EAST LANSING, Mich. – Kirk Cousins got his senior season off to an impressive start — with a speech.
The Michigan State quarterback spoke at a Big Ten kickoff luncheon late last month, calling it a "privilege" to play in the conference and talking at length about the responsibility college athletes face as role models and representatives of their schools. When he was done, Cousins received a standing ovation.
"I saw my dad when I got done, and the first thing I asked him was, 'How do you handle a standing ovation?'" Cousins said. "He said, 'I don't know. I've never gotten one.'
"And he's been in the ministry for a long time."
Cousins may have been taken aback, but nobody who knows the affable quarterback should have been all that surprised. Cousins turned heads all over the Big Ten last season with his composure while he led the Spartans to 11 wins. Now he's back for his third year as a starter, hoping to help Michigan State to even greater heights.
In addition to being unflappable on the field, Cousins has earned plenty of acclaim off it. He was one of 10 finalists last year for the Wuerffel Trophy, which honors the college football player who best combines community service with academic and athletic achievement.
"As I've said before, he doesn't have to just be a great quarterback," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "He's going to be a great husband, a great father, he's been a great community leader. The guy just sort of has it as a person."
Dantonio called Cousins' speech "business as usual" — but it was a bit of a revelation for those who weren't as familiar with him. Cousins began by name-dropping Big Ten schools like a seasoned politician. Cousins grew up in the Chicago area watching plenty of Northwestern games, but he was raised an Iowa fan. He also attended Purdue's quarterback camp in high school but ended up going to Michigan State.
The speech eventually took a more serious turn, building up to an eloquent conclusion.
"I don't believe it's too far-fetched to think that we as college football players could make a significant positive difference in the youth culture of America, simply by embracing the responsibilities that accompany this place of privilege," Cousins said. "We could redefine what is cool for young people. We could set a new standard for how to treat others. We could embody what it means to be a person of integrity. We could show to young people that excellence in the classroom is a worthy pursuit. We could show that it's more important to do what is right, than to do what feels right.
"While I believe we as players do not deserve the platform we have been given, we have it nonetheless. It comes with the territory of being a college football player in the Big Ten. May we as players have wisdom to handle this privilege and the courage to fulfill the responsibility we've been given."
Cousins has received enough of a response to his speech that he's starting to wonder if it might overshadow his passing.
"It's exciting and it's a neat thing, but I'd much rather be known for my play on the field than for a speech," he said.
Even before earning a reputation as an orator, Cousins was turning heads. He completed 67 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 2,825 yards with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
In Michigan State's home finale, he shrugged off shoulder and ankle injuries to lead the Spartans to a comeback win over Purdue, keeping them on pace for a Big Ten title they'd eventually share.
With one season remaining at Michigan State, Cousins still has plenty more he wants to accomplish, such as leading the Spartans to the Rose Bowl. They missed out last year because of a tiebreaker.
In the offseason, he's left little doubt that he is the leader of the offense — both by impressing the crowd at a conference luncheon and taking the offensive linemen on a "buffet crawl" last month.
"We gave them a pump-up talk in the team meeting room," Cousins said. "I said, 'Guys, I've never known a good offensive lineman who's not a good eater, so you've got to back up your play with your eating. If we want to win this fall, we've got to prepare to win — by going on a buffet crawl."
It might sound silly, but it was the type of bonding exercise any team can have fun with.
"It makes us closer," guard Chris McDonald said. "With Kirk being our quarterback, you have to take it personal if he gets hit, and that's how we do it."
With the respect of his teammates and peers, Cousins is making life as a high-profile college athlete look easy — no matter how much he might insist otherwise.
"If I'm perceived as being at ease, I think I may sometimes have you guys fooled. I think sometimes my stomach is churning more than anybody's before a game," Cousins said. "I think quarterbacks have to be able to rise above that and play well under that pressure, under those demands. Giving a speech is no different."