By Scott Westerman
You learn a lot about a person when they are thrown into the public eye. Notoriety and achievement require a higher standard of behavior built on a firm foundation of character, work ethic and compassion. Such were the elements that defined the all too short life of Mike Sadler.
Mike and I both came to Michigan State University in 2010. I had the opportunity to watch his progression, as an athlete, an academician and as a human being. We often found ourselves in front of the same audiences.
He always spoke of the importance of an education, setting goals that stretched you, doing the hard work to achieve them, cultivating a compassionate heart and taking the road less traveled with fellow travelers who shared your ethical outlook. He also loved to have fun and maintained an insatiable inquisitiveness that turned every challenge in life into a fascinating puzzle to be solved.
A common theme among those who eulogized him was that this young man crammed more living into his four and twenty years than most accomplish in sixty. How did he do it?
Mike Sadler distilled his outlook into a six maxims, ideas that guided everything he undertook and ultimately ensured his success. And here they are
Get a good education. “Nobody can ever take that away from you,” he used to say. “Athletics ,” he once told me, “is a means to a higher calling. It helped me get access to a world class education. The key is to turn your purpose into a profession. And it all begins in the classroom.” Mike took that to heart. He earned enough advanced placement credits in high school to enter Michigan State University as a sophomore. Finishing a master’s degree during his athletic eligibility.
Aim High and push yourself. Mike came to MSU as an engineering student, earning his masters’ in public policy. He planned to enter Stanford Law School in the fall of 2016. “Excellence isn’t something we’re born with,” he once told a gathering of football fans. “It’s learned and earned every day.” His elementary school coach remembered Mike’s innate felicity with a soccer ball. But his sister revealed that it was his drive and determination that turned raw talent into the elite athleticism that earned him a starting role on a championship team. Mike saw life as an ongoing series of progressive goals. “Achievement,” he told his mother, “is climbing the mountain and getting to the top. Success is conquering the range.”
Live with Integrity. “Mike sat on the bench his first year on the team,” remembered coach Mark Dantonio. “He never complained.” We never heard about him violating team laws, breaking a confidence or cutting corners. Mike liked to say that integrity is doing what’s right rather than doing what’s in it for you. He demonstrated it time and again, never afraid to stand up for what he believed in, even if it wasn’t always what was popular.
Show compassion to every human being. A defining moment in Mike’s football career came after a game when the Spartans were about to board the team bus. A young boy on crutches asked Mike for an autograph, saying he wished he could become a kicker, too. Even though there was pressure to stay on schedule, Mike stopped and spoke, at length with the youngster, encouraging him to never give up on his dreams, finally handing him the shoes he had worn during the game. Many of us have been on the receiving end of a special kindness. For some, these encounters can be life changing. Mike realized that there were amazing people who helped him become the man he was. And he was always willing to pass it on.
Surround yourself with good people and good friends, because they define you. We become what we think about, wrote Earl Nightingale. Mike Sadler’s corollary to this timeless wisdom was, “We become who we hang out with.” He always found the most challenging teachers and sought to spend the majority of his time with people who modeled the behaviors he admired. At the same time, he always sought out new relationships whenever he entered a room, realizing that, for some, surrounding yourself with good people meant discovering them in the first place.
You have to have fun along the way. Few liked a good joke or a good laugh more than did Mike Sadler. Often the laughter was at his own expense. Always it was intended to lighten the mood, lower the stress level and put challenges in their proper perspective. Mike was a social media enthusiast, something that, at least on one occasion, got him called into the Mark Hollis’ office to hear about a tweet that the Athletic Director found a little too controversial. He learned the boundaries of good taste like most of us do, by pressing the edge of the envelope. At the end of the day, he saw human existence as an adventure, something to be fully experienced with all its ups and downs. If we looked hard enough, joy could be discovered among seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
And to Mike, our most important superpower was the power of gratitude. Whenever your paths crossed, he always looked you in the eye and thanked you for the encounter. He was mindful of the giants upon whose shoulders he stood and always tried to raise others onto his own shoulders so that we all might see further, dream bigger and leave the world a better place than we found it. Even though we were more acquaintances than friends, his death was a highly personal loss, a feeling I share with the thousands of spirits who were richly blessed to have crossed his path.
There is a big difference between success and significance. Mike Sadler’s time on earth was brief. But his was a transcendent life of significance, a life to be celebrated, emulated and revisited every time we want to be reminded of the true definition of excellence.