|A five-star recruit out of high school, William Gholston is projected as an NFL first-round pick. (US Presswire)|
Google William Gholston's name and the first thing that appears after his Michigan Statebio page is "William Gholston Punch," a YouTube clip that has been downloaded a quarter of a million times. The 18-second video actually includes two incidents replayed in slow-motion that occurred during the third quarter of the Spartans victory over arch-rival Michigan on Oct. 15, 2011. After one play, Gholston was caught by TV cameras diving onto the pile and twisting the helmet of Wolverines star Denard Robinson. Later in the same quarter, Gholston was flagged 15 yards for punching Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan.
Both replays probably comprise the scope of what football fans (outside of East Lansing) know about the towering defensive end. Sure, some may be aware that Gholston came to Michigan State as a five-star recruit, the most heralded the program had landed in more than a decade, or how he is projected by NFL draft analysts to go three-and-out and become a first-round pick in 2013. But his rep is rooted in these two dubious moments captured in that 18 seconds.
To many, especially Wolverine fans, Gholston has become the Big Ten's Vontaze Burfict. The Arizona State middle linebacker was more infamous than famous after a series of incidents that included him crossing the line on the field, and reportedly off it as well.
In fairness to Gholston, there has been no off-field bad behavior in his college career. Teammates and coaches say Gholston has never been a guy who has been involved in any flare-ups during practice or in scrimmages. "I don't think it's fair to label him as some dirty player," says MSU QB Andrew Maxwell. Still, that gray area between being more infamous and famous is where we find William Gholston this spring. It is a curious threshold in this era of 24-hour sports coverage and social media spirals, where perception often overwhelms reality.
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Ask Mark Dantonio about what kind of person Gholston is and the normally low-key Michigan State head coach perks up. "He is a great young man, so personable, and that is why we stood by him the way we did," the 56-year-old coach says, sensing where this line of questioning was routed.
Of course, you don't have to be too much of a cynic to wonder if Dantonio might not look as favorably on the 6-7, 285-pounder if he weren't such a spectacular talent. As a sophomore in 2011, Gholston piled up 16 tackles for loss for the Big Ten's best defense. In the Spartans' season-ending Outback Bowl win over Georgia -- Michigan State's first bowl win in 11 years -- Gholston dominated, tying a school-record with five tackles for a loss and a career-high two sacks.
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Truth be told, Dantonio probably didn't do his young star any favors by not publicly disciplining Gholston in the wake of the national media showing dozens of replays of the Spartans' behavior from the Michigan game. Days passed. The then-No. 16 Spartans' upcoming game against No. 6 Wisconsin loomed. The focus -- what Gholston did and what his coach might do -- lingered. By mid-week, the school announced, after a three-day internal investigation, it was not going to suspend Gholston. The spotlight widened. The pitchforks went up. Critics then pointed to Dantonio's own reputation in dealing with his players after they had seemingly crossed the line. Two days later, the Big Ten stepped in, suspending Gholston for the Wisconsin game.
Michigan State rallied to upset the Badgers 37-31 on a spectacular last-second, Hail Mary touchdown heave. Dantonio points out that Gholston "sprinted two-and-a-half miles from his apartment to Spartan Stadium just to be with his teammates." As the coach talks about being "chastised" by the media for his handling of Gholston, he pauses and then pops up, hustling to his desk to get a letter. It's from a woman who met Gholston at an event. She said that she felt compelled to write the Spartan football staff because Gholston was so personable and charming. The William Gholston detailed in this letter, not the guy from that YouTube clip, is the kind-hearted, good soul that Dantonio knows.
Some around the Spartans program reasoned that while Gholston was wrong for his reaction in the Michigan game, they also noted that after studying the game film that he lost his poise after he repeatedly was cheap-shotted. They'll tell you how two other Big Ten programs contacted Michigan State after the Michigan game to inform them about cheap shots by the Wolverines that they also documented.
"Whatever happened, happened. The reason for it really didn't matter," says Dantonio of the possible build-up that may have led to Gholston's actions against Michigan. "I know the true William Gholston."
When Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi began to recruit Gholston, he came away wowed not just with how engaging the teen was but also with how down-to-Earth. "Anybody that ever spends time with that kid will come away saying what a nice kid he is," says Narduzzi. "And he really is a great kid.
"A player has to be thick-skinned. It really doesn't matter what people on the outside think. It matters what his coaches think, what his teammates think -- it matters what we think. Nobody on the outside really knows William Gholston."
Archie Collins may know Gholston better than anyone. The 35-year-old Michigan State graduate assistant coached Gholston in the Detroit Public School League at Southeastern High.
Collins, a former Spartans defensive back, also has acted as a big brother and a father to Gholston, who at one point also lived with the coach. Collins worried about how Gholston (the cousin of former Ohio State first-rounder Vernon Gholston) would handle being vilified in what became such a hot story that dragged on for about a week.
