One Year Later We Still Celebrate the Life of a Legend: Brad Van Pelt.

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Celebrating the Life of a Legend

 By Daryl Flanagan

Van Pelt is gone, but not ever forgotten.  Photo courtesy of the MSU SID.

Van Pelt is gone, but not ever forgotten. Photo courtesy of the MSU SID.


I will never forget interviewing Brad Van Pelt. 


It was during the summer of 2000, and I was a 15-year-old student entering my sophomore year at Waverly High School in Lansing, Michigan. I was called in to be the “student representative” on the interview panel for Waverly’s recently vacated athletic director position, and Van Pelt had applied for the job.


I remember knowing at the time that Van Pelt was somewhat of a celebrity. However, it wasn’t until I got home that day from interviewing him and told my father, current sports journalist, and he informed me just how special of a man Van Pelt really was, both to the Michigan State community and the Mid-Michigan area.


While Van Pelt did not end up being the next AD at my high school, I will never forget our chance encounter. He was truly larger than life in person and in excellent condition for a man in his late 40s. His hands were simply massive: It felt like you were shaking his palm and he was shaking your forearm. He was quick to laugh and to show his famous smile. I recall him being one of the most laid-back and calm candidates that we talked to. Being a three-sport star at MSU, two-time All-American, and going to five Pro Bowls probably prepares you well for the “pressures” of a job interview.


“Brad was a great guy. He didn’t have any enemies,” says Hank Bullough, who was MSU’s defensive coordinator during Van Pelt’s first year on the team under then-head coach Duffy Daugherty. Bullough later tells me, “Brad always had a smile on his face. He was a fantastic young man, and I never saw him down. He has to go down as one of the top five athletes to come through MSU.”


Don Gray couldn’t agree more, “Brad was the most outstanding high school athlete that I’ve ever coached and known, and an even better person.” Gray was Van Pelt’s coach at Owosso (MI) High School, coaching him in basketball for three years and in football for one. “He was very, very kind. Brad would acknowledge everybody, whether it was a young kid looking for an autograph or an older Owosso fan just wanting to talk to him.”


It seems as though everyone has a remarkable “BVP” story to tell.


“I saw Bo Schembechler several years ago and went up to him to ask for a favor,” Bullough said. “I said, ‘You need to help me get Brad Van Pelt into the College Football Hall of Fame.’ Bo couldn’t believe it! Duffy told him Brad was one of the top athletes Duffy ever coached, so Bo went out and helped get Brad in.” In 2001 Van Pelt was inducted into the Hall, which is located in South Bend, Indiana.


“The Philadelphia Phillies had a first-round pick in the supplemental draft after Brad’s junior year at MSU,” recalls Gray. “A guy named Tony Lucadello, who had scouted this area for a long time, showed up to talk to Brad and his father in Owosso. Lucadello had a blank check with him and asked them how much money it would take to sign Brad. The determining factor in turning down that offer was Brad’s loyalty to Duffy, especially since Brad was elected co-captain that year with Billy Joe Dupree, at age 21.” (Side Note: During his career, Lucadello signed a total of 52 players who made it to the major leagues, most notably Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Mike Schmidt. His total number of major-league signings is considered to be unsurpassed, and some have called him perhaps the greatest scout ever. This was no ordinary baseball scout, and certainly no ordinary baseball player in Van Pelt.)


Gray goes on, “The impact that his death had on this community is something that is hard to measure. The funeral service was held in the Owosso High School gym. Over 1,000 people attended. Former New York Giants’ teammate and close friend Harry Carson, as well as former MSU teammates John Shinsky (football) and Gary Ganakas (basketball and son of former head coach and current broadcaster Gus Ganakas) all gave a eulogy. I still can’t imagine that Brad is gone. I don’t think it has sunken in yet.”


Danny Litwhiler, now 92, the superb MSU head baseball coach from 1964 to 1982 who still holds the record for most wins by any coach in school history, had the opportunity to coach Van Pelt from 1971 to 1972. When I contacted him, this is what he had to say about the passing of a Spartan icon in a prepared statement:


“I am deeply saddened at the passing of Brad Van Pelt. He was a legend at MSU for his athletic prowess, but also and more importantly, for the type of person he was. Brad was a favorite among his coaches, teammates, and fans, as well as the training and equipment staffs. Brad treated everybody the same. He was willing to do anything for anybody. And yet with all his athletic success, he never forgot where he came from, Owosso and Michigan State. There was only one Gibby and Magic, Duffy and Biggie, and there was definitely only one Brad. I cannot see the number 10 on the back of a jersey without thinking of him. Obviously he was a superior athlete and a fierce competitor. Off the field, he was so kind, a gentlemen and a friend. I was so proud to be one of his coaches. He will be missed. My prayers go out to his family and his friends.”


Van Pelt’s son Bradlee, began his college football career at his father’s alma mater, but then transferred to Colorado State University to pursue his dream of playing quarterback and became a star for the Rams. On March 7, 2009, it was announced that Bradlee, 28, who has played for the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans but is currently a free agent, would try to make a comeback as a safety. It goes without saying that all of Spartan Nation will be rooting for you. Don’t the Lions need some help in the secondary?


Looking back at all of the wonderful things that have been said since his passing, I wish I would have gotten to know the legend that is Brad Van Pelt even better on that summer day in 2000, but I am just thankful to have been able to meet him, and I can certainly be counted as one of the many lives that he touched over his 57 years.

This article is reprinted here from the May 2009 Spartan Nation Magazine.Â