Thursday, September 15, 2011


He speaks in gasps, if you can do that. In a language Patrick Omameh sometimes does not understand. Fragments of his sentences are amputated by insane joy. I just… I just… and then he is laughing and sighing incredulously. He speaks because if he did not he would probably explode. “I think we’ve kind of adapted to his … I guess, uh … method of speaking,” Omameh says. He is so permanently happy that he sometimes runs out of breath because of it. I think that in the center of Denard Robinson’s brain is a miniaturized version of himself launching off of a tire swing and into a giant ball pit. Only instead of plastic the balls are made of pure serotonin. He lands and they explode and shards are absorbed by Human Denard’s synapses. This sequence repeats like a .gif, over and over and over. It is what operates this dreadlocked instrument. And what we see on the outside is brilliant impulse, a quarterback throwing for 202 yards on four possessions.
Mike Martin said that when Gallon caught that pass that Ryan Van Bergen laid down on the ground and said, “This is crazy.” Denard does not have an explanation and he does not suspect that we do either. The game ends and he is still running around. He is hopping and dancing; one hundred and ninety pounds of supercharged energy ricocheting off of the ground and brick walls and Taylor Lewan’s arms. He leaves the field and it is quiet. He returns and they howl his name. He is sitting behind a desk next to Chris Fowler. Fowler looks like he wants emphatic, fist-clenched profundities; he is hunched over slightly and saying things in his Professional Voice. He tells Denard how many yards he finished with. Denard yelps and puts his head in his hands. He doesn’t believe him. He does not believe any of this, it seems. HOW IS THIS REAL? HOW DO WE EXIST? HOW DO WE AS RANDOM, INDEPENDENT PIECES WHO MAKE CARTOON VOICES AND TATTOO MUSTACHES ONTO OUR FINGERS ASSEMBLE TO CREATE SOMETHING THAT LEAVES A HUNDRED THOUSAND PEOPLE STANDING IN A GIANT CONCRETE CRATER STARING OFF INTO THE NOTHINGNESS? DO YOU REALIZE THAT? THAT THIS IS OUR LIVES? He processes everything like a child who was looking through a kaleidoscope for the first time. The world is made of shiny colors. I play football and they let me keep playing football.
He is flawed and yet defiantly indifferent to those flaws. He is not indignant, he just does not care. Restraint is for monks and carpenters and slow-playing a nut hand. He is not a carpenter. He is a blindfolded juggler of flaming chainsaws. Sometimes he completes two passes in an entire half and we run for our lives. But most of the time we watch him and we are cross-eyed buffoons, a stained glass scene in a church window of mortals witnessing the Resurrection.
He runs a bootleg 30 yards just to get to the opposite side of the field. He was running but now he has stopped. He prepares to throw. They know he has not been good at passing tonight and that he should probably be running. He is about to pass anyway. They are chasing you; don’t you see them, Denard? But he is just standing there, completely upright, looking around. Now he is running again. Within the width of five feet he cuts past three people. Left and then right and then left again, hard stomps into the ground. The goal line is right there and he crashes into everyone who is standing in front of it.
Al Borges says this: “He does a lot in there that I don’t draw on the board.” Borges does not because he could not. You would not have a job if you suggested the things that he does. He does things that are outrageous. And they are perfect. Denard Robinson does things that would be like trying to draw a sound.
He has sustained things that seem unconditionally absurd and unsustainable. He makes decisions that are objectively bad. Borges says that they are bad. I am okay with this. That is the exchange. There are passes to places no pass should ever go because there are also inexplicably precise, 20-yard, flatfooted throws while a 300-pound man tears at his clothing and grips his ankle. Tire Swing Denard is oblivious to context. Without him we would have a preprogramed platitude dispenser. We would have every National League baseball manager. We would have your local mayor. We would have Peyton Manning.
Instead, we get this:
We get a walking emoticon, someone who looks at all times like he is riding a Slip ‘n Slide down the neck of a brontosaurus. Who has turned the implausible into pure farce. He is so immune to self-doubt that it is almost literally unbelievable. Where did you come from, man? He pats Manti Te’o on the helmet twice after being tackled by him and then on third-and-two runs straight into his chest for a first down. He is tiny and he is fragile but he will not run around you. He does not adhere to the conventions of this game. He politely acknowledges them and then he sets them on fire and builds castles with the ash.
Football has a spectacular way of eating you alive limb by limb. In August of 2010 Troy Woolfolk snapped his ankle and most of the cartilage and ligaments that were attached to it. He spent the season using Twitter to give pithy relationship advice and brag about his UNO victories. He watched away games on a television screen in his sterile apartment. The defense was relentlessly bad and its players were reminded of his absence only when things went wrong and they needed him, or anyone, really, to fix it. They missed him but the game was still happening. It wags its finger at you. And they are playing it and he is watching it. Football is both an identity and a terminal illness. A rhythm and a chaos and an opiate for the mind all at once. He spent a lot of time talking to his dog.
But I have also seen football turn a man into a levitating deity. He would be this same person without the game’s existence, but there would be no vehicle, no delivery. He gives us total detachment from reality, from rigid expectations. Denard Robinson comes from places covered in hot gravel and choked, yellow grass. A somewhere that looks to us like nowhere. He comes from these places:

