Sunday, November 26, 2006


His face was a heap of creased cardboard, pale and lifeless; his voice wavering and troubled, like he was calling from a phone booth in the middle of a rainstorm. Lloyd breathed into the microphone with brisk exhales, as if his mouth was too close to it and he didn’t really give a shit that it was. It was like he’d never done it before; he was in a different place that night. I saw the video recording hours after it happened, long after the rest of my family had gone to sleep. But Bo was dead and Michigan had lost a football game, and the coach we’ve all turned to for answers had no one to turn to himself. I guess you could say I was in a different place that night, too.

Most of his press conference wasn’t much of a press conference at all. It was as if Lloyd was leaving one last message on Bo’s answering machine. And in knowing Bo would never hear it, and the futile hope that if he pleaded Bo would be able to, Lloyd spoke faster and with less control. You could tell it hurt him too much to swallow, so he talked as if he could escape the pain, rambling and never swallowing. It was as if once he stopped, he knew he’d have to hang up the phone forever.

With the Friday he had, you could say that November 18th, 2006 was one of the worst days of Lloyd Carr’s life and no one would call you a liar. But in some strange way, this kind of mess is everything we asked for. Not the score, or the way it happened, but this was the cruel, ruthless, steel-eyed nature of sports; we build our lives around this – willingly. And in our perpetual quest for redemption – for Bo; for the last Michigan team that lost to Ohio State, and the one before that, and all the others – we walked up to its face undaunted by our potential fate. We risk new pain for the thought that we can erase the old; that’s how this works. And when your year has been pulverized and you’re only left to wonder, it seems like such a foolish waste.

It was an unfortunate game in that there was nothing to blame the loss on but those who we’ve excused for failure the entire season. There were bad calls, but none that hurt Michigan. There were turnovers, but none that Michigan committed. In the end, Michigan was simply beaten by a team I had convinced myself didn’t exist – a better one. And I was reminded of something Keith Jackson once said, after Kordell Stewart completed a fairly significant touchdown pass to Michael Westbrook with zero seconds left in the game. He said, “There are no flags on the field. Only despair for the Maize and Blue.” That was just it – Ty Law was helpless on that day; just as I was helpless eleven days ago, just as Leon Hall was, and Lloyd Carr, too, bewildered, exhausted, answering someone’s questions.

I’ve heard that Ohio journalists call Troy Smith “Robo-Troy” when he’s behind a microphone; he’s programmed to exude almost no emotion. He’s known only as he is with a jersey on. He’s the nemesis that slays his enemies as a routine, and then licks the blood from his sword. But Mike Hart, he’ the knight in peasant’s clothing who never seems comfortable at the roundtable. He resents the super strata of football players he’s begrudgingly a part of, because that’s not really who he is. The robotic Goliath of the football world and the little kid that won’t let anyone push him around. And yet fate lets the robot become the hero. It wasn't the way these stories were supposed to end.

But these sports inflict pain with no remorse. The nightmares don’t always give way to a gentler reality, because sometimes the nightmares are reality. Michigan should have won 24-12. Bo’s death should have been one of the most honorable acts of martyrdom of our time and not just a somber coincidence. Steve shouldn't still have a haunted soul. LaMarr’s eyes shouldn’t still be so tormented. Prescott shouldn’t have to exemplify only the agonizing portion of the human experience. Mike shouldn’t have to fight for a second chance when he’s spent a lifetime fighting to be given a first chance. Michigan had a thousand reasons why it deserved to get what it wanted, and yet it didn’t; Lloyd didn’t. Those guys would all be forgotten, fighting to be remembered. And so I cried, because when you realize history has been made at your expense, you can only root for the headlines to be kind.

A few days before the game, Bo was talking about Lloyd. You could tell that he liked talking about him, liked defending him. “He's done a marvelous job. Here we are 11-0. Our team from this year to last year is night and day.” Bo had protected Lloyd until everyone had forgiven him, and then he decided to let Lloyd handle things by himself. A few days later they were 11-1, and in perhaps the most fortunate moment of Michigan’s season, no one forced Lloyd to stand during his press conference.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Tie

Jim Tressel showed up for his Monday press conference as a sly mafioso of sorts, his glasses perched midway down his nose, his jacket crisp, his red tie shining in the spotlights – an ironic (a devil hidden beneath a Biff Loman’s clothing) and yet all too inevitable wardrobe. “We’ve got to be spotless,” he said. “But that’s not a concern; that’s just something you always know. I don’t think there’s anything that concerns me about this game.” Of course, he made sure to tell us that it wasn’t a concern; that Ohio State had no flaws, so Michigan might as well not bother looking for them. He looked professional, he looked prepared; he was detestable, for the very fact that he was, as he always is when a camera is on, the flawlessly arranged alter-ego of the devious Jim Tressel we know exists.

