1977 : The Original Zeke the Wonderdog Born, Spartan Favorite and Tradition

October 8, 2021 all-day

The rise of MSU’s original Zeke the Wonderdog and his successors is a complicated story.

It involves triumph, a dramatic comeback after an 18-year absence, moments of tragedy, and the constant push to build an entertainment brand.

Gary Eisenberg, a 1979 Spartan graduate, laughed when a State Journal reporter asked how the whole saga started.

“It’s pretty funny when your dog opens more doors for you than your college degree,” he said chuckling.

The original Zeke was born Oct. 8, 1974 and adopted by Eisenberg, a MSU student at the time.

Eisenberg named the Lab Ezekiel -— before the dog’s unexpected rise to Zeke the Wonderdog status.

Zeke came from a litter of nine puppies in Bath Township and was the only golden-colored Lab of the group.

It didn’t take long for Gary Eisenberg to realize he was in the presence of greatness. Without formal training, Ezekiel, his golden Labrador retriever, eagerly sunk his teeth into challenges and catapulted quickly to fame.

He showed an affinity for Frisbees at an unlikely place: the parking lot of Duke’s Shell gas station in East Lansing.  Eisenberg, now 63, worked at the gas station and often brought Zeke there to pass the time.

“It never took me more than a day to train him to do anything,” Eisenberg said. “Whether it was ‘Sit, stay, lay down,’ whatever, he was just smart as a whip and aimed to please.”

In 1977, Ezekiel placed second in the World Canine Catch and Fetch Championship in Pasadena, Calif. He was 3 and had won the national semifinals a day earlier.

Once word surfaced that Ezekiel held his own in competitions, he was invited by Eddie Rutherford, a Michigan State athletic department official, to perform at a football game.

After that game the invites kept coming.

Ezekiel’s reputation soared to the point that he was given the name “Zeke the Wonderdog” by a State Journal reporter after one of his first shows, Eisenberg said.

Zeke’s gigs at Spartan Stadium turned so many heads that he became an extended family member of the football program.

Newspaper archives indicate the first reference showed up in a Nov. 23, 1977 story about the MSU football team’s awards banquet. It was written by then State Journal reporter Lynn Henning, now with The Detroit News.

After the 1977 season, coach Darryl Rogers awarded Zeke a varsity letter. Rogers called him “the best receiver in the Big Ten.”

Zeke performed on campus until 1984. He died three years later at the age of 13.

Eisenberg left the East Lansing area in the mid-1980s to pursue a career. He couldn’t pass the Frisbee on to anyone else.

Fun Facts About the Original Zeke the Wonderdog

    • The original wonderdog that debuted in 1977 predates MSU’s fully costumed Sparty mascot by 12 years.
    • Former MSU Football Coach Darryl Rogers awarded Zeke a varsity letter after the 1977 season.
    • An image of Zeke was featured on MSU’s souvenir program for its 1978 home football game against Minnesota.
    • Zeke made headlines in April 1979 when he was missing for eight hours.  He was found curled up in front of a downtown East Lansing store.
    • Zeke came out of retirement in 1984 to co-star in the play “Annie”, a Lansing Civic Players production.  He played the role of Sandy, Annie’s dog.

Unofficial Zeke

In the early 80s, a chocolate female Lab named Keze performed at some MSU events for a short time. She was hit and killed by a car in 1982. For the next 18 years, football games went on without an official Zeke II.

Zeke the Wonderdog Resurrected

Then, in 2002, Mark Hollis sparked a revival.

Hollis, who retired in January, was working for then-athletic director Ron Mason and  decided to hold tryouts for the next Wonderdog.

Jim and Teri Foley of Holland, Michigan, thought their black Lab named Dexter had what it took to earn the title.

Jim Foley tossed Frisbee after Frisbee on Spartan Stadium’s natural grass field at a tryout in front of MSU officials and learned quickly he was right.

Dexter started catching endzone-to-endzone passes. The displays of athleticism sealed the deal, said Teri Foley, Jim’s wife.

“I just remember what a ‘Wow’ factor that was,” she recalled.

Dexter served as Zeke II for the next five years.

He endured some adversity before a peaceful death in 2012 at the age of 16.

In 2005, Zeke II suffered intestinal blockage that required surgery at MSU’s Small Animal Clinic. Doctors said the blockage was caused by pieces of carpet he had eaten  at home.