He lives here now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Two Saturdays ago I woke up in Ann Arbor on an inflatable mattress on the floor of a friend’s apartment. You know how the rest goes.

If you type in Denard Robinson on Google the first suggestion is "Denard Robinson Heisman." He doesn't know what they say about him on television because he doesn’t have cable. Notre Dame let him in the interview room and it was the first time an opposing player has been allowed in there since 1997. Dick Vitale spent Saturday afternoon telling Jalen Rose over Twitter that Denard Robinson was awesome, baby. Lebron James said he was “a monster out there right now.” Denard Robinson is from a different dimension. We can only swarm to the crater where he crash landed and pick through the debris for souvenirs.

Spectators have an immediate need to formulate a narrative. But Denard has undergone no distillation. He is raw, unconscious, disappearing over the horizon with his arm dangling out the window. There is no calculation; no bravura nor is there gruff introversion. He is just alone in the middle of thousands of people who scream his name while he tries to get the hell out of there. The game ends and there are 25 people with wires dragging behind them who converge to ask him why and how and when he knew and really to just stand and stare and wait for him to say something profound. But he keeps walking. He says nothing and then runs off to follow someone who he recognizes into the tunnel.

Only once on Saturday did Denard look uncomfortable: when it was over, as he wandered around looking for Nate Montana, and Doug Karsch kept putting a microphone in front of his face.

He has done nothing personally to embellish the mythology. Tate didn’t remember his name on Signing Day. Recruiting sites thought he’d only make it as a corner back. The hair that hangs down his back, the teeth that glow like some kind of nuclear ooze seeping from a bio-hazard drum. It is just there. He doesn’t embrace it and he isn’t even ambivalent about it. “Who are you?” they seem to ask. He laughs and stares at the ground. “Do I have to keep talking?” He crosses the goal line and immediately falls to one knee, as if God was up there tapping on his watch and Denard had to apologize for taking so long. He is as discreet as someone who has amassed eight-hundred-and-eighty-five yards in two games is capable of being. Which is to say he’s about as discreet as someone who walks into an orphanage with a keg of moonshine on his shoulder and a cigar in his mouth and tosses $26 worth of firecrackers into a toilet bowl.

Every sentence begins with an impulse, a spasm, and then they end with him smiling and looking somewhere else, trying to give you a phrase he’s heard before. He nearly said, “I played good” but corrected himself and proudly said, “I played well.”

In an interview after the UConn game, an old man asked Denard about his touchdown. And Denard said, “Oh man … I was just ready, I was just ready to run and ready to go. I knew I was gonna break one, at least. I had ran … I ran it, uh, I think I had ran it three times, and it was just like, ‘Alright, time to get it in the endzone.’”

The game amuses him. Football is a Herculean beast that crushes players in its fists into a bloody paste. There are fleeting moments of bliss but ultimately it will ruin you. To Denard it will not. It is something to be conquered, an equation written on a chalkboard. And he solves it by kicking a hole through the window and setting the entire school on fire. He defies even the most grandiose hyperbole. So we will say this: Denard Robinson has more rushing yards than any other person in the country. He has 41 more yards than the next guy. And that guy did it against Washington State and Troy.