Lloyd was flustered and disoriented, his shoulders hunched to the right; the bags under his eyes only slightly concealed by his glasses (nowhere near as debonairly positioned as Tressel’s); and he was wearing the kind of tie you might pull out of the bottom of a closet to wear to your younger brother’s communion. He rocked back and forth, as he always does, as if his Monday press conference was merely a stop on the way to Barnes & Noble. “It’s not a game of perfect; there’s going to be some mistakes,” Lloyd said. “You just have to keep playing, play from the whistle… to the time the ball snaps to the time the whistle blows…to the, uh, time the clock reads zero.” It was vintage Lloyd; a bouquet of sports clichés (none of which making much sense at all) and a somewhat endearing carelessness – as if he was so disinterested in the whole process that it must have been on purpose, part of some premeditated display of self deprecation to lull the opponents into a false sense of security.

The point in all this is that making sense, that doing things the way you’re supposed to, isn’t the only way to win 11 games and lose zero. There was Tressel, a whore to the media, postured perfectly with all the right answers, and maddeningly polite. And there Lloyd was, confused (and never really giving a shit that he was), bored, grouchy, and shortly after his conference had concluded, chewing the face off of some poor interviewer for (reportedly) asking him how close he came to retiring last year. How strange that two men so completely different stand before each other today, the Day of days, identical in the only place that matters?

So if you're curious what I think will happen today, don't bother. I could tell you that Mike Hart’s never let any of us down; that when he sways side to side in the huddle, as if the play Chad was calling was some voice coming from a jukebox in a rundown diner, I’ve never felt more at ease.

I could tell you that bamboo shoots are no match for elephants and rhinos, and offensive guards are no match for Alan Branch.

I could tell you that the seniors on Michigan’s defense who’ve never beaten Ohio State in their prime will stomp the piss out of the glamour boys on Ohio State’s offense.

I could tell you that, goddam it, if Bo was so worried about them he would have stuck around for another day.

I could tell you that English has inspired barbarians like William Wallace while DeBord has crafted strategies like Cornwallis.

I could tell you that when they tell tales of vengeance with karmic conclusions, they do it with Steve Breaston in mind.

I could tell you that while Braylon was always the vile of water from the Styx River, Mario is the scotch that hits you bluntly and sits in your stomach, until you can do nothing but sit motionless on the sofa, letting him do his work.

I could tell you that at some point all these tears have to be wept for different reasons; “ ‘I’ve never in all my years played against a team like that one,” said Troy Smith after the loss’ ” reasons.

But what matters is that Michigan has had every reason to not go 11-0 this year, and yet they have. And I’m not one to bet against a man who doesn’t mind looking foolish in a bad tie; that much I will tell you.

Monday, November 13, 2006


And so they find themselves with everything to play for and nothing to lose, on borrowed time, with house money, in God’s hands – rugged riders on a trite voyage so familiar to us all: hopes gone long ago, souls worn to dust through a half-decade of ridicule and scattered in Autumn’s afternoon gusts by the collective, jaded, sigh of a loyalist nation, only so it could all to be captured after everyone swore it couldn’t be. After we’d given up; “Michigan’s not the same Michigan anymore,” after we’d accepted that. But here they are, the first guys you’d want to be there for you, in the last place you thought they’d be. Somewhere, years from now, I may wake from sleep as a brunette’s blue eyes take the air from my lungs; I may lay shirtless on warm beaches and watch fuchsia sunsets with foreign booze on my lips; I may leave footprints in Mars’ red dirt, but give me a Michigan win on Saturday and you can save your inquiries as to which moment I’ll favor.

I’m done caging my optimism. I’m done suppressing my hopes. This is the team I’ve waited for since 1997, when I was just a naive adolescent unfamiliar with the idea that championships don’t happen every year. In high school I used to create flaws in the girls that were too pretty for me; that way it was easier to convince myself I never wanted them in the first place. Well this is sort of the same thing, only I’m with the girl, and she doesn’t have any flaws. I suppose there aren’t any playmakers among the safeties, and DeBord does seem overly reliant on Mario and Mike, but that’s sort of like saying this girl of ours isn’t perfect because her cuticles are fraying.

One year ago – September it was – we listened to Lloyd, with whatever might the old man had left, try to distract us from the simple fact that another season had come and vanished before we had any chance, any reason to give a shit. “We lost a game, but we found a defense,” he said after Michigan had lost to Notre Dame. He lied to us; it was the season that was lost, not just a game. Months later, we realized Lloyd probably knew it back in September, too. But those days have passed, and were it not for how efficiently underwhelming most of the last decade has been there would be no hesitancy in falling for this team. Somewhere halfway through Wisconsin two forces met: the temptation to believe in this team - this dominant, satisfying team - and the memory of last year’s scorn. Weeks have passed since then; Michigan has not lost a single game this season. So the only question left to be answered, then, is when you realized this was a team worth remembering.

You can almost picture football players as emotionless characters, perspiring between the columns of a pantheon, catching lightning bolts between their teeth and tying them in knots with their tongues – immortals that just live in a mortal man’s world for three hours at a time. Football has always been a cold game; violently physical yet mostly devoid of intimacy. They’re the kind of people that fight for you but never really represent you; hired hands to take care of matters none of us are capable of. But this Michigan team is different than that; it’s a compilation of the kind of people we know, people we like for more reasons than just because they play for our team.

There’s a 5-8 running back who sat in a barbershop chair four years ago declaring to anyone who would listen – no doubt with a vehemence that mandated the barber stop cutting altogether and wait for Mike to finish what he was saying – he’d be starting at Michigan by his fourth game. There’s a secondary that plays chess in its spare time, its victors proud to win even such a quintessentially intellectual game; a quarterback that mumbles and sweats on the podium every now and then, perhaps as daunted by where he’s taken his team as we all know we would be. There’s the star wide receiver that has nothing resembling a post-game persona. It wasn’t until he almost single handedly outscored Notre Dame that the media could do nothing but drag him to the podium and ask him what the hell he just did. When someone asked him how he kept such a low profile on campus, Mario replied, with an unconvincing smile, “I wear a hat." One defensive end used to wake up in the middle of the night just to help his injured roommate walk to the bathroom; the other has a tattoo of Woody Woodpecker on his left bicep.

Two linebackers have mohawks; one of which supposedly lost his girlfriend to Maurice Clarett; the third was a one-star recruit from Grand Rapids, currently the best linebacker in the country, who so nervously shrugs his shoulders during post game interviews you’d think he never heard a reassuring word in his life.

And then there’s Steve Breaston, the wide receiver who never says much and always says it softly; once quick enough to catch falling raindrops between his fingertips, now an underappreciated talent vilified by the ignorant; engulfed by his own shadow, the one cast by an epic freshman season when there was quite possibly no one in the country as good as he was. Who cares that Steve has 31 combined touchdowns and first downs this year, while Ted Ginn has only 28? He’s just a day-dreamer who writes poetry and collected comic books growing up; he wants to be a teacher after college, because, as his brother says, he gets along well with kids. He’s a goofball who happens to have some of the rarest football talents of all, and it’s impossible to read anything about him or listen to anything he says without feeling like he often wonders if he’d be better off without football. I’ll never forget after Mario had caught The Touchdown last year against Penn State, on a play that Chad said was designed for Breaston. Mario got the glory, but Steve didn’t care; he was the first one chasing Mario once the game was over.

Steve caught his first touchdown pass of the year Saturday, it was on a deep route he’s never really been very good at. But as he caught it his body almost slowed to a walk; the ball held carelessly in his right hand. He jogged to the end zone as if something had been lifted from his conscience. I watched the replay again today, and I couldn’t help but think everyone else that saw it felt the same thing. It gave me goose bumps, like listening to a concert audience chant the chorus to a song in unison.

“Sometimes I sit back and think I’m someone else when I write, not a student-athlete but just a normal person," he said. “What would he be going through? I think about what is going on back home.” And then things happen, like when Kirk Herbstreit calls Steve a worthless player, only to have Steve sit silent and motionless when the reporters asked him about it days later, moments after Steve had proved Kirk wrong by scoring two touchdowns. “I've heard far worse in my life,” Steve said, when pressed in a follow-up question. “I'm not mad about it. I'm not. Because I know what kind of player I am and what I contribute to this team. I don't need that as my motivation.” Maybe it’s because when you find a player who seems to care so little about himself that you’re inclined to compensate for him and care a little extra, but I’ve never identified with anyone – not Braylon, not even Charles – never wanted to identify with anyone, the way I have Steve.

History has shown us that Ohio State defines these players. There was Charles, beckoning an anonymous cameraman to follow him – where, no one was quite sure, but with Charles, you knew that it was somewhere special – after intercepting Stanley Jackson’s pass in the back of the endzone. And there was Braylon, standing in a sea of worshipers with a single red rose clenched in his mouth – not gently, as if with any regard for thorns that may have existed, but deliberately, possessively, because it was his rose, dammit. And after all, isn’t beating Ohio State about enduring pain for the sake of tasting sweet triumphs anyway?

I think Steve’s endured enough for a few moments of his own on Saturday.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Saints and Sinners

Monday, November 06, 2006

stop your sobbing

Standing at the podium afterward, LaMarr was asked “Did this feel at all like last year, with losing the lead at the end?” And involuntarily his puffy eyes – no doubt dried and bloodshot from the anguish we want each of our idols to feel when something goes wrong – glared down at him, as if appalled that a flawless season, cobbled together only with the team’s own unflinching confidence and the sullen loyalists’ rectified optimism, could be reduced to “last year”, when Michigan slowly amputated all that we love about this game with a dull razor blade and a sheet of sandpaper. Then in an instant the notion that this team had earned immunity was scorched to ash by the flames that had inspired them to win 10 games in the first place.

Had he grumbled something close to “no,” the entourage of adoring journalists before him would have lauded the defense just the same a day later – his defense had earned it, of course, and coaches will always be vilified before the players; he was innocent if he wanted to be. But in a brief moment of introspection, LaMarr realized that sitting in the shadows only made the Truth more lethal later on; like, perhaps, November 18th, when there’s never anywhere left to hide. “A little bit…A little bit,” he said, with each syllable cleansing his team of last season’s sins – the courage to be honest brings progress. Last year he saw that his team had become the same one every Michigan team since ‘97 thought they had a right to be. Memories of the mythical Charles Woodson were smeared across Michigan’s legacy like lingering cave paintings of an indomitable prehistoric tribe, immortalized by a transcendent king.

Michigan has always had a reputation of vast significance, leaned on like an oak walking stick; leaned on for so long it rotted into a splinter and gorged the hand of this program, only to go untended and finally become infected somewhere in downtown San Antonio late last December. No more than a second and a half passed between the reporter’s question and LaMarr’s answer, but he had to be thinking about that. Or maybe, in the most satisfying solution of all, he had already been thinking about it; for hours, for weeks, for months – because deep down, our greatest fear is that the athletes we root for do not care about the game as much as we do. I’ve seen this team play, I’ve seen it win, and I can’t say I feel like it’d lie to me.

For four three years LaMarr played for a Michigan team that never brought him anywhere but just short of where he wanted to be – a championship; the elite; the only place we’d ever settle for. And so LaMarr spoke not like a man who was content surviving in spite of Michigan’s errors, but one that would be motivated to change because of them. Michigan is 10-0 now – peculiar to see, but Michigan has been playing every Saturday since September 2nd and they have not lost a single game – and LaMarr’s left with just three more games. No, not in the sense that he needs to savor them, but that he has just three more games he needs to win. “But, you know,” he said gratefully. “Last year we lost the game…this year we won.”

And I’ll be damned if I let anything but those last four words change how I feel about this team. I live an ordinary life; I have simple pleasures. I like girls in my bed, milk with my cookies, and Michigan to win every single game it plays. It’s a bit of a shame to say that my life revolves around four months a year, the anticipation before them, and the mourning after them, but I couldn’t tell a lie so blatant as to say Michigan’s football team isn’t what really makes an ordinary guy want to wake up in the morning. I’ve read the words of hundreds who can find nothing but trifling flaws in this team – “disaster looms,” they say. And then Michigan wins another game. There’s no harm in objectivity, but by now what good does pessimism do? At a certain point you just stop worrying about the meteor in the sky, sit quietly, and hope you’re still alive after it crashes into the earth. It seems to me as if the pessimists keep waiting for this team to be exposed, almost angry that it hasn’t happened – because it will happen, they think, and the longer it takes, the more their desire swells to fucking believe in it. I’ve spent years waiting for a team that could continually inspire faith week after week, a team that could stand in front of the same podium so many failed heroes have stood in front of, and convince me that a winning is all I had to fucking care about – the hows and whys were unimportant, and they’d make sure they remained so. I guess I stopped waiting two months ago; I was positive I had it at Notre Dame.