Published April 30, 2007
Not until 3:15 a.m. Sunday did Dan Bazuin finally say goodbye to the last local to leave the pole barn outside McBain , Mich. , where the Bazuin family held his NFL draft party.
Bazuin estimated about 400 “Baners” showed up to celebrate the Bears taking him in the second round with the 62nd pick Saturday, not a bad turnout for a town of 597 in north central Michigan.
It was the one person who wasn’t there Bazuin noticed most.
“I thought about him the whole day and how much he’d love being at the party,” Bazuin said Sunday on the phone.
Bazuin was referring to younger brother Darin, who committed suicide last June one week after winning a Michigan high school discus title. He was 18.
“We never saw it coming,” said Janell Bazuin, Dan and Darin’s mother. “He was never suspected of doing anything like that.”
Darin Bazuin was a good student and a good athlete headed for Saginaw Valley State who loved his car and his friends like a typical teenager. In his obituary, the Cadillac News described Darin as having “a smile that would melt your heart.”
On his personal Web site, he wrote that his favorite thing was watching his big brother Dan play football. The idea that Darin is still watching him served as Dan’s inspiration his senior year at Central Michigan and will help carry him through any tough times he encounters his rookie year in Chicago . He wore an arm band with the words “Darin Lee” on his uniform last season.
“I think about it every day, but I’ve gotten past it the best I could,” Bazuin said. “All that I’ve gone through has shaped me as a leader. I have the opportunity to live my dreams and my brother won’t. Each day that gets a little easier to accept, but I still miss him.”
The Bears selected five players Sunday to cap a draft in which character factored into the process even more than in most years. It played no small part in why Bazuin, a 6-foot-3-inch, 265-pound overachieving defensive end with 33.5 career sacks against Mid-American Conference competition, jumped out of obscurity into the second round.
“I knew the type of person I was mirrored what they wanted in a player,” Bazuin said. “But I still was a little surprised.”
The perseverance the Bears valued so much was put to the test a month after Darin’s death last summer when Bazuin cut his big right toe. He considered it nothing out of the ordinary until an infection spread so badly that he had to be hospitalized for more than a week with sepsis. His temperature spiked at 105 degrees.
The setback caused Bazuin’s weight to dip 10 pounds below his ideal playing weight and initially jeopardized a senior season expected to provide a platform for the NFL. His sack total dropped from 16 as a junior to 10.5 as a senior, his tackles for lost yardage from 26.5 to 15. But he never offered excuses for tragedy or injury that occasionally made it hard to focus on football.
“He had his moments and we’ve all cried,” Janell Bazuin said. “It has been a tough year for Daniel. But he’s a very positive person whose attitude has changed my life.”
When Bazuin arrives Wednesday for next weekend’s mini-camp, he will bring a work ethic likely to make him an immediate fan favorite in Chicago . He grew up on the dairy farm operated by his parents, Ted and Janell, where the routine included milking cows and baling hay and waking before dawn.
Nicknamed “Buzz” by a college teammate who struggled pronouncing his last name, Bazuin started every game he played at CMU. He developed such lasting bonds that his former coach, Mike DeBoard, was the first person to text him after the selection, and he hadn’t coached Bazuin in three years.
The smile on Bazuin’s face as he accepted congratulations reminded his mom of a day when he was 5.
“Daniel came up to me and said, ‘Mom, is it OK if I don’t play pro baseball because I want to play pro football instead?’ ” Janell recalled. “We laughed at him, but since that day it’s been his dream.”
The Bears quietly made it reality for the lifetime Lions fan.
They didn’t invite Bazuin for a visit to Halas Hall, and defensive tackle appeared to be a bigger need because of the presence of ends Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, Israel Idonije and Alex Brown, who could be the odd man out. Lovie Smith went out of his way Sunday to point out the Bears’ history of playing rookies, the latest good signal for the guy who models his game after Grant Wistrom.
“If it creates good competition, the best man wins, so to speak,” general manager Jerry Angelo said. “We play a lot of defensive linemen on game day, so that will all sort itself out.”
Back in McBain, they are still sorting through the grief. But joyous days like Saturday help the Bazuins, who arranged the draft party at Bazuin’s uncle’s pole barn that was open to the community.
“We felt like we had to give back to the people for all they’ve done for Daniel,” Janell Bazuin said.
At one point, as the crowd swelled into the hundreds, Dan and his parents came to the same conclusion as their eyes met across the barn.
“Then,” Janell Bazuin said, “we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘This is what Darin wanted.’ ”