Describing his speed is like explaining to a blind person what colors look like or how big a mountain is. Hold this rock in your hand, only imagine a rock that your hand or a bigger hand or a million bigger hands could not close around. That’s a mountain. Something like that. His first 10 runs against Notre Dame went: 4, 2, 3, 9, 36, 6, 14, 2, 7, 87. Eventually, you just lose. You are working against one of the principle dynamics of the universe: Denard Robinson is fast. If you’re behind him it won’t end well.

This is not Mike Hart frantically looking over each shoulder like he was being chased by a dinosaur holding the top seven stories of a building in its mouth. Denard’s runs are moments of extreme calm. A decision, a pivot, a man running in a straight line. He is a trail of gasoline swallowing a lit cigarette. My memories are not of a few uninterrupted seconds of him running but of static images. He is here and then he is  there and in between is a narcotic haze. We are entranced. There were people jumping in front of me and behind me and, at some point, I was knocked between the rows by someone who had forgotten where he was and impulsively grabbed my shoulders to steady himself while he watched Denard disappear.

"I don't think he'll be taken by the storm," said Dave Molk.

There is no vanity, no self-preservation. He never slides or veers out of bounds. He is oblivious to the idea of something existing beyond this moment. Quarterbacks avoid contact as if it were a biological imperative and yet Denard leaps and is suspended almost perfectly horizontal while limbs covered in thin fabric are pulverized from all angles. He does it not for the distance itself but for an idea: to relinquish anything is a tragedy. The first down is right there, I can see it in front of my face. The future is an abstract concept that does not scare me. I am just here and I am lying in the grass telling you that I don’t tie my shoes because I never have, and when it’s time, I am running until I have to squint to see straight while they give me the play from the sideline. But then I am running again; I am running and they still can’t catch me. Sometimes he looks like he just ran headfirst into the Atlantic and kept running until he reversed the tides. And then he leans over to keep from falling down. “I don’t like being caught from behind,” he says. He’s not being coy. He’d just prefer that it doesn’t happen.

He says this: “I mean, uh, when they call my number, and the offensive line is blocking like that, and it’s God willing, and God engineering, I mean, I can do whatever.” You can thank God for the cab fare, I guess. You’ve been doing just fine on your own since you got here.

He is not tired. He is not hurt. He does not know what storm you’re talking about.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

She Might Be In Tangier

Rich Rodriguez: “Minor unfortunately, doggone it for Brandon, his ankle is better but his shoulder isn’t. He wasn’t able to do anything (Tuesday), don’t know how much he’s going to be able to do (Wednesday), so unfortunately for Brandon he’s doubtful.”

On Saturday he will be there. Not on Thursday or on Friday, but you don't prepare for the deranged violence. He doesn't need to, doesn't bother. It is Saturday. It is November. It is Ohio State. It would take a lobotomy and a coma and even then a hundred men to hold him down when he awakens on fourth and short and begs for the ball and for everyone to just step aside. If an asteroid smashed into the earth he would grab the ball and run through the smoldering crater.

Brandon Minor said these things after Iowa:

“I wanna come out and show that I’m real physical and tough, and I aint shying down from no defense.”

On pass blocking: “When I was a freshman I was going against Shawn Crable, Dave Harris, Prescott, LaMarr Woodley, Branch coming off the edge. I got beat up my share of days, you know, so it’s my turn to do the beating up.”

“I love contact. It really doesn’t hurt as much once you deliver the hit. If you sit there and take the contact it’ll hurt all day. I figure defensive players don’t like getting hit either, that’s why they not running the ball. So I might as well hit them.”

Mike used his cuts as a defense mechanism, out of desperation. But Minor commits to a destination immediately. He pivots once and purple storm clouds gather. Sometimes I have to pull myself from this carnage too but that’s ok because I can endure this. I have felt this before. He runs in a panic to find human contact, addicted to it, as if he’d lose his balance without it and stumble along lonely. It is a syndrome, a sacrifice. Lay me on an altar on the side of a mountain and cut out my organs and lift them to the sky.

