Mark Dantonio wanted his team to vote again. The Michigan State football coach hadn’t decided on his starting quarterback, and yet one of the candidates, Kirk Cousins, was voted team captain for the 2009 season. A sophomore hadn’t been voted captain at Michigan State since 1949.
“I thought that was unusual,” Dantonio said.
So he reconfigured the voting system, giving more weight to votes from older players. But a wide smile followed by genuine words paved the way for Cousins’ first upset victory.
“He was captain again,” Dantonio said.
Unexpected wins, unexpected touchdowns and unexpected talents decorate the journey of a scrawny kid from the small town of Holland, Mich., to Minnesota as the NFL’s highest-paid player.
Cousins, the son of a pastor and flight attendant, grew up as the second of three children in a home grounded by Christian faith, academics and athletics. Perhaps in that order of importance, too. That’s why Cousins’ parents chose Holland Christian High School when relocating from the Chicago area while Kirk was in middle school.
Holland Christian’s football program launched only a few years before Cousins’ arrival, so few college teams paid Cousins any attention before he took the Maroons to their first state playoff game (which they won) as a senior in 2006. Then came the waiting to become Michigan State’s starter. Then he was drafted 100 picks behind Robert Griffin III — by the same Washington Redskins team.
This moment for Cousins, who turns 30 in August, has been a long time coming.
“One of the other things I liked about him is that he was a guy that always had to prove himself,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He bet on himself several times and won, and those things are really important to me. He’s always played with a chip on his shoulder.”
A betting man
Before Cousins signed a record-setting, guaranteed $84 million contract with the Vikings on Thursday morning, he received a text message from an old friend and mentor.
“Hey, enjoy the day,” the message read. “This is what you’ve been working for.”
Mike Ott would know. Cousins’ former Holland Christian baseball coach, and the current Kalamazoo College coach, recalled the time he approached Cousins about pursuing college baseball. Cousins, then a junior gap hitter practicing in the batting cages, made it a quick conversation.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Nope,’ ” Ott said. “ ‘I want to play Division I football, and that’s what I’m going to go after.’ He’s been pretty locked in to this goal the entire time I’ve known him. So it’s not really crazy it’s actually coming true.”
Tim Lont, then Holland Christian’s football coach, tried to talk Cousins into pursuing his backup plan — medical school — at Lont’s alma mater, Hope College in Holland.
That conversation, too, was short.
“His words were, ‘Coach, I just want to play at the highest level possible,’ ” Lont said. “ ‘I want to give it a shot, so I can never look back with any regrets.’ That’s really how he ended up at Michigan State.”
Problem was, few college programs focused on him. Cousins broke his foot during his junior season, which capped interest. He had just a handful of offers from Mid-American Conference schools such as Toledo and Western Michigan. Then came a turn of fate.
A Spartans quarterback commit, Keith Nichol, changed his mind in the spring of 2006 and chose Oklahoma. That left the newly hired Dantonio with an open scholarship right before Signing Day. Cousins, who held off committing while trying to get a Division I offer, received a phone call.
“Each time he’s bet on himself, it’s paid off,” Ott said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
While Nichol did eventually play at Michigan State, it was Cousins who became a three-year captain and won 27 games as starter. He still wasn’t highly regarded in the 2012 NFL draft, slipping to the fourth round. The Redskins didn’t turn to Cousins until his fourth NFL season in 2015, making him the starter they strung along for three years.
Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, didn’t budge on the goal of a three-year, fully guaranteed deal and turned down lower offers from Washington’s front office. They were confident Cousins could capitalize on the back-to-back franchise tags used by the Redskins to keep him one season at a time. He responded by annually throwing for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“On one hand, this process has moved quickly this week,” Cousins said during his introductory Vikings news conference. “On the other hand, it’s been a 2½-year process. Patience was certainly needed throughout.”
A competitive edge in Cousins existed long before he led Washington to the biggest comeback in franchise history in 2015.