"Even while he was on the sidelines, he couldn't believe what he did," said Collins. "He was in tears because he felt like he had a let a lot of people down. He did something in haste. He was crushed over it. It was almost like he blacked out.
"He does not want to ever let anybody down. That's his worse thing. He is such a pleaser."
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For most of his high school days, Gholston lived at more locations around Detroit than he'd care to count, ranging from relatives' homes to his coaches' houses to nights when he slept in a car: "I didn't really have a place to stay."
According to Gholston, he had some issues with his parents and ended up moving out around the time he was 14. What exactly precipitated his separation from his parents?
"I can't really say," Gholston answers, but adds that he was "heading down the wrong path."
Gholston eventually moved in with the family of high school coach and teacher, Vince Session, a one-time running back at Northern Illinois in the 80s; his wife Donna, also a teacher; and their two daughters. The family took him in after late one night Session tried dropping Gholston off at the home of a relative where the teen had been staying.
"They wouldn't open the door," recalled Session. "I was fed up. I said, ‘This is madness. You don't even have a key to the house.'
"I knew that he was house-hopping. I saw a need for him to be stable somewhere. We asked him if he wanted to stay in our house and then we started collecting his clothes."
The Sessions helped tutor Gholston, made sure he got to school on time and brought him to church with the family every Sunday.
"It felt like he was our son," says Donna, who like her husband has been teaching for 26 years. "We realized just by the nature of who he is, people gravitate towards him. We wanted him to be discerning and not too trusting."
Over time Gholston began to share stories with them of what he had been through in his childhood.
"We told him it all builds character," Vince Session says. "It was a dark time for him. We helped him channel it. We didn't make it a pity party. What good came out of it is, you learn to appreciate what you do have. We told him that ‘no matter what the circumstances that you went through, you still have to learn to forgive those people so that you can move on with your life. Some people you have to forgive. Some people you have to let out of your life. They can be poison and they can bring you down.'"
Says Donna, "When we talked about those times (the nights sleeping in a car, the uneasiness of his relationship with his parents), they were painful. He said he had lots of questions. We told him that no answer will ever make him feel better about it."
Time has helped. So did the support of the Sessions, Collins and Gholston's new family in East Lansing. He is guarded with sharing too much publicly, saying: "The best thing about why I came here is because it felt like family."
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Some six months after the Michigan game, the gregarious Gholston shrugs his massive shoulders about how his actions from that October afternoon game have defined him in many people's eyes. After a two-hour practice on a rainy day in late April, he is playful and friendly. It doesn't seem to take him any time to warm up to strangers.
"I didn't think it's really fair for somebody to judge me off two moments from a game," Gholston says. "I've apologized for it. I learned and grew from it.
"You know, I try my best to make people smile every day. I guess I just gotta grow on people."
Gholston has grown quite a bit since arriving in East Lansing. He has packed on some 40 pounds, yet still has a chiseled frame with a defensive back's body fat. When Narduzzi gushes about Gholston's freakish tools, he speaks not of the junior-to-be hoisting some weight room poundage but rather the functional explosiveness of seeing the defensive end rag-doll 340-pound linemen or line up at linebacker in goal-line defense and have the suddenness to dart three steps before the other 'backers have broken from their stances upon the snap of the ball. "He can be as good as he wants to be," Narduzzi says. "We don't know. He's still raw, but he is just so strong and so fast. He could be one of the best players in the history of Michigan State. Could be."
The challenges for Gholston live in the minutiae. In the 11th or 12th of the Spartans spring practice last month, a small college coach was watching the defense. He remarked to Narduzzi, "I watch [Gholston] in individual [drills] and he looks like any other guy, and then I watch him in a game and he's going a thousand miles-per-hour." Whether Gholston proves to be a great player or merely a good one will be determined by how detail-oriented he can be on the practice field in things like individual drills and how much more he can refine his technique.
Gholston said he has gotten the message: "If I look at the film, I look like a totally different player. I understand the scheme 20 times better. I am fundamentally more sound."
Gholston’s relationship with his parents has improved since coming to Michigan State. After the Spartans spring game last month, both of his parents, his older brother, the Sessions and a few other relatives sat around Gholston’s apartment, talking and playing video games. “It was real nice to see Will happy and content,” says Vince Session.
Gholston also has taken to another aspect of performance while at college. This version is in theatre and film, where the guy who seems so enigmatic to many people gets to be someone else.
"Acting is a lot of fun," he says. "It has helped me be a kid. My childhood wasn't the best, but acting allows me to use my imagination."
When he was smaller, Gholston embraced writing poetry to express himself. He wrote about nights on the street and the rough times his family was going through. Acting, he's learned, has afforded him another outlet, where he can be serious or silly and not always be William Gholston, but he can draw from his experiences. Some day, he says grinning, he wants to do movies.
"I don't think I can do the stage work," he admits. "I feel like film is easier. You don't have all those eyes on you at once."
That is something Gholston still hasn't gotten used to yet.