At Green Run High in Virginia Beach, Burress was a standout in football, basketball and track, but because of poor SAT scores he enrolled for a postgraduate year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy. The freewheeling Burress hated every minute he spent there. "People blowing horns, busting your door open at 5:30 in the morning, making you shine your shoes all the time, that's not for me," he says. Burress dropped out after five months and entered Michigan State, though he was ineligible to play. After sitting out the spring and fall of 1997, Burress's first appearance was in Michigan State's 1998 spring game, in which he caught 13 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. "Plax is the best receiver I've ever coached," says Charlie Baggett, the Green Bay Packers' assistant who also coached Rison, Courtney Hawkins and Mark Ingram, among others, when he was at Michigan State.
Burress was named by his mother, Adelaide, a single parent, after an uncle who served in Vietnam. She has told him that Plaxico means survivor, which makes him just one of the guys on these Spartans. Burke is a survivor, too, the classic case of a quarterback who has risen to excellence through maturity and perseverance. As a freshman and sophomore, Burke sat behind Todd Schultz, despite having superior skills. "He wasn't ready mentally," says Saban. "Now he's become superb at game management."
A year ago, to replace Schultz, Saban recruited Ryan Van Dyke, one of the hottest high school talents in Michigan. Van Dyke is a flashier athlete than Burke but not a better quarterback. A lefthander with a soft touch and a tight spiral, Burke also has a calmness that borders on somnolence, which is his way of leading the team and keeping the magnitude of a monster season in perspective.
Burke, who grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, was weaned on the Steel Curtain Steelers of the late 1970s and early '80s. When he played catch with his dad, also named Bill, dad was Terry Bradshaw and the son was Lynn Swann. When Bill Jr.'s arm grew strong enough, the roles reversed. In '85, when the son was eight, the family moved to Warren, Ohio, where Bill Sr. took a job as a firefighter at Youngstown Airport. One morning in January 1991, as the elder Bill drove to work on an icy road, he was hit by an approaching vehicle that had slid across the center line. Both occupants of the other car were killed. Burke had to be cut from his car and was hospitalized for two weeks with head and internal injuries. His recovery lasted much longer, and while his wife, Debra, took care of him, Bill Jr. and his younger sister, Brandi, ran the household. "It affected him," says Bill Sr. "He did what he had to do and grew up a lot."
On Saturday there was something poetic about Burke and Burress's final connection, which came with barely a minute to play and after Burress had covered an onside kick. With the Spartans holding a 34-31 lead and the ball on Michigan's 32, Burke drilled Burress on an out pattern for a 15-yard gain that killed the Wolverines' chances of getting the ball back. Burress leaped to make the catch and, impossibly, came down inbounds. Three plays later, Burke took a knee and Spartan Stadium shivered.
Too often in recent years Michigan State has been geeked to play Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State, but flat in other games. Steady effort is vital in the Big Ten, which offers a succession of difficult opponents. The Spartans' next three games are all against ranked teams: at No. 20 Purdue, at No. 17 Wisconsin and at home against No. 18 Ohio State. After playing at Northwestern, the Spartans host No. 2 Penn State. "We're taking 24 hours with this win, and that's it," said Saban on Saturday evening. "There's too much ahead for this team and too much we can accomplish." Burke put it more succinctly: "No big celebrations."
On Monday, Michigan was already a memory, although one last task involving the game against the Wolverines remained. In Michigan State's team room is a board that lists the objectives to be met in each game (400 yards in offense, 28 points, etc.). This year the Spartans added another category, under the heading 100 PERCENT EFFORT. Any player who feels he gave his best in the previous game—win or lose-privately signs his name. It's a hedge against letdowns and look-aheads, and forces each player to search his conscience. "Best part of the week," says Smith. "It means you left it out on the field."
On Monday they signed. Relentlessly.