Cousins helped rally the Redkins from a 24-0 deficit to beat Tampa Bay 31-30. On his way to the locker room afterward, he walked by reporters shouting, “You like that?! You like that?!”
It became a rallying cry for the team that season and forever an Internet meme.
Kyle Schonewill saw that passion firsthand a decade ago. A former Holland Christian wide receiver, Schonewill ran a post route and leapt for a pass from his best friend.
“Had to make a kind of a circus catch to get it,” Schonewill recalled. “The guy hit me and I dropped it. It flung up in the air and it landed on my body and I caught it again.”
His teammates, except for one, were thrilled.
“Everyone on our team was freaking out — ‘Awesome!’ ” Schonewill said. “And I get back to the huddle and [Cousins] says, ‘Hey, next time, catch it the first time.’ That’s how you know he’s not joking around here.”
As a high school quarterback, Cousins would get “incredibly intense” once the switch flipped from 4.0 student and choir singer to quarterback, according to Schonewill.
“You don’t want to get in his way,” Lont said. “Because he likes to win. If it’s not a good situation, he’s ornery. You have to have that as a competitor.”
Cousins was equally driven as a student. He retook the ACT after falling a couple of points short of his goal — a 32 — on the first go-round. Problem was, the retake was scheduled right before Cousins needed to play third base in the Michigan baseball regional tournament.
“He missed all the pregame stuff and came flying out of the ACT in full uniform to play the two games,” Ott said. “We won both games for the school’s first regional title.”
And Cousins got his 32.
Cousins still remains close with friends and mentors from high school. He’ll visit Schonewill this offseason in Nashville, where the two are likely to fool around in the recording studio.
Schonewill is a professional musician for the band Midnight Pilot. Cousins decompresses in the offseason by voicing covers of bands like Switchfoot, Coldplay and Blink-182.
“It’s just for fun. No one has ever heard them, so you’ll never hear it,” Schonewill said. “But it’s not bad.”
Cousins brought Schonewill to Minnesota during Super Bowl week, when he was about to become the league’s most coveted free agent. They rented a car and crept around the Vikings’ old facility in Eden Prairie and the nearly completed new headquarters in Eagan. They couldn’t go inside or talk with any Vikings officials without violating NFL rules, but they were scouting what felt like home.
“We both loved the Midwest vibe, obviously both being from Michigan and Chicago,” Schonewill said.
Cousins is also never far from family.
His parents, Don and MaryAnn, have had a profound impact on his life. Don coached Kirk on Lont’s Holland Christian staff. Kirk and his wife, Julie, live with his parents in Florida during part of the offseason. One of the cars he drives is the 2000 GMC Savanna passenger van he bought from his grandmother for $5,000.
A big part of him will always remain in East Lansing, Mich., too. Cousins still visits once or twice a year, Dantonio said, and he’s again been requested to speak to the team this spring if his schedule permits. Cousins already has made popular speeches, including one at the 2011 Big Ten Luncheon kickoff and an emotional one during the 2014 Rose Bowl pep rally. He had been chosen as honorary captain by Dantonio because “he had so much to do with the building of this program,” which included the coach’s first double-digit win seasons at Michigan State.
Cousins penned the 1,300-word speech on behalf of Big Ten football players before reciting it to a crowd.
“I like to prepare,” Cousins said after signing with the Vikings.
Sometimes the preparation comes naturally. In the 2013 book Cousins authored, “Game Changer,” he describes his father gathering the family to read Bible scripture before the Spartans’ season finale against the Penn State Nittany Lions. A Big Ten title was on the line. Don Cousins brought up Psalm 91. The family chuckled at the passage “you will trample the great lion.”
A few days later after warmups at Penn State, Dantonio called the team together and asked if anyone knew what Psalm 91 says.
“I think he was shocked I knew the answer,” Cousins wrote. “You could have heard a pin drop in that moment.”
A pin drop likely could’ve been heard again in State College when Cousins and the Spartans left with a Big Ten title.
“The guy’s just on top of it,” Dantonio said.