Nay Wednesday night, but Nay had to work at the State Capitol that night.
“I was too tired by the time I got home and went to be,” Nay said, but we’ll talk.”
Popp – as a former Michigan State letterman whom former head coach George Perles signed in his first recruiting class in 1983 -- knew Elsworth’s history as a Spartans fan. He considered Ellsworth an Allouetes’ prospect before his Rose Bowl performance and wanted to bring him to camp.
But Elsworth and his agent wanted to see what developed with the NFL. Once the NFL draft concludes, teams scramble to sign free agent prospects or invited them to mini-camps.
Washington invited Elsworth to its mini-camp and he worked out as a fullback. He was told to wait for a phone call. When two weeks with no phone call became three to four weeks, he took up the Alouettes on their offer.
At the time, Montreal was winding down the preseason – the regular season runs from mid-June to early August -- and making final cuts to its rosters. But Popp still valued Elsworth’s potential and placed him on the practice squad.
“It’s another process and another uphill battle,” Elsworth said. “It’s like being a freshman coming into college again. It’s a new experience – and some of these guys have been here for a while and have the advantage.”
Popp follows Michigan State enough to know about his first big play when he blocked punt for a touchdown that helped beat Wisconsin in 2011.
“I’m a true Spartan and follow the team,” Popp said. “I looked at him and wondered how good he could be here. He didn’t get to play much because of the guy he was behind, but I felt he was worth giving a chance.
“You never know what I guy can do until you have him. He has fit in well here and we’re confident of what he’s capable of doing based on what we’ve seen. It may not be this year, but we like him.”
The “guy” Popp referred to – as all Michigan State fans know – was four-year starting middle linebacker and All-Big Ten pick Max Bullough. Now, Elsworth’s path to playing time is blocked blocked by one of the best middle linebackers in the CFL. Montreal’s Bear Woods is having one of his best seasons and was recently named the CFL Defensive Player of the Month. He’s a third-year player from Troy.
In addition to proving yourself as a player, another factor for American players making a CFL roster is a numbers game that counts Canadians and international players. There must be 22 Canadians on the 42-man game-day roster (11 fewer than an NFL game-day roster) and seven Canadian starters.
“It’s a lot like being a freshman in college,” Elsworth said. “I have to prove myself to my teammates and coaches I’m worthy of being on the field.”
Elsworth, who only turned 23 in August, is focused on the CFL but the NFL remains in his thoughts.
“Football is football,” Elsworth said. “If I can start playing here, I’ll have some film for the NFL. Who knows? Maybe I’ll give it another shot. It would be fantastic to play in the NFL, but I’m still living the dream here. It’s a nice city – although I’m not a big-city guy – and it’s been a good experience here.”
There is another Michigan State alum that Popp signed to Montreal’s roster -- starting cornerback Mitchell White. He said Michigan State defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett tipped him off to White.
“Harlon was a teammate of mine at Michigan State and he felt he should have had a shot at the NFL, but he didn’t have a lot of playing time,” Popp said. “He was behind Darqueze Denard. He was outstanding at our training camp, but he got hurt and missed the first six games. He’s starting now and having a good rookie season.”