Former Bear all-stater Sowards wraps up fine collegiate career at MSU

Hard work pays dividends

Dave Gorgon

This month, Brandon Sowards will start the next phase of his post-football life and the first job following his graduation from Michigan State University.

With a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in human resources and labor relations, the Wyandotte native will become an HR specialist at the Lear Corporation.

Besides the two degrees, Sowards leaves college with a reputation as an outstanding athlete who overcame the odds to play Division 1 football on a scholarship, who overcame injuries to contribute to the Spartans’ success and who leaves East Lansing with a Big Ten championship, a role in what some Spartans consider the greatest play in MSU history and memories that will last a lifetime.

On the field, Sowards was a receiver and punt returner and part of the kick-defend unit on the 2015 conference championship team that defeated the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, beat Iowa in the Big Ten title game and played Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. He played seven games that year as a redshirt freshman to earn the first of his three letters.

Sowards was one of the 11 State defenders on the field who turned a botched U of M punt into a touchdown in a play heard around the college football world. 

All 12th-ranked Michigan had to do was punt the ball to secure a 23-21 victory on the last play of the game on October 17 at The Big House, but the punter mishandled the snap, which was recovered by the seventh-ranked Spartans and returned for a touchdown as time expired to give MSU a 27-23 victory.

“It was kind of crazy,” said Sowards, still relishing the memories. “The coach says we’re going for it. He calls me in. The rest is history. I’m lined up to the left of the punter. We all rush. We score. It’s a blur.”

Just over a month later, the Spartans ended the undefeated season of Ezekiel Elliot and third-ranked Ohio State with a game-ending field goal by kicker Matt Geiger with no time left on the clock in Columbus. The 17-14 game ended the Buckeyes’ chances for a NCAA championship playoff game.

With the Spartans controlling their own destiny, they went on to crush Penn State the next weekend, 55-16. MSU then won the Big 10 championship with a 16-13 win over Iowa.

The 2015 season remains Sowards’ fondest memories on the football field.

“The entire year was magical,” he said. “All the games were fairly close. It was unbelievable.”

Some might say Sowards’ entire journey to Michigan State and beyond was magical. The route was filled with challenges, but there was nothing to make him give up. And he persevered.

A Football Family

The youngest of three sons of Todd and Tina Sowards, Brandon was born into what many call a “football family.” Dad Todd and his brother Uncle Craig had played at Roosevelt High School with Craig playing a bit at Ferris State.

All three sons – a younger Todd, AJ and Brandon – would follow in dad’s footsteps and actually played multiple sports and excelled at all of them. The older Sowards were determined to coach the boys right, starting with the Wyandotte Indians in the Downriver Junior Football League.

“I credit my dad and uncle,” AJ said. “They coached us at seven years old. As soon as we hit the field, it was instilled in us the need for hard work, determination and grit… They literally turned men into boys. Not only me and my brothers, but the community.”

The trio of sons played football at Roosevelt High School, like their dad and uncle, and they played other sports as well. Younger Todd would excel in hockey locally and across the continent to the point where he was runner-up for the Michigan Mr. Hockey Award. In prep football, he excelled as a fullback, linebacker and safety and then went on to Ferris State, where he studied criminal justice. 

Now 29, Todd is a state trooper based in the Houston, Texas, area.

AJ and Brandon played football, basketball and track in high school. AJ went on to play fullback at Ferris State. In the off-season, he returned to Wyandotte to work out with Brandon and his high school teammates, giving them info on what it’s like to be a receiver on the college level.

In all, AJ said he played six years of “little league football,” four years at Roosevelt and five years at Ferris, starting 18 games in college. He earned three bachelor’s degrees – in science, science nursing and health information technology – and now works as an operating room nurse at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

When he was old enough, Brandon followed suit with the Wyandotte Indians. At Roosevelt, earned All-State honors, playing receiver, defensive back and on special teams. He started two years and was a senior captain. In 25 games those seasons, he had 70 receptions for 1,557 yards and 22 touchdowns. On defense his senior year, he had 43 tackles and three interceptions. He also led the team in punt returns and kick returns.

His junior season, 2012, the Bears reached the Division 2 state semifinals. The next year, they were 11-1 and were regional champions.

“Brandon was a workhorse,” said Ron Adams, who just completed his 15th year coaching Roosevelt football and his 31st season overall. “He wasn’t always very vocal, but he had a motor that would not stop. He took a lot of pride in performing at high level – not just in games, but he understood the effort it took in practice.

