NEW ORLEANS — So there I am on the airplane squeezed in next to Mike Peplowski, who is the size of a small building, and he is telling me about the time he dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broke his neck and then the time he rode his bike off a really high ramp and wound up in the hospital and the summer he got hit by a car, twice, and I’m figuring great, this plane is going down for sure.
Not that it would bother Peplowski. He probably would crawl out through the wreckage, wipe the dirt off his face and say, “Wow! Too cool!” Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the personification of adventure, a rollicking free spirit, Jack Kerouac in the body of Too Tall Jones. Give him a cliff, he’ll run off flapping his arms. Drop him in an ocean, he’ll meet a mermaid. He is a master of survival, he has endured more breaks than a box of dropped eggs. And his zest for life has never diminished. Next challenge. Next mountain. Next motorcycle. Normal? Normal, he says, is “boring.”
You can say that when you’re 6-feet-10, 275 pounds, and your favorite book is “The Great Gatsby.”
“Let’s face it,” muses Peplowski, who, in case you didn’t know, plays center for the Michigan State Spartans, who go for Round 3 of the NCAA tournament tonight against Georgia Tech. “As college basketball players, we basically play a game in our underwear, on television. That’s pretty weird. But that’s not what we’re really like.
“For instance, I’m the kind of guy who likes to talk to people, I’ll talk to them about anything. But why do they keep asking me about my height? Uhh! Those same three questions. ‘Do you play basketball?’ ‘How big are you?’ And my favorite. ‘How big were you when you were born?’ It’s like, ‘Hmm, let’s see. I remember popping out, and then crying, and then the doctor said, “Well,
he’s 2-foot-6.” ‘ . . . “
So, OK. No height questions. Although I will say that whoever is sitting in front of him on the plane is spending the entire trip hunched forward. You try squeezing those big tree stumps into a two-foot leg space.
But then, it is almost appropriate that Peplowski, 19, a wonderful bundle of short-haired, youthful enthusiasm, be given such an ample exterior — considering the wear and tear he has already put on it. Let’s review, shall we? There was the broken neck from the swimming pool (“I missed paralysis by millimeters”). There was the broken shoulder and collarbone (“Just, you know, playing”). There were the broken fingers in football, the broken toe, the ripped flesh all over his body (“Bicycle jump, my friends dared me to do it”).
And oh, yeah, the knee. Can’t forget the knee. It happened his senior year in high school, at Warren De La Salle, when during a game, he got in a tug-of-ball with an opponent, and the opponent, showing good sense, let go. Only problem was, he was standing on Peplowski’s foot. The big guy flopped backward and twisted almost 360 degrees, with his foot seemingly nailed to the floor. The right knee popped. You could hear it.
Four operations and two years later, he still wears a brace. He went to the prom and graduation on crutches. (“That really stunk.”) He sat out his entire freshman year at Michigan State. This season he missed six games when the knee tightened up around Christmas. Another operation.
But now, he says, he is as strong as he can ever remember — a symbol, perhaps, for this surprisingly resilient Spartans team, which has endured its share of setbacks.
Not that Peplowski is a typical symbol. . . .
“I want to ride a motorcycle out West, just lose myself, like Easy Rider.
. . . Yeah, I wear an earring, so maybe people who see me won’t think I’m a basketball player. . . . I wanna go big-game hunting and deep-sea fishing all over the world. . . . I got this tattoo, down near my ankle. I designed it myself. It’s the Polish Eagle. Underneath it says, ‘Pure Bred.’ “
It should read “One of A Kind.”
Which is fine. It’s great. How nice to see that not every college athlete is a clone of the “Play ’em one game at a time . . . hope to make the pros .
. . God willing we’ll win tonight” type. Here we actually have someone who is a good student, who argues Plato with his professors, who goes slam- dancing in clubs, loves The Clash, is teaching himself bass guitar, and can quote Latin. “Carpe diem.” Seize the day. All right, so he saw it in a movie. It still describes his philosophy of life. “Try everything. It’s all an adventure. Just like being here in the tournament. This is life! This is living! This is like climbing Mt. Everest, like getting a tattoo, like playing in a rock band in front of thousands of people!”
I have to tell you that while he is spouting all this, Peplowski’s eyes are so wide and his smile so big and his hands so lively that I am afraid he’s going to bust his seat belt and fly through the top of the plane. It was this very enthusiasm that drew me to him in the first place. After the season finale against Purdue last week — which gave the Spartans their first outright Big Ten title in 12 years — all the players were celebrating. But Peplowski, who had eight points and six rebounds, was beyond celebration. He was literally leaping up and down, all 6-feet-10, pulling his knees toward his chin, up, down, up, down, crying with happiness, smothering his teammates.
I said to myself, I gotta talk to that cowboy.
And here I am, asking him about the outer limits of adventure.
“Would you jump out of an airplane?”
“Definitely,” he says, grinning.
“Would you go up in the space shuttle?”
“For sure. Wouldn’t you?”
“Would you visit a cannibal village?”
“Yeah, but they might have a feast on me. It might be Thanksgiving Day at the old cannibal farm.”
“What wouldn’t you do?” I finally ask.
He purses his lips and thinks for a second. “I wouldn’t go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.”
Well, that’s good to know.
Listen, Georgia Tech. Be aware of who you’re up against tonight. He might not be the most talented player on earth, but he’s getting better, he’s already strong, he can rebound with the best of them, and he has been fantasizing about this for a long time. He had a dream that he set this pick
— “a really hard pick” — and the other guy’s head came off and rolled on the floor.
“I know my friends might say I’m the weirdest one out here,” says Peplowski, whose teammates sometimes call him “Pepasaurus” or “Doctor Death.”
“But there’s nothing wrong with being different. Hey, over in Africa there’s probably some guy with a bone in his nose who looks at our team and thinks we’re really weird.
“I just like to do things my own way. I like to make my own mistakes. I feel you should grab everything in life, go for it. Yeah, you’ll do some stupid things. But when I look back, even at the mistakes, I still have a smile on my face. As long as I can do that, it was worth it.”
So never mind the stitches. Never mind the cracks and bruises. Never mind the six screws in his knee, the songs he writes, or that he once won a hot-dog-eating contest and the prize was a parachute jump. Let’s get back to that Gatsby thing. Is that really his favorite book?
“Absolutely. Gatsby was a loner, he was an entertainer, a provider, he threw all those parties, but no one knew who he really was. . . . That’s a little like me, you know?”
The Great Peplowski?