Bonnie Sawyer can't help but worry about her little boy, even if he is 32 years old. So every time the mother of Michigan State men's basketball team trainer Quinton Sawyer hears television analysts talk about the Spartans' slew of injuries, she calls Quinton and asks, "You holding up O.K.?"
With a nod to 6'10" senior big man Adreian Payne's inside-out dominance and 6'4" sophomore guard Gary Harris's stifling defense, the award for most valuable person on the team has to go to Sawyer, the third-year trainer known as Q, who has had, as he says, "the hardest year of my professional life."
Support staff are often the unsung heroes of a team's NCAA tournament run, from administrators who make sure families get their tickets and managers who anticipate the need for extra uniforms, to video coordinators who dissect film of upcoming opponents. Coach Tom Izzo says the x-factor in the Spartans' NCAA title win in 2000 was equipment manager Dave Pruder because "he was my eyes and ears, he gave me the pulse of my team every day." The guy with the best read on this season's MSU team is Sawyer, if only because he has spent more time with the players than anyone else.
A preseason Final Four favorite, the Spartans have suffered more injuries than any other top team. Six key players missed a combined 29 games, including Payne (right, right foot problems), point guard Keith Appling (below, with Sawyer, right wrist) and swingman Branden Dawson (broken right hand). Even the staff is not immune. While cutting down nets in Indianapolis after winning the Big Ten championship, strength and conditioning coach Mike Vorkapich sliced open his left index finger.
In 10 years on the job—with Campbell University, North Carolina and for a stint as a training-camp intern with the Denver Broncos—Sawyer has never had to treat so many injuries in one season. "I think we're going to have to give him a raise," says Izzo. Only guard Denzel Valentine and forward Gavin Schilling have appeared in every game—"our iron men," Sawyer calls them, joking that they still stop by the training room just to feel included.
One consequence of all the bumps, bruises and breaks is the bond that Sawyer has forged with the players, especially Payne. Finally healthy—thanks largely to custom orthotics—Payne scored a Spartans' NCAA tournament--record 41 points, in just 24 minutes, against Delaware in the round of 64. After his usual postgame ice wrap and stretch, and on Sawyer's advice, Payne wore compression leggings around the hotel all night.
On off days during the tournament, Sawyer's hotel room doubles as the Spartans' training room. He does something for everyone, from taping ankles (using at least 12 rolls per day) to gluing shut tiny cuts on fingertips (shooting countless basketballs for six months can split the skin). Sawyer's backpack is always stocked with superglue and tape. "You'd be surprised what you can do with those two things," he says.
With the team finally at full strength, No. 4--seed Michigan State will face Virginia in New York City this weekend. You'd think the one injury the Spartans could least afford is one to Sawyer, but Payne says he's ready to fill in. "Man, I've spent so much time in the training room, I'm pretty good at a lot of stuff myself," he says.
All joking aside, no one appreciates Sawyer's importance to MSU more than Payne. "The reason we're able to start playing the way we talked about in the preseason is that guy," says Payne. "Q—he's the MVP of our team."
Yes, Bonnie, your little boy is holding up O.K.
The trainer for the oft-injured Spartans says he's had "the hardest year of my professional life."
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED