SAN DIEGO - Chris Frey hustled back to Michigan State’s bus as the sun began to sink toward the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday afternoon, he and his teammates running late for their final full-throttle Holiday Bowl practice.
The Spartans savored every moment of their tour of the USS Essex on Tuesday, navigating through each nook and cranny with questions about the amphibious assault ship. They spent time with sailors who are their age or younger, learning about their lives and roles and responsibilities.
And they reflected on everything they get to do on the football field.
“We were on the flight deck, and they were talking about all the different things. And we started talking to one of the girls that was up there and works on the ship, and she was like, ‘Yeah, I graduated high school a couple months ago,’ ” said Frey, whose dad, Chris Sr., served in the Navy. “It was like, ‘OK, we’re over here playing football for fun, and you’re over here fighting for your life, fighting for this country.
“It’s crazy to know that there are people even younger than us that are on this ship that are fighting for our country and doing everything like that. Just a humbling opportunity, an awesome experience, and you just gotta enjoy every second of it.”
The visit allowed more time for reflection than MSU's Christmas Day visit to the San Diego Zoo. The Spartans will take on Washington State on Thursday in the Holiday Bowl (9 p.m. ET/Fox Sports 1).
Players and coaches began the day as a team by shaking hands with military personnel and signing autographs. Their tour opened inside a massive hangar on the USS Essex, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, one of just eight in the U.S. Naval fleet, which is used to move Marines into position to operate by helicopter, landing craft or amphibious vehicle.
“I think this is something they’ll never forget,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s hard to put into words what we just saw, the immenseness of everything. … It impacts them to see something like this.”
It was a two-way impact as well, with on-duty military personnel stopping to get pictures with the Spartans and vice versa, and with players and coaches asking questions about how things operate with the ship.
Spartans have arrived on the USS Essex. pic.twitter.com/CZsjPbGfOo— Chris Solari (@chrissolari) December 26, 2017
Cmdr. Jeff Dupart, who is originally from Clinton Township and graduated from MSU in 1999, lives in the San Diego area and is a reservist after eight years as a Naval officer. He brought his sons, 11-year-old Brennan and 8-year-old Drew, onto the ship wearing their MSU gear — making more than a few of the Spartans smile. They posed for pictures with Dantonio and a number of players, including Brian Lewerke, Joe Bachie and Kenny Willekes.
“It was really cool,” Brennan Dupart said. “I’m glad that we came here. We got to see all the players and get some autographs”
Then the Spartans split up by offense and defense to explore the vessel, learning about the underbelly of the ship that allows for watercraft to board and be stored and climbing onto the flight deck and learning about firefighting and life-saving techniques.
A third, smaller group of team leaders followed Dantonio and Capt. Jason Burns, the commanding officer, into the bridge and high-up command posts.
Aboard the USS Essex. MSU and Washington State visiting here shortly. pic.twitter.com/KNoY8q7EeJ— Chris Solari (@chrissolari) December 26, 2017
“I think this is just like one big team that we came to visit today,” Dantonio said. “Everybody has a role, everybody brings value to what they do. There’s pressure involved in every job that they have, much like there is pressure involved in a game for players that are playing on the field.
“I think the difference is this is life decisions. We play a game. … The protection of our country and everything that goes along with it is much more meaningful and special than a football game.”
Contact Chris Solari: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Download our Spartans Xtra app for free on Apple and Android devices!
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