by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

OH, SURE, that might have been fun. Different girlfriend every week? Being a
“player” on the party scene?

Might have been fun. Just wasn’t him. Not A. J. Granger. When he arrived as a freshman at Michigan State, he already had a high school sweetheart. And after he graduates in a couple of months, he’s going to marry her. Same girl.

“The other guys on the team can’t believe it,” he admits. “They keep saying to me, now you got four months left as a single man, now you got three months left . . .”

Granger shrugs it off. This is who he is, he says. His father married young, raised a loving family. Now it’s the son’s turn. A. J. gave his girlfriend a ring when he was just a sophomore.

“We’ve even talked about the whole kid thing already.”

Kids? He is 21 years old. Nowadays, that is a kid. But not so long ago, it wasn’t. Not so long ago, to be a graduating senior from college, with a sweetheart, and a wedding date, and long-range plans for kids, was perfectly normal.

A. J. Granger was just born behind his time.

So this week, while other players on the top-seeded Spartans take calls from friends wanting tickets for the Midwest Regional at the Palace, Granger takes calls from his fiance, Heather Wilhelm, who tells him about the catering, the invitations, the tablecloths and the guest list for the wedding.

And while other guys dream about a party-soaked summer, Granger has a day in late July circled, the day he becomes a husband and his fiance becomes his wife.

“Didn’t you ever hear of sowing your wild oats?” he is asked.

“I heard of it,” he said.

Just wasn’t him.

Serious in the classroom

Oh, sure, skipping class might have been fun. Taking a light workload. Staying out late. Sleeping in most mornings, letting the incompletes pile up, skating just over the minimum academic requirements to stay eligible for the important thing: basketball.

Lots of athletes do it. But it just wasn’t him. Not A. J. Granger. From the start, he paced his academics the way a marathoner paces his steps. He never fell behind in credits. In the summer, when he stuck around to work on his game, he took classes as well.

He picked a major (marketing) and stayed with it, unlike players who jump majors regularly. As a result, he’s not only going to graduate in May — after four years, right on schedule — he’s taking a light load this semester because he doesn’t need any more credits.

“A lot of players, I guess, don’t want to mess up their summers with summer school,” he said, “but that’s what you have to do.”

And while other college athletes act as if academics are a burden, and, oh, by the way, terribly unfair, Granger will march across the stage to get his diploma, with nearly a B average, despite all the games, practices, road trips, film sessions and interviews.

“But isn’t it true,” he is asked, “that many players say it’s nearly impossible to study and play college sports?”

“Yeah, they say that,” he says.

Just isn’t him.

Successful on the court

So, sure, you’re thinking, the guy goes to classes, the guy is graduating in four years, the guy is getting married: He must not be much of a player.

Wrong. Granger has overcome everything from mononucleosis to the near-paralysis of his father in a swimming accident to become an integral cog in MSU’s wheel. He averages nearly nine points and more than five rebounds, and had led the team in scoring in such emotional games as Senior Day (against Michigan) and the Big Ten championship (against Illinois).

Last Saturday, when MSU was trailing Utah, Granger made several key shots to help fuel the comeback. He is a starter. He is steady. He has even become a pro prospect.

And as for fun?

“Don’t you feel bad when your schoolmates go on spring break, and they party and jump on tables and do wet T-shirt contests?” he is asked.

“Well, I see it this way,” he says. “They get to do some things I’m not getting to do, but I get to do things they’ll never do. I’ve got three (Big Ten) rings on my fingers.

“Besides, we danced on tables when we’ve won big games.”

He laughs. “And our T-shirts were wet, too.”

Most of the time the world moves too fast, college kids seem to come from another planet, nothing they want is what we wanted, everything they want we deem foolish or insignificant.

And then along comes a throwback, a lanky, brown-haired, toothy-grinned senior who looks at times as if he wandered in from the Amish country — but is actually the best kind of hope for college athletics. Hardworking. Graduating. On time.

And about to become a husband.

“I’m lucky my fiance is so good about taking care of the details,” he says.
“Except the honeymoon.”

Why not the honeymoon?

“That’s my department.”

What’d you think? The guy wasn’t going to have any fun?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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