Kirk Cousins used to playing long odds
When Michigan State senior Kirk Cousins leads the No. 16 Spartans against No. 6 Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium on Saturday night, he knows he'll be regarded as the second-best quarterback on the field.
Badgers senior Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State this past summer, leads the country in passing efficiency, completing 74.2 percent of his passes for 1,557 yards with 14 touchdowns and one interception. Wilson's performance is a big reason why the Badgers are favored to win a Big Ten championship and possibly play for a BCS national championship.
Cousins, from Holland, Mich., wouldn't have it any other way.
"The fact of the matter is he's been overlooked and underestimated most of his life," said Don Cousins, his father.
When Cousins was in the sixth grade, he convinced his father to let him play tackle football for the first time. After trying out for a youth coach in suburban Chicago, Cousins was relegated to the B-team. He led his team to a league championship as its starting quarterback.
As a sophomore at Holland Christian School, Cousins was offered a choice to be an everyday player on the JV baseball team or a reserve on the varsity squad. Cousins chose to play on the varsity team and became the starting third baseman and one of its best hitters.
During his junior year of high school, Cousins started basketball season as the team's third-string point guard. He became the team's primary playmaker during the first game and never looked back.
"He's always been that way," said Don Cousins, a pastor, who works as a consultant to churches and other nonprofit organizations. "He's a goal setter. He's an achiever. It's in his wiring. He went through high school and had a 4.0 GPA. He set a goal to never have a B and never had one. He just sets goals and goes after them."
The coaches who doubted Cousins in the past didn't know what he'd already overcome. As a 19-month-old, Cousins was badly burned in a freak accident at home. While playing in the kitchen, he pulled a boiling pot of spaghetti off a cooktop, seriously burning his upper torso.
When Cousins' clothes were removed immediately after the accident, a layer of skin was pulled from his neck, shoulders, chest and stomach. His fever spiked to 106 degrees. Cousins spent nearly two weeks in the hospital recovering, and he had to wear a jacket to compress his skin for almost a year.
"It was horrific for all of us," Don Cousins said.
Doctors told Cousins' parents that his skin would eventually heal, but that he might never regain complete use of his shoulders because they were so badly burned.
"The doctor told us he'd never be able to throw a ball properly," Don Cousins said. "We didn't care at the time. We just wanted our son to heal."
Cousins, 23, said he doesn't remember much about the accident. He only knows the details his parents have shared with him. But a few scars are a constant reminder of how lucky he was.
"My life has been a living evidence of God's ability to do the unexplainable," Cousins said.
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Frankly, Cousins was never supposed to be the Spartans' starting quarterback, either. When Cousins walked off the field for the final time as a player at Holland Christian School in 2006, he didn't have a scholarship offer to play college football. He was heavily recruited by Toledo and Western Michigan, and Colorado had invited him to join the team as a "gray shirt," meaning he couldn't join the Buffaloes until the second semester of his freshman season.
Michigan State had expressed some interest in recruiting Cousins, but then coach John L. Smith was fired after the 2006 season. The Spartans hired former Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio to replace him, and Cousins was one of the first recruits Dantonio contacted. After watching Cousins play in a basketball game, the Spartans offered him a scholarship, but only if more highly regarded quarterbacks turned them down.
Cousins enrolled at Michigan State in 2007 and redshirted as a freshman while playing behind starting quarterback Brian Hoyer. Another quarterback, Nick Foles, was considered the Spartans' heir apparent. Foles had broken nearly all of current New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees' passing records at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas. But Foles transferred to Arizona after the 2007 season, opening the door for Cousins to become Hoyer's backup.
Before the 2008 season, though, another highly regarded quarterback, Keith Nichol of Lowell, Mich., transferred to Michigan State from Oklahoma. Cousins and Nichol battled for the starting job after Hoyer's senior season in 2008. Cousins eventually won the job, and Nichol moved to wide receiver.
"When I came here, I wasn't expected to play," Cousins said. "I've just constantly looked at it as an uphill battle. I've just tried to cross one finish line and go to the next goal. It's kept me humble and focused."
Cousins has been criticized throughout his college career, despite being the only Michigan State quarterback to defeat rival Michigan three straight times and needing only one more victory to become the school's winningest quarterback. The Spartans went 6-7 during his first season as a starter in 2009, losing five games by eight points or fewer. Last season, Michigan State went 11-2 and won a share of the Big Ten title. Cousins threw three interceptions in a 37-6 loss at Iowa, the Spartans' only defeat during the regular season.
In Michigan State's 31-13 loss at Notre Dame on Sept. 17, the Spartans trailed the Irish 28-13 late in the fourth quarter. Cousins, who completed 11 straight passes at one point in the second half, drove the Spartans deep into Irish territory. But Notre Dame cornerback Robert Blanton intercepted his pass at the Irish 6 and returned it 82 yards to the MSU 12 to seal a victory.
"He doesn't care [what other people say about him]," Don Cousins said. "It's a nonissue. He set a goal to be a starting quarterback. He wants to win championships and go to the Rose Bowl. He wants to do anything to help his team get there. All of the outside stuff doesn't bother him. It's out of his control."
What Cousins can control is how well the Spartans play during the final six games of the season. They currently sit atop the Big Ten's Legends Division standings, with a one-game lead over Iowa, Michigan and Nebraska in the loss column. After hosting the Badgers on Saturday night, the Spartans play at Nebraska on Oct. 29. A Nov. 12 road trip to Iowa also looms large.
"I think we still have a lot of football left to be played," Cousins said. "Ultimately, we'll be remembered for where we are in December. There's a lot of football left and it's too early to say who you proved wrong."
If things go right, though, Cousins will have proved a lot of people wrong if he leads the Spartans to the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis on Dec. 3.
Until then, Cousins will just move on to his next goal -- beating Wisconsin.
"There are always going to be people to prove wrong," Cousins said. "There are always going to be people who say I can't do something."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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