It is a psychotic vendetta against every mind and body that play for the other team. There’s nothing about them in particular, just that they are in his way. The end zone is there and he’s not going to run around you. He only knows of one way to do this. There might be tougher men, ones who wore robes made out of bison hides or worked in the hull of a steam ship. But at this moment, among those playing football, he is unparalleled.

There is no such thing as moderation or restraint. He is designed to eventually collapse because he doesn’t know how to slow down. He runs until he can’t stand up anymore and then he tries to limp back to the huddle. He is just a series of prolonged explosions, until there is no more of him. In two seasons he has had bruised ribs, a wrist that needed surgery, a bad shoulder, a sprained ankle, a bad heel, and a bad shoulder again. “Injury prone” is a convenient explanation for coincidence, but for some it is merely fate. You don’t get mad at a bomb for blowing up. It’s a bomb, that’s what it was designed to do.

Maybe he runs like that because he’s spent three years watching Mike do it better with less. Or maybe he’s always been that way, pent up, behind a few mistakes. After touchdowns he seems more relieved than excited, grateful for the chance to stand in front of this train that screams along the tracks toward us season after season.

Each week they tell us he’s injured but it means nothing. Sometimes he barely runs at all and then he’s there on 3rd and 9 to pass block with the type of insane intensity that starts wars or Led Zeppelin concerts. It is routine. And afterward he shrugs his shoulders and can barely keep his eyes open. I’m 100%. Anything else? See you next weekend.

This isn’t a hobby; it is a way of life. It defines him. Mike was mischievous and slightly diabolical but it felt like a test to see what he could get away with. Minor’s frustrations have been too frequent, his conquests too scarce. He has no time for games or manipulation, just sheer brute force, calloused knuckles and someone twitching on the ground after. 

He said this after Notre Dame: “I’d rather just run somebody over you know, get them out they game, cuz they gonna be looking for that the whole game or they just gonna be…their whole scheme will be messed up. They just gonna be worried about me running them over rather than whether they gotta drop back or do whatever.”

When he speaks there is no angst or inflection. He sounds unmoved, bored, tired. This is a bank robber handing the teller a canvas bag and then asking if she knows a decent place to eat while she’s filling it with cash. He speaks in a monotone despite the fact that he’s literally describing how he wants to hurt someone so they will be afraid of them.

To Michigan this game changes almost nothing. If they go to a bowl it will be forgotten and Ohio State is going to the Rose Bowl anyway. And yet it still means something. It is for proof that they’re capable of more than begrudgingly accepting our excuses for why they’re no good. The endless rationalizations they wish they didn’t need. They’re walk-ons to us because we have an obsessive need to categorize, to dissect, to compare them to the players on other teams who we don't care about. But to them, they know just that they can’t do what they’re supposed to. The reasons don’t matter.

Brandon Graham: "I haven't broke down yet. I always wait till I get home...I wait till I get home and let it all out."

They committed to this for what now must seem like odd and foolish reasons. They gave away their mornings and nights for a physical torture that outsiders and even all of us are simply amused by. The conditioning coach who growls. The men who vomit. “Through these doors walk….” And yet we still only maintain a very basic understanding. They did it for themselves, for each other. But there has been mostly failure. They resent those who abandoned them because they were lazy or afraid. Brandon Graham said this: “I’ve got a lot of words for a lot of people. Whoever’s in my way every play, I let them know, don’t come my way. Some people talk back, some people don’t. (Boren) is just somebody who shouldn’t have been here in the first place. That’s over and done with. Justin, we will see on Saturday.”

These are family values: wagons circled, debris, numb to the great outrage, taped ankles and a fuck you if you're not with us; look me in the eye and know that eventually this will all pass. They'll remember this day when they're old and sit on dusty sofas dozing in and out of consciousness. You lost a lot but not your dignity. And you realize that it wasn't just about winning but about patience and faith that it would get better.

This season hasn’t been bad in fragments. It was good, and then it became a throbbing, consistent agony we accepted and then repressed. But they are still here. They will cry when it is over and cringe just to get there but they are not afraid. They have already felt that pain.