EAST LANSING - As Michigan State's football players boarded a plane destined for Los Angeles, where they'd face Stanford in the Rose Bowl on January 1, senior linebacker Kyler Elsworth wondered why team captain Max Bullough hadn't yet taken the seat next to him.
He was always on time.
Elsworth found Bullough's younger brother, Riley, and asked where Max was. He only got a mumble and a shrug in response. He took out his phone and called Max. Immediately to voice mail.
He thought maybe Bullough had gone to California ahead of his teammates to handle media responsibilities.
Never did he think his life, and his place in Spartans lore, was about to change forever.
Elsworth sought out Riley Bullough again and asked "Where's your brother?"
This time, Riley said in a muted tone, "He's not going to be coming to the game."
Elsworth flew to Los Angeles with his head spinning. What could have happened? Is everything alright? When he landed, there was a missed call from Max Bullough on his phone.
The two seniors had roomed together for three years on the road, experiencing the highs of a Big Ten Championship and the lows of a disappointing 2012 season. Their careers in East Lansing were supposed to end with this storybook final trip to Pasadena.
Instead, Elsworth found himself talking to Bullough via cell phone moments after the team arrived in Los Angeles. He didn't want to know too much about why Bullough was suspended for the Rose Bowl, because he knew people would ask and if he didn't know, he wouldn't have to dance around questions. He could firmly deny any knowledge.
The reality was - Bullough was out and Elsworth was in.
The captain's absence transformed Elsworth's life and set in motion a string of events that awaits its next turn this weekend, when NFL teams add to their rosters through the draft and free agent signings.
Elsworth was named defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl as Michigan State beat Stanford 24-20. His tackle on 4th and 1 with less than two minutes left became legendary in MSU history.
He signed with an agent, attended private workouts in Arizona, fielded phone calls from NFL teams and impressed scouts at MSU's Pro Day.
He made public appearances, was featured at autograph signings and was stopped on the street by people he'd never met before.
"I'm just a normal guy," said Elsworth as we chatted over a game of pool in the Player's Lounge at the Spartans football facility.
"I'm not too worried about how I get there. I'm not too worried about being drafted. I want an opportunity. That's what I got at Michigan State was an opportunity and I tried to capitalize on it as much as I could. So the path of how I get to the NFL is not my worry."
If a door is opened, Kyler Elsworth has proven he'll do whatever it takes to prove he's worthy to walk through.