After Tom Izzo graduated from Northern Michigan in 1977, he became the head coach of the Ishpeming High School Hematites, named for one of the minerals they mine in the Upper Peninsula.
Once the Hematites were driving to play an arch rival, when suddenly the players started yelling, “Coach! You gotta stop the bus! It’s Suds!” Izzo replied, “What’s a ‘suds’?!”
Suds is what they called David Solberg, who was born in 1957, the second of four children. Before he turned four, he already wore glasses and orthopedic shoes, had several surgeries to improve his hearing, and started speech therapy.
He was uncoordinated and socially awkward. He was not diagnosed with anything back then, but in hindsight, his sister, Debbie, says he was probably mildly autistic.
Predictably, the kids at school picked on him, and he had to repeat the second grade. But he was good at math and reading, and he could pull up seemingly random facts, names, and numbers in an instant – especially if they involved sports.
When Suds got to Ishpeming High School, the football players adopted him, he kept score for the JV basketball team, and he graduated with the class of ‘76, at age 19. Suds never got his driver’s license, so he hitchhiked all over the U.P. And that’s what Suds was doing when Tom Izzo’s team bus drove by. Izzo told the bus driver to stop. Suds got on, introduced himself and started a lifelong friendship.
Suds went to all the Ishpeming games that year and became the team’s scorekeeper. The next year, Izzo became Northern Michigan’s assistant coach, and Suds joined his sister in East Lansing, where she’d just graduated as a nurse. Suds went to a vocational school, then worked at a bowling alley, then Tripper’s sports bar, and finally the Meijer store in Lake Lansing, where he officially worked as a greeter and bagger, but unofficially as the store’s mayor. Every waitress in town loved him.
When Michigan State hired Izzo as an assistant in 1983, he didn’t know many people. He often called Debbie with tickets for the game. Suds always wanted to go, even if he had to go by himself. Izzo also gave Suds countless Spartan t-shirts and hats, which were gold to Suds. He never wore anything else, unless the Packers were playing.
Suds often called Izzo, but he never talked long. “How ya doing? Watcha doing? Well, gotta go!” When the Spartans played badly, Suds wouldn’t sugar coat it. “Oh my God, Tom, they played like crap!” Suds wasn’t just a fan. He was a real friend.
When Izzo became the head coach in 1995, he told Suds, “’Hey, I’m going to be a lot busier now, so you can’t be calling all the time.’ But it never stopped him.”
A year ago, Suds’s liver enzyme deficiency caught up with him, and sent him to the hospital. It was March Madness, but Izzo found a few minutes to visit Suds. For each game, Debbie brought her brother a different Spartan shirt and hat. When the Spartans got to the Final Four, Izzo called Debbie with tickets for her and Suds. Suds was thrilled, but the doctors decided they needed to keep him over the weekend. Suds still proudly posted on Facebook that he had two tickets to the Final Four.
In June, Suds returned to the hospital. He started recovering, then took a turn for the worst. He passed away in a sweatsuit with Izzo’s name on the back, Suds’s favorite.
They held the funeral in Michigan State’s Alumni Chapel, where Izzo gave the eulogy.
"Great players play great,” Izzo said, “but elite players make everyone around them better. And that is what Suds did: he made everyone better."
“I get stuff in the mail all the time from people saying they’re my No. 1 fan. But I only had one N0. 1 fan, and it was Suds.”
And that’s what a Suds is.