“When Brandon was younger, he wasn’t very big, but he put the time in the weight room. His senior year was an outstanding year. We had a very, very good football team that year as well. Obviously, he wanted to play college football.”

Sowards was all-state and helped Roosevelt to a regional championship as a high schooler

Next Step: College Football

Brandon received a great deal of attention from Division 2 recruiters. He really wanted to play Division 1 football, but accepted a full scholarship to Grand Valley State, which was a D2 powerhouse.

Suddenly, then-Michigan State receivers Coach Terrence Samuel started recruiting Brandon, who he signed as a “preferred walk-on,” de-committing to Grand Valley. There would be no scholarship the first year, but college funding would come 1½ years later.

Brandon was redshirted the 2014 season, but played seven games in the memorable 2015 season as a redshirt freshman.

In 2016, his sophomore season, Brandon played in 12 games, primarily on special teams. He led the team in punt returns with 94 yards on 15 returns, including four punt returns against Rutgers.

A pair of injuries would cause Brandon to miss the entire 2017 campaign due. At the start of winter conditioning, he broke his foot and was out all spring.

He returned and was having “the best camp” of his college career – he said he was on target to be the team’s No. 1 receiver at that point. In the last summer camp scrimmage, he remembers running a hitch route, getting caught between two teammates and suffering a torn ACL.

“That (knee injury) actually shaped me into the person I am today,” he said. “Like anything in life, you have your ups and downs. The way you handle adversities is part of life.”

He praised the work of the MSU training staff, particularly Tamaria Hibler, for being there for any issues he had.

“Tam helped me through the process mentally and physically,” he said.

After making a full recovery, Brandon returned for a productive 2018, his senior season. He recorded a career-high 18 catches for 201 yards in 13 games and led the team in punt returns (11 for 81 yards). He caught three passes for 59 yards vs. Northwestern University and earned MSU Special Units Player of the Week team honor after a career-long 24-yard punt return vs. Central Michigan.

Because he had missed a season due to injury, Brandon received a sixth year of eligibility as a grad student in the just-completed 2019 season. He was a punt returner.

In all, Brandon played in 32 games, became one of the top 15 all-time punt returners in MSU history and became a rare player to earn Academic All-Big Ten honors five times.

Making Us Proud

Brandon credits all of his coaches – his father, his uncle Craig (who is a police officer in Riverview), Adams, assistant coaches, his brothers and others – for giving him the opportunities to play football and other sports and contributing to his success.

“I’m proud of him as a man,” Adams said. “He’s done a great job representing his family, representing our football program and representing the great City of Wyandotte. That’s what you hope for.”

Brandon and girlfriend Madison Lipinski, a fellow Roosevelt alumnus, have been a couple for seven years. She is in her last semester at MSU and will graduate this year with a degree in human biology.

“When I look back at Brandon, obviously I’m extremely proud,” said his brother AJ. “The thing I’m most proud of is his everyday life and how humble he is. He’s a team guy. He’s always pushing ‘it’s not me, it’s the team.’ He’s selfless. He’s done the right things off the field. He got his master’s and I’m extremely proud of that. He’s a great man overall.”

Their father Todd said he feels “a tremendous sense of pride” in all that Brandon has accomplished.

“You spend a lot of time and energy getting to that point and then once you get there you’re still working at it extremely hard,” said Todd, who commutes daily from the family’s Wyandotte home to Lansing, where he is general manager at Adessa Auto Auction. “Everyone is at the same skill level in college. The effort you have to put in before and after practice sets young people apart. Fortunately, Brandon is a very hard worker and is very football intelligent.”

The recognition as a five-time all-academic football player in the Big Ten “is Brandon in a nutshell,” is dad said.

“No matter what it is, he fought his way through and made it happen,” Todd said. “I always told my boys there are two types of people: those who watch what happens and those who make it happen. Which one are you?”

Brandon, now 24 years old, said he is happy with his time at Michigan State.

“Not too many people thought or knew the career I’d have,” he said. “My family and coaches knew the type of career I’d have and the person I am. Do I wish I had better stats? Yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be the leading receiver in the Big 10?”

Brandon overcame obstacles and wound up playing college football in the Big 10. He overcame injuries and made his way back into the lineup. He worked hard and earned a scholarship that led to bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He excelled on the field and off the field. He has literally been living the dream.

So what does Brandon tell younger athletes?

“No matter the circumstances, go for your dreams,” he said. “Focus on hard work and dedication and you can achieve your dreams. I always dreamed of playing football in the Big 10. I always look back and say I achieved my dreams.”

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