EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Wearing big snowsuits to deal with the harsh Michigan weather, Max Bullough and his family -- three siblings and two parents -- piled into the car one winter to hunt for a Christmas tree.
Max waited for his chance as they searched. When he had an opening, he tackled his younger brother, Riley. Riley tackled his younger sister, Holly. Then they all piled on the third child, Byron.
Welcome to life with the Bulloughs, where everything is competitive and athletic. Max going on a tackling spree is just as likely with his family -- where it is mostly playful -- as it is at Michigan State, where he is the Spartans’ top linebacker and emotional core.
“He would always tackle everyone,” Holly said. “... Really playfully, though. Ever since I could remember, they would be playing football and tackling each other, everywhere they went.”
In the Bullough backyard as kids or in the basement on their knees playing knee football, it was the same.
Holly, the youngest and already a high school state champion in Michigan in the 800 and 1,600 meters as a sophomore at St. Francis in Traverse City would snap the ball to the quarterback, Riley, the second child and now a redshirt freshman at Michigan State. He’d then look for Byron, now a senior at St. Francis and a MSU commit. Defending Byron would be Max, the oldest.
In the Bullough family, now three generations strong at Michigan State and four children deep as the kids of Shane and LeeAnn Bullough, one thing is clear.
Max Bullough is boss. His family even has a name for him: Tyrant. LeeAnn coined the nickname when Max was a child because, well, he was a bit demanding.
“You don’t tell Max what to do,” LeeAnn said. “He’ll do what he wants to do in his own time. When he went off to college, Shane and I were like, ‘Phew, I can’t wait for the coaches to have to deal with him."
“But he’s successful because of that, too. That’s just who he is.”
It has worked at Michigan State. Bullough became one of the Big Ten’s top linebackers with 111 tackles and was a Spartans captain last season. At home, Byron and Holly would follow Max everywhere, listening to everything he said.
Max’s personality led to some yelling when the Bulloughs were younger. Riley, the antithesis of Max as an aspiring musician and family joke-teller, learned how to agitate his brother. He’d fake being injured -- crying after Max threw a rock at him or if Max was on his neck when they wrestled -- to see Max get yelled at.
Only later would Shane and LeeAnn discover Riley was faking the whole time.
“He got yelled at,” Riley said, laughing at the memory. “I did that all the time.”
The relationship between the brothers, which was never bad, matured after Max left for Michigan State. The instigating stopped -- except when Max returned to Traverse City from Michigan State and Riley convinced LeeAnn to make chicken for dinner because he knew Max was sick of his staple meal from East Lansing.
Riley became the oldest child in the house. Byron took Max’s room. Riley took Max’s literal seat at one head of the Bullough dinner table, an honor reserved for the eldest Bullough child at home -- a tradition Max started.
Riley and Max talked more. Max texted Riley to get high school updates. Riley asked about Michigan State. When Riley committed to MSU, the relationship strengthened even more.
They’d play the same position -- linebacker -- but they would also be with each other all the time, eventually living together this year.
“He’s my best friend,” Max said. “He’s someone I obviously have gone through my whole life with and he can say the same about me. We act a little more like brothers than best friends, but it is all with good intentions.
“I’m his number one fan out there.”
Now, Max will actually watch him. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio moved Riley to tailback in the spring. He liked his toughness. His ability to gain extra yards. Being a Bullough, Dantonio knew Riley would provide that at linebacker or tailback.
An idea of the move percolated first in a Michigan State coaches meeting, when they kicked around the idea of moving Riley to tailback. His linebackers coach, Mike Tressel, knew Riley had ball skills from linebacker drills. Dantonio had the idea stuck in his head after using Riley to simulate Iowa’s Mark Weisman to prepare for the Hawkeyes last season. Dantonio’s prior time at MSU also helped. Then, the Spartans moved a little-used linebacker named T.J. Duckett to tailback.
“With two weeks left to go in spring, I just walked in and said, ‘We’re moving him over there. He’ll play both sides today,’ “ Dantonio said. “We just about wore him out.”
Tressel knew the move would stick when Dantonio brought it up. Tressel knew Riley could catch. What surprised Tressel was Riley’s natural vision and instincts.
By the beginning of preseason, Riley became Michigan State’s top running back on the depth chart, so the possibility of a Bullough starting at two of the premier positions at Michigan State at the same time is a definite possibility. Riley always liked offense better. He just never thought he’d get a shot at it.
The fifth and sixth members of the Bullough family who played football at Michigan State might end up starting at the same time.
“How many people get to do that, where they would both start and pay quite a bit,” said Shane, a MSU captain in 1986. “On both sides of the ball. We always joked it would be hard for us to get a restroom break in games this fall.
“But it’d be great.”
Max doing the hitting. Riley being tackled. A Bullough on the field. Some things with the Bulloughs don’t change.