Less than a year later, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right rear knee.

After two months of rehab, Zeke II returned for a final show on Sept. 8, 2007 before retiring.

Zeke III

The Foleys’ yellow Lab named Bou Cou became Zeke III a week later, having already received months of training.

He had nine-year run of performances and thrived during one of the most successful eras of MSU football.

One of Zeke III’s most memorable moments was when he snatched a Frisbee pass in the Spartan Stadium endzone from former MSU quarterback Connor Cook.

The Nov. 28, 2015 play occurred minutes after Cook led the Spartans to a win over Penn State on senior day. It capped an 11-1 regular season.

Tragedy struck a year later.

Zeke III died on Dec. 2, 2016 from a tumor in his pancreas. He was 9 and too ill to perform at a women’s basketball game that day at MSU’s Breslin Center.

The Foleys’ tragic loss opened the door for an understudy, their third Lab, a day later.

Zeke IV : An Instant success

Zeke IV, formerly known as Buckshot, answered the call at a men’s basketball game.

He snatched a Frisbee that Jim Foley tossed the length of the Breslin Center floor — about 90 feet.

The sprinting catch was flawless, and the venue erupted with cheers. He also clasped with his teeth a disc that Foley bounced off the hardwood.

Since that day, Zeke IV has thrived with a full schedule of appearances ranging from an NFL preseason game to a high school graduation party.

“He’s a goodwill ambassador, so what we can do, we do,” Jim Foley said. “He’s open to all people, he’s open to everyone. He crosses all borders.”

Like previous Zekes, No. IV follows a strict training regimen: daily disc-catching workouts on football fields and the occasional swim.

The food Zeke IV eats is of the high-performance variety and similar to the protein-packed, vitamin rich chow devoured by Iditarod sled dogs.

When the football season kicks off Aug. 31 against Utah State, Zeke the Wonderdog IV — all 55 pounds of him — is expected to add more flair to the tradition.

Training camp is nearly over. Bring on season two, one that will unveil new tricks that show interaction with cheerleaders, band members and the Sparty mascot, said Jim Foley, Zeke IV’s caretaker.

Bob Rorich, The Racoon Coat Guy at MSU Football Games, on Zeke the Wonderdog

When the newest Zeke scampers by a tailgate party outside Spartan Stadium, he’s treated like a celebrity, as were the dogs who came before him, said Bob Rorich, a 79-year-old former cheerleader.

“If you can ever walk with him through the parking lot, my God, he’s second to Sparty,” Rorich said.

Rorich is known as the “raccoon coat guy” by die-hard Spartan fans who attend games often.

He’s worn the same fur coat for nearly 50 years and accompanies Zeke on the field at homecoming games.

Zeke Performs at Special Events Too

Spartan star power leads to plenty of invitations to perform.

Jim Foley gets paid per Zeke IV appearance, but said he often just breaks even because of travel costs. Most appearance fees draw at least $100.

The work can be tiring and requires Jim Foley to pay at least $60 in liability insurance per show.

Zeke visiting with East Lansing fans at a Fun in the Park event.

Zeke IV is well-behaved with Spartan fans, especially children, and has never bitten anyone, Foley said. Previous Zekes also kept their composure.

Jim Foley’s payoff for all the work he puts into training performance dogs are the smiles and laughs he sees from others.

“Everyone has to have something they love doing,” he said. “It sure makes it easier to go to work the next day when you got something to live for tomorrow.

At home in Holland, Zeke IV retrieves the Foleys’ newspaper every morning.

He sprints out of the house and leaps to snatch it out of a box by the street.

It’s those type of moments that remind Jim Foley how nice it is to have the dog around, he said.

He’s thought about retiring, but Foley still has a full-time job as a machine operator job at Herman Miller, a furniture manufacturer he’s been with for over 30 years.

And Foley wants to assist in a transition plan with MSU so more dogs can thrive with the Zeke the Wonderdog title.

It’s not yet time to pass the Frisbee, Foley said.

“I want this to grow,” he said. “I want to be looking down from heaven someday and see Zeke 40 on the field.”

Check out Zeke the Wonderdog’s Facebook Page

Source : Eric Lacy, “How Zeke the Wonderdog became a Michigan State tradition“, Lansing State Journal, August 18, 2018.