Gardiner is a great kid and football player and is in the fight for playing time in 2011. Photo courtesy of MSU SID.

Spartan Linebacker Steve Gardiner is Already A Star

The long red hair that hangs underneath the Spartan helmet that you see flying around and making plays doesn’t tell the story.  The bulging muscles that look more like granite than human flesh, don’t tell the story.  To understand what makes MSU linebacker Steve Gardiner special you have to go beyond what you can see, and look at his heart.

If he didn’t look like a freak of nature with muscles on his body in places most of us don’t even know we have, you would never know Gardiner was a division one football player.  He rarely speaks, but when he does people listen.  If you were to meet him off the field his gentle nature and compassionate heart would make you think he was more a meek missionary and not a bruiser whose film on the field tells us a different story.

Steve Gardiner is a tale of two people.  When he crosses the white line in practice or in games he simply makes plays.  “The way I was brought up.  My coaches in high school and middle school and my parents they pushed me to have fun and play my hardest.  You make a mistake, and hustle can make up for it.”

If you ask around the program, this burgeoning star is well liked, respected, and frankly, needed.  After turning peoples’ heads last year in the spring game making play after play, Mark Dantonio said to me when speaking of Gardiner, “Steve is a very special athlete, person and player.  He has very big things ahead of him in his Spartan career.”

On signing day in 2008, Mark Dantonio said that Gardiner “Plays a lot like A.J. Hawk.”  For those that don’t know who Hawk is, he was a star LB at Ohio State and is now a star in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers.  Dantonio is not one who will waste words of praise that aren’t earned and that statement certainly made several people pay attention, including Gardiner who is from Ohio and knows how great of a player Hawk is.

Gardiner told me what he thought of Dantonio’s praise on signing day. “It was a humbling thing for him to say.  I was never a big OSU fan, but it was definitely humbling.  He always played hard and was a gym rat and that is how I try to be.”

Gardiner fought through the adversity of injury his first two years on campus, but even reflecting back, the mild mannered young man can find a silver lining.  “It is frustrating, but I was also red shirted and everything happens for a reason.  I have a chance to fight for a starting spot and I have two years left.  It was a blessing in disguise.  Being hurt is never a good thing but it has worked out for me.  I got to learn the defense and what they want.”

So what does Gardiner feel he has to do to win the starter’s job this spring and summer?  “I have to prove I can make plays on a consistent basis.  I have made plays in the past, but I have to make them consistently.  Every minute and every play.  Stay focused to keep that in focus.”

For Gardiner his intensity on the field is fun to watch.  Whether it is drills in a practice, special teams, or on the field as a linebacker.  He said of the way he plays and how it differs from his nature off of it, “Off the field I try to be nice and respectable, but football is an intense game.  You have to play that way.  There is definitely a change you have to go through from off the field to practice and games.”

For Gardiner though, as much as he enjoys the game and plays it with passion, his roots are far from it.  He lives in East Lansing now, but his heart still rests in Dublin, OH.  Not the place, but where his family resides.  It is his family that Gardiner finds his strength and his joy and his motivation.

Gardiner speaks with a refreshing reverence not seen often among young men his age when he talks about his family.  “I am one of three boys.  They love us very much.  They show how much they love me with support and encouragement.” 

In 2008 when Gardiner was new on campus, he said of the opportunity to play college football, “It is a blessing to be able to play a game and get a free education.  The thought that my parents don’t have to pay for school for me makes me feel glad to not be a burden to them.  They have given me so much.”

For Bob and Susan Gardiner they see things as you can imagine a little bit differently.  I spoke to them from their home in Dublin and Susan said of her son’s thoughtfulness, “That makes me proud and appreciative that he would consider that.  Not just thinking about himself.  His education is so important and he understands that and what that means to us.  I appreciate him thinking of us.”  Bob mirrors the sentiments of his wife by saying, “That makes you proud.  For all of his upbringing and experiences he’s learned from it and he has a respect and bigger picture of family and not just himself.  I was prepared to pay for all of our boys and he was aware of it.  It makes us proud, but his ability to take care of his own schooling makes him proud and that is special.  Life is bigger than football and Steve has always understood that.”

It doesn’t take long talking with Gardiner’s parents to understand where the humility comes from.  Bob is quick to heap the praise on Susan for the young man his son is off the field.  “Susan did a terrific job with all three of our sons. Steve’s off field demeanor comes from his relationship with Susan.  I would give Susan the credit for the off field.”  Susan quickly adds while laughing, “He got his red hair from me, but his athletic ability and the way he is as a man comes from his father.  His father is a good man.”  Talking to them and knowing their son brings to mind salt of the earth when you think of this family.

Bob told me a story as an afterthought to our interview.  He was reflecting on when Steve came up to MSU on his official visit.  “He got to meet Coach Izzo in his office for a little while.  Steve wanted a signed picture of Coach Izzo and the team.  I am sure they thought it was for Steve, but it wasn’t.  He has a very special friend named Matt Storey.  It was for Matt who is the manager of his high school team who is mentally challenged.  When Matt comes to games, Steve looks for him and he looks for Steve.  Steve wanted to take that away from his time with Izzo because he knew how big of a fan he was of MSU and Coach Izzo.  Here he was on his visit.  On his time and even in a moment when most would feel overwhelmed he was thinking of others.  That was a pretty prideful moment.”

 Bob said that in second grade his son made it clear he wanted to hit people, but Susan tells a story that truly was a harbinger of her son’s athletic ability.  “It was in a junior football league in third grade.  The coach asked each player why do you want to play?  Steve wrote down I love to hit people.  That coach came back to us and said so many kids that age don’t want that contact.  Steve, I guess, even at that age wanted that contact and wanted to hit people in the football sense.”

For the entire Gardiner family they have embraced the Spartan Nation and are firmly entrenched in it.  For Bob the chance for his son to play for someone like Mark Dantonio means a lot.  He told me, “Since Steve has gone there, we have becomes friends with some of his (Mark Dantonio’s) old neighbors.  They said he was a great neighbor and friend.  When he was making his choice he pledged to us to do his best for our son.  He was believable and has been that.  He has the entire football competency, but he also has the character and leadership qualities we wanted.  Steve no doubt will be a better man for being around a man of that character.”

Susan shares her husband’s admiration for the coach.  “I see him as a great leader, a good man with high standards.  He is a great football leader and teacher.  Mark Dantonio truly cares about the players as individuals and wants what is best.  He seems to be a great example of a man and coach.”

For Gardiner his road hasn’t been easy, but he has no regrets.  Entering his junior season, he has competition all around him for playing time and to him he wouldn’t want it any other way.  He trusts his work ethic and the roots buried in an upbringing of firm midwestern values.   While others talk about playing time, Gardiner is simply proud to be a Spartan.  “I can’t picture being anywhere else.  I have a whole new family up here.  Really, to me the whole journey has taken a new chapter this year and I can only imagine it getting better.”

No one knows who the starter will be this year at linebacker.  What I do know is that whether is he a starter or not, thanks to his family and his character, Steve Gardiner is already a star.  Former Spartan LB Jon Misch said it best when reflecting on Gardiner, “He’s a great kid.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

This article is reprinted from the March Issue of Spartan Nation